For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
– Jane Austen
PART I: Suspicion at first sight
I live on a street with five flat complexes, three in use and the other two almost constructed. Ours has the distinction of being the oldest and the shortest of all. The one next to ours is the biggest on the street and is not bad-looking. It has a grand compound wall and a stately entry gate. It even has 24 hour security. It’s incredibly royal when compared to our small, sporadically manned, dismal-coloured building.
We had moved into this flat during winter three years ago. Strangely, that same winter felt much darker and colder within the flat. I couldn’t understand it, but I didn’t mind it. I enjoyed the coldness and dreariness; they relaxed me.
So, during this time, I took to the habit of staring out my window for long durations. My room faced the east face of my neighbours’ complex (the aforementioned biggest one) and their parking cellar. Although a drab view, it was redeemed by several pigeon families that had colonized this aspect. Their antics never failed to amuse me.
As a few days went by, I caught glimpses of my neighbours. Most were middle-aged men and women who kept well-maintained cars. They dressed well and looked wealthy and desirable to me. At times, I spotted a handsome young man heading out in a grey hatchback. He always dressed trendily and listened to loud music; of what kind, I couldn’t tell you. He looked like a student of my age and impressed me terribly. I casually envied his car along with the freedom and wealth its possession implied.
But one morning, a few days later, my habitual survey of the east face left me slightly perturbed. Something was different today, though I wasn’t sure what. I scanned the entire face of the building, top to bottom and criss-cross. It felt like a larger-than-life ‘spot the difference’ game and I was as bad at this as I was with the one in the newspaper. I frowned and was in the act of turning away, when something stood out in the periphery of my vision. A brown hand. No, two brown hands.
In the window opposite stood a man, hands stretched diagonally above him on either side and gripping his curtain rod. He was wearing a white under shirt and had a sizeable paunch. His face, and only his face, was in shadow. From the way it was angled, he had to be staring right at my window, right at me. I managed a weak wave, but elicited no response. He just stood there (or maybe floated, because I couldn’t see his legs) and stared. Or slept; there was no way to know. I shut my blinds and withdrew. My room suddenly felt very stifling. I decided to go and chat with my mother for a bit. I bolted my room’s door shut when I left.
Part II: Strangest things
What started off as a puerile speculation soon grew to be a confirmed prediction. My neighbours are terrible people. At nights, the night watchman tends to doze off at times. He is a migrant from India’s North-East and works inhuman hours. My neighbours drive up to the gates at night and don’t get down from the car and knock/pat on the gates to wake him up. They don’t even call for him. Instead, they honk. In the dead of night, bang in the middle of a residential street, those barbarians honk. Not once, at that, but several times. And not one of them ever bothers to do this differently.
The mornings don’t disappoint too. They bring with them an elaborate spectacle. A lady, on her way out in a chauffeured Mercedes has the car stop by the gate. She exits the vehicle barefoot and saunters down to a tree along the compound. It is a big tree with a considerable circumference but otherwise unremarkable. I began to doubt my opinion on the tree though, after I saw the kind of fidelity it inspired in the woman. She stops in front of the tree and aligns her hands in prayer. Then, eyes closed and palms joined, she begins walking round the tree over and over till she halts at the end of the 21st round. She bows her head one last time, murmurs a tailpiece and gets back into the car, which promptly drives off.
But, the weirdest and surely the most alarming of them all was the man who shot at the pigeons. The balcony in my parents’ room affords a scenic view of the surrounding greens and neighbourhoods. Naturally, it also doubles as a pleasant spot to enjoy one’s morning coffee at. The sparrows’ chirping is louder and the peripatetic bees of the nearby hive make for a charming morning vista. So one’s cries of distress are redeemable when a neighbour begins shooting at the pigeons. Our intervention came later, after that day of disbelief. It was a short episode: loud consecutive shots out of nowhere followed by a pregnant silence. The awfulness of such silences lie in their unpredictability. One prays for them to end but fears how. In our case, the silence didn’t break at all for the day. It just dissolved into the night air and almost out of our memories. The next morning, we were back at the balcony, now our outpost. Our nerves were on fire as we lay in ambush; the slightest rustle drew shouts which were quelled just as quick. So when the neighbour came with his air gun and fired the first shot, our screams were heard even at the street entrance. He made a few threatening noises but ultimately, we proved too loud for him. His end has been quiet ever since.
What a motley crowd.
My neighbours and their complex seemed designed to confound me. Their complex has two blocks on either side of the parking cellar’s entrance. These blocks are linked by a wooden walker’s bridge that subtly arches over the driveway. Yet, not once have I seen one neighbour cross the bridge and meet another neighbour. However, I did spy a female neighbour hurl insults and allegations of theft at a young and skinny adolescent girl in the parking lot. From my understanding, the girl presumably worked as the neighbour’s domestic help. After the girl had left for a vacation of some kind, the lady discovered a theft at her house. Maybe it was money, or jewellery; I did not know. Whatever it was, the lady was loud and livid with rage. It was only when she began to recycle the insults and accusations did I realize she was putting up an act. In fact, the neighbour was mighty pleased with herself for unearthing the theft. Under the theatrics, she boasted of this and praised herself constantly. Finally, she threatened the girl with broken limbs should she return and exited my line of sight. The girl stood with her head bowed for a long time after the neighbour left. The show was over. I don’t know what happened after that.
Part III: Tailpiece
Even today, I don’t know a single neighbour personally. Hell, I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen one eye-to-eye in the past three years. I don’t know them but I can testify to their awfulness. I haven’t seen them but I have witnessed their failings. I’m sure they haven’t seen me, apart from the faceless man who may or may not be staring into my room. They’re strangers to me, complexes apart. Yet, I am positive I hate them. Maybe it’s how they cycle through an assembly line of watchman replacements every year or how not one bothered to react when our complex had a fire break out in it. I don’t know why I hate them but I just unambiguously do.
Is that okay?