Zubeda Hamid, through her story, talks of how apartment living and life in today's metros have distanced people from their neighbours

It was one of those moments when the world seemed preternaturally clear. Just as I realised I had locked myself out of the house, cellphone in one hand and the other frantically jiggling the door handle, everything around me seemed brighter. The sound of laughter as the neighbour’s children went on with their game of cricket, the newly-painted corridor outside my apartment and the screech of the pigeons as they made their way across the roof seemed more enhanced, vivid somehow. It had begun as an ordinary day on an ordinary weekend. My water filter had broken down and I’d spent most of the morning googling companies that could fix it. After deciding on one that sounded fancy but not too fancy, and calling them, I settled down to the happy prospect of a meal.

In an event that is as rare as sighting a comet, the water filter company not only responded to my call within fifteen minutes, but also sent someone along in the next half hour. Amazed at their efficiency, I stood and gawked while the man fixed the filter, gave me a patient and concise explanation of the problem, and counselled me to call him immediately should something go wrong. And then, I realised I did not have money to pay him. Thus began a chain of events that would eventually end with spending the night at a friend’s and being lectured by an autorickshaw driver. In my frantic dash to the ATM across the road, I forgot to take the house key. And having one of those front doors that lock automatically when shut, all my efforts at jiggling the handle were in vain. As I stood there, my mobile phone sputtering for breath as it slowly died, and the realization that the only spare key was over 400 km away at my parents’, it occurred to me that despite living in a building with about 15 other families in residence, I would have to spend the rest of the day at a friend’s home across the city.

Don’t get me wrong — I know many of my neighbours and they are lovely people. But with work and a somewhat straitened social life, most of my interactions were confined to waving at them across the corridor, a chit-chat in the lift, and an occasional conversation about parking woes. Most people living alone in a big city navigate a series of hitches in establishing a routine. How to have couriers delivered when you’re not at home contends with larger issues such as gas cylinders disappearing after the delivery man finds the house locked, and angry piles of ironed clothes waiting on your doormat when you return after a night shift.

A decade or more ago, problems such as these would have been mere irritants. In all probability, a neighbour would have taken charge, managed your deliveries, and occasionally advised you that it was high time you watered your dying potted plant. Reciprocation was the key — you helped out in any little way you could. Connections were formed more easily then, established and retained for years together. When I was growing up, running over to the neighbours’ house for a bar of a chocolate or to play holi was routine. In many parts of the city, it still is. But with big, indifferent buildings mushrooming across towns, busy lives and hectic schedules, the time-honoured neighbourly relationship — the looking-out for each another’s homes and families and the friendships that sometimes last for generations — seems to be slowly eroding. How many of us know our neighbours? Well enough to take a shower, nap and maybe watch some television there?

In the autorickshaw on the way to my friend’s, I poured out my woes to the driver. “Next time,” the auto driver chided, “make sure you leave a spare key at the neighbour’s.”

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