Love Thy Neighbor

By Shyama Parui

On a sunny morning, you had stepped outside the house to water the plants but your mood darkened as soon as you realized that you had accidentally locked yourself out. You didn't panic because a spare key is always in the safe hands of your friend next door. Last summer, when you finally managed to pack your family, bags and beach gear and head off to the Outer Banks, a nagging question arose in your head as soon as you reached the Interstate. “Did I close the garage door?" The answer was just a phone call away. Your nosy neighbor agreed to check (a bit too eagerly) and reported back that you had indeed left the garage door open, but he pulled it down. Phew, one less thing to worry about!

Most people will have numerous stories about their neighbors, especially from 2020. Some may be juicy gossip but a lot of them are tales of how they helped one another. Folks who live close to us play various roles like advisor, babysitter, lawn care expert, security agent, or news reporter for the 'hood. Chances are we have reciprocated by wearing a few of those hats ourselves. The Bengali movie, Pasher Bari (The House Next Door), the Hindi TV show called Nukkad (Street Corner) and the American TV show, The Wonder Years are all classics in the history of entertainment and I think much of their popularity can be attributed to the depiction of amusing scenarios which can arise in any neighborhood thereby making them relatable to people from all walks of life.

Surprisingly, while browsing for cards during the festive season, I did not find any specific ones made for neighbors. I wondered if it was because we often take them for granted or, perhaps, neighbors soon evolve into friends, teachers, maybe even loved ones. Hopefully, they are not your arch nemesis. Whatever the case, we could always show a little neighborly spirit this month to the people who live on our street or in the same building. We can take our cue from Australians who have a designated Neighbor Day to encourage people to make meaningful connections with others.

Today, we can navigate the world on our devices and zoom into the living rooms of our relatives all the way in India through video calls and conferences. Nevertheless, proximity remains an important factor in building social relationships. In the field of psychology, the “proximity effect" refers to the idea that physical and psychological nearness tends to increase interpersonal liking. There are more opportunities to meet people who live close by and it gives us a chance to know them better leading to positive interactions. This closeness may help break down some of our preconceived notions, too.

When one of our favorite neighbors moved and were replaced by someone less than ideal, it made me doubly appreciate the importance of having good neighbors. As I have mentioned in my previous article “Yatra – My India Diary (October 2018)," my neighbors were our lifeline when a series of accidents hit us in 2018. It was the company of wonderful families that made community events like Breakfast with Santa and movie nights at the pool more enjoyable. Similarly, they also made cold mornings at the school bus stop more tolerable. Horror stories of property owners fighting over and across the fence are not uncommon. Those situations can rob you of your peace and sanity regardless of whether the disputed area is an acre of land or an entire nation.

My experiences in my childhood neighborhood taught me intangible skills that I grew to appreciate in a foreign land among people who did not resemble me at all. Building #3 in Piramal Nagar with its fading colors and unimaginative name was in a suburban lane of Mumbai, but the families who inhabited it more than made up for its appearance. For starters, its residents represented different regions and religions of India making this miniscule geographic area into a microcosm of the country. Growing up, my “normal" meant that families speak different languages at home and bow to other “gods". In that environment being open minded came naturally. It is hard to replicate those early lessons in accepting diversity that were integrated in everyday life, in adulthood. Fortunately, my kids discovered that Portuguese, Spanish, French, Tamil, and English can all be spoken on the same street in North Carolina. The diversity of heritage, mutual respect for each other's differences, and kind heartedness of our neighbors was a gift that will remain with the kids for many years to come.

Now that we have moved to a new house, I am looking forward to getting acquainted with our neighbors. I am optimistic that 2021 will gradually introduce the terms social proximity, COV-immunity and mask freedom to our vocabulary and consequently give us more opportunities to mingle with the families on our block. Looking forward to a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com