I was feeling a bit poorly today, so my neighbour upstairs took the kids off my hands for a couple of hours. Ah, bliss! We’re blessed with some truly wonderful neighbours here in Kirribilli.
In Bombay, our neighbours ranged from nosy to noisy, helpful to horrendous – and sometimes, all of the above at once.
My Nana’s big old house (Anthony’s Cottage, 8 D’Monte Street, Bandra, Bombay) was flanked by a chawl on either side. For those in the dark, a chawl is a building comprising of many one-room dwellings, each occupied by a family, all living shoulder to shoulder, all sharing common toilets and bathrooms. As you can imagine, the inhabitants came from the poorer sections of society.
The right hand-side chawl was inhabited by Muslims, the left, by Hindus. Us Catholics were ensconced in our large family house right in the middle. And things chugged along perfectly.
Given their cramped quarters, some of the men folk from the chawls would sleep on our spacious verandah. But you would never know it; their bedding would be laid out after we had retired to bed and would be taken away at the crack of dawn. Some of the women folk worked in our home – sweeping and swabbing the floor, walking us kids to school, making chappatis, grinding the daily masala on the pata (grinding stone)... The kids all played together – usually a raucous game of cricket in the gully.
Festivals were always the high point. The Hindus distributed plates of shankarpali and chaklis for Diwali, the Muslims came bearing hunks of freshly-slaughtered mutton for Bakri Eid, and we would present our marzipan, date rolls, kul-kuls and milk cream for Christmas.
It didn’t matter that they had so little; they made sure you got your share. And when the dish was returned, it always had a little something inside – a besan ladoo, a banana (poor man’s food in Bombay), or even a handful of sugar. Whatever little they had. But it was never returned empty. People with hearts as wide as the sky.
It’s a custom I follow to this day.