I had gone to stay with my daughter in one of the Mumbai suburbs. I casually inquired about her neighbors. I had not seen her visiting any of her neighbors or any neighbors coming over to visit us. “Where is the time to visit anyone?” she countered. “Also, entertaining anyone after a full day’s teaching job in the school is out of the question” she retorted. Sad state of affairs I thought.
From time to time we invite readers to contribute. This article is by Havovi Govadia.
When I was growing up, neighbors were an integral part of our life. They were like an extended family. The doors were kept open and all of us were in and out of each other’s homes throughout the day. It was as though a joint family was staying in the building and not families who were unrelated. Everyone rejoiced at a family’s good fortune and despaired when misfortune struck anyone. Children had a place to hide from parents’ wrath and scolding and a support system for all in times of emergencies.
On my navjote in 1958, my parents were presented with a Bosch refrigerator by my Uncle who was working on a ship. No one had seen a fridge in my neighborhood. In those days leftovers were reheated and kept in water overnight, to preserve it for next day’s consumption. Everyone was fascinated with a white cupboard, which managed to keep the food cold so it is preserved for next day’s use and which also made ice! It was a bonanza for all the men of the building. In the evenings, children would be sent to our house for ice for their fathers’ drinks. This was indeed a lifesaver if ever there was one! Not only did people come to see and marvel at it, but all our neighbors felt that they had a stake in it. Every day’s leftovers were put in little containers and brought over, to be put in the cold cupboard. On any day, there were 5 to 6 boxes of various sizes from our neighbors, which my Mum had crammed in. Only she knew which box belonged to which neighbor. Even the small freezer had packets of mutton, chicken or fish of various neighbors, to be used later on at convenience. Some days my brothers and I would unknowingly eat some one’s food kept inside, and in the bargain hear an earful from my Mum. My Dad though felt that some sort of a fee from our neighbors, for the use of the fridge was not out of place! This went on for a number of years till over time, one by one, everyone could afford their own little ‘Godrej’ fridge.
The excitement was evident in all children when they had their birthdays. Early morning on birthdays, plates filled with hot sevai or ravo, generously sprinkled with almonds and kismis, 2 hard boiled eggs and 2 bananas would be sent out to all the homes. No fancy themed birthday parties for us. But we were summoned by the elders and along with many blessings for a long life and happiness we would be given a princely sum of Rs.2/- and sometimes even Rs.5/-. That of course meant that we had to get ice cream for all the children in the building, which was indeed a rare treat.
Any wedding or navjote in a family, called for a joint effort. Garlands would be put up on the doors of all the neighbors. Rangoli on the stairs and below at the entrance of the main steps would be done by all the youngsters together. During a wedding, we would all look forward to ‘ookardi kookardi’. A huge vessel would be filled with all sorts of goodies, sweet as well as savory, and kept at the entrance of the staircase on the ground floor. When a gong would sound all of us would pounce on the food and try to grab whatever we could lay hands on. In the meanwhile when all the looting was taking place, buckets of water would be thrown on us from the floors above. Even though most of us would be drenched to the bone, we would still stand and exchange the treats we had managed to grab before the water soaked it.
Practically each home had 2 brothers, their wives and children all staying together. This did result in some fights and arguments but instilled a sense of security and sharing and tolerance in the children. With only one bathroom and lavatory for use among so many people, children had to follow a strict regimen. Everyone learnt to adjust and of course in an emergency, one could always fall back on a neighbor.
Today, when one loses a life partner, the one left behind very often faces loneliness and alienation. In those days, the proximity of all the neighbors and their well meaning interference did help to tide over the loss. Dinshaw uncle’s wife Mani aunty died at a very young age leaving him with 3 little girls to look after. Family and neighbors all pitched in to help out. He eventually married again. Though a rank outsider, his second wife was accepted when people saw how lovingly she looked after the 3 little girls and how helpful she was to others.
Tragedy struck our house when my brother died of small pox at the young age of 5. My parents were inconsolable. They took this irreparable loss so much to heart that they forgot they still had 2 more children to look after. We missed our brother too, but like all children, got back into the groove of our daily lives. We went to school, did our home work, went to play with friends, felt hungry, and went to sleep peacefully at night when all the while our parents were still grieving. During this period, the neighbors rallied around and looked after our family’s mental and physical well being. They saw to it that some goodie would be specially cooked and brought to our house for us, and that we went to school neat and clean. We were helped with our homework and we were made to understand that it is OK to grieve, and that grown ups cried too when they were hurt.
On holidays and festival days, we were also taken out for a movie or a dinner by some family, along with their children. My parents took a long while to come to terms with their loss. When my youngest brother was born after a year and a half, things got back to normal in our family. I will always remember the kindness and the sensitivity of all those people who are no more now. They too grieved with us and helped my parents in a very unobtrusive way to tide over this loss.
Dinyar uncle was a good singer and earned some extra income by singing in bands which performed at the navjotes and marriages. On his own wedding, he called his wife Katy aunty on the stage and sang ‘teri pyari pyari surat ko kissi ki nazar na lage’. All of us had a field day teasing Katy aunty later on by singing this song.
The banana seller Gulub was instructed by my Dad to daily leave 6 bananas in our house, which he would hang without fail in our dining room. All 5 of us would have a banana each and the ritual would be complete when Katy aunty came down to meet us and finish the sixth. The day she did not come meant that either she was not well or had gone out of Bombay. When my Mum was bed ridden with cancer, Katy aunty would come every day without fail to find out whether my parents needed anything from the market. My Dad would just have to yell out her name and she came down to offer any help. She suddenly died of a heart attack, which left my Dad not only sad but really shaken up. Who would run errands for him and inquire about his well being now? But he need not have worried at all since there was some one at hand always ready to help.
Baji uncle was a bachelor who lived with his two brothers, their wives and children on the third floor. He supplied us with used shuttlecocks when we played badminton. He was a member of a club and when the club discarded the shuttlecocks after a little use, he probably bought and brought them over for our use. All the women tried to hook him up with someone but never succeeded. He probably loved his freedom and carefree lifestyle too much to oblige them or probably never came across someone good enough to bind him down. Theirs was a collective failure.
My next door neighbor Dina aunty lived with her sister Khorshed and brother-in-law Adi. Their home was as familiar to us as our own and we would be in and out of both houses playing ‘hide and seek’ and ‘catch catch’. Dina aunty played both the accordion and mouth organ very well. Many joyful days were spent in their house when she would play the accordion vigorously and all the children would do the jig. This not only kept the children happy but out of mischief too. Some days when we were too boisterous, she would calm us down by playing soothing happy tunes on her mouth organ. One incident stands out to mind, which was both sad and happy at the same time. Dina and Khorshed aunt’s father passed away a few days before Christmas. Some Christian friends of Dina aunty came to visit them on Christmas, unaware of the sad demise of their father. They brought along a cake to present to the family. They were dismayed when they heard the sad news. But, Dina aunty, always a sport requested them to give the cake to “our next door neighbors whose children will appreciate the sweet treat”. So one Christmas day long ago, Dina aunt’s good friends became our Santa. We were gleeful at the unexpected treat and relished the cake for 2/3 days.
Our movements in and out of the house were restrained considerably once Khorshed aunty got married. Adi uncle though a good soul did not take kindly to screaming, running children who did not respect quiet moments. He was a creature of habits. Every morning, he was out of the house at exactly 9.50 to go to work at a bank at Fountain. Khorshed aunty would be standing at the door ready with the tiffin in hand. Adi uncle would grab his lunch and literally run down to his car. Fortunately, there were hardly any traffic jams so he would comfortably reach his bank in half an hour. When we were grown up and wanted a lift from Adi uncle, we had to be ready to run down with him. He would wait for no one and if Khorshed aunty urged him to wait even for 5 minutes, he would grumble all the way about indiscipline in the younger generation.
Dina aunty worked in the Railways and Khorshed aunty was a housewife. After the day’s work was over, she and Mum would sit and catch up with news, views and gossip. They would discuss about the dirty politics, the wily politicians, or the spiraling prices of food, the state of affairs which in their opinion seemed to be going from bad to worse, the sorry and filthy state of the Bombay roads and how things were changing from the time when they were young. The twists and turns of the story they were reading in their favorite weekly Mahila, and the trials and tribulations of the characters in those stories were also discussed avidly. They would have an opinion on how the author should have written, the direction the story should have taken, or what will now happen next week in that story. The characters were analyzed, elevated, derided, sympathized with, even putting professional Psychoanalysts to shame. Without any television the written words were their ‘soaps’ and they were as hooked on to those stories as the ladies today are to their serials.
Evenings were a time for meeting for all the ladies. One by one, they would congregate at the entrance of the staircase where there was ample room for all to sit on the steps. Some would be cutting vegetables for the next day’s cooking, helped by others who had no chore that day. Many would spin a ‘chatri’ or a spindle on which fine thread for weaving the ‘kusti’ or the sacred thread was wound. The thread was made from lamb wool and this was an art by itself. They would laugh, talk all at the same time and spend a few happy moments away from their families and housework.
When I was going to college, my Sardar friend Jitty would sometimes visit my house. Jitty was a tall and huge man and wore a big turban which made him look really gigantic. None of the ladies had close contact with a Sardarji and were fascinated to see one not behind the wheel of a Bombay taxi. As soon as they would spy Jitty walking over, they would cease to talk, stop all their activities and look at him in right earnest. Jitty would always complain about feeling self conscious with so many eyes boring into him and the cessation of all talk and activities till he passed by. I told him there were really no differences between the ladies in his village in Punjab, and the ones sitting and staring at him, causing him so much discomfort. He was someone different, which probably was the cause of their curiosity. I told him to stand and talk and make himself familiar to them before coming home, but he felt too embarrassed. This went on for some time, till one day, while returning and trying vainly to hurry up from all those eyes, he slipped in the slime the rain had caused and dirtied all his clothes. When he slunk back to come to my house to wash up, he met with a lot of sympathy and uncalled for advice. From that day onwards, whenever he would visit me, Jitty would sit on the steps surrounded by the ladies exchanging views. They would ask him about his life, his parents, his village and he would ask them about Parsi recipes, weaving kusti, about their families, children.
My children would always wonder why I visited each household and met everyone, before returning home to Nagpur after a visit to my Parents. I explained that maybe when I next visit someone would be missing and that I would not like to feel any regret that I was careless enough not to meet my extended family.
Havovi Govadia is a 65 years old grandmother of 3. She was born and brought up in Mumbai and shifted to Nagpur after marriage. Was working in Empress Mills (first Tata enterprise) till it shut shop in 1987. Working now as an independent financial adivsor.
Havovi wrote scripts, directed and staged plays and various tableaux on Zarthushtra, Parsi fashions through the ages etc. mostly to acquaint the younger generation of their rich heritage from 1980 till about 2000 for the Nagpur Parsi Gymkhana.
Havovi started writing these little anecdotal stories at the insistence of her niece who is now 10 years old and living in USA and who was keen to know about her grand parents whom she would never meet and those days when “you and my Dad were little”.