Be it the technological advancement, or our modern day belief in individualism or simply our fear and hesitation in knowing new people, we often prefer staying out of reach in our neighbourhood. This week the Star explores the beauty of befriending your neighbours and helps you feel at home in your community.
In her sixties, Jahanara Banu enjoys whipping up home-cooked scrumptious desserts and savouries for her family and neighbours on any given occasions. Till date she has always welcomed Ramadan by sharing meals with the neighbourhood families. But she isn't being able to do so this year, as she moved from Barisal to stay with her son in Dhaka.
“On the night of Shab-e-Barat, I was thinking of preparing sweets and halwa to distribute it amongst the neighbours. But I found my son laughing at me. I was shocked to know that my son did not even know the people living next door to him,” says Jahanara Banu, who currently lives in Niketan.
Once upon a time when people ran out of sugar or needed an extra egg, they would bolt out of their flats and rush next door, pressing the calling bell hard, asking their neighbours to save their life with a cup of sugar. People didn't find this kind of demand unusual, rather they loved the fact that their neighbours were comfortable enough to ask them. In short, life was simple, people were happy.
If we fast-forward to 10 years from then to current times, you can't even think of asking such favours from your neighbours, especially in Dhaka. We all have our own reasons for not taking enough time to know our neighbours. Often we don't show interest in fear of nosy neighbours intruding on your personal space. Other times, we give the excuse of shuffling files on office tables, hectic traffic, and innumerable responsibilities, claiming that life does not give us enough time to engage in healthy interactions within our locality. And in most cases, we just don't care.
In fact, Dhaka is not alone to take the blame; the rest of the urban world too shares the same story. A recent survey done in the US shows that most Americans are expected to identify their neighbour's cars, but they hardly know their neighbour's first names. Similarly in New Zealand, a social network called Neighbourly was launched specially designed to bring together people living in the same area considering the ever increasing distance between neighbours
“In recent times, urban neighbourhoods in Dhaka have evolved into entities characterised by weak social ties and lack of cohesiveness,” believes Hassan Shafie, associate professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Dhaka. “The change in the relationship is primarily happening because individual members of an urban neighbourhood are motivated purely by self-interest, replacing, gradually, its earlier life force derived from family and kinship values,” he says.
Being a friendly neighbour is a personal choice, but we need to know the risk of not knowing our neighbour too. Jahanara labels his son unsocial and self-centred, but Arif Osmani, her firstborn, has accepted the reality. “It's not that I like this culture or something, even I grew up playing street cricket with friends from my neighbourhood and having meals at my next door auntie's kitchen,” says Osmani, remembering his childhood days.
“But now everyone seems so busy with their work and with the evolution of virtual communities, we have the opportunity to engage in occasional chats with others. We often exchange formal smiles with our neighbours in elevators, and that's it. My kids can never get the taste of growing up in a friendly neighbourhood the way we did,” Osmani says with regret.
Experts agree with Arif Osmani. While by the grace of social networking sites our friends and family living far from us are just a click away, at the same time we are getting distant from the people who live closest to us - our neighbours.
“For ages, neighbours have served the purpose of being shoulders to cry on, people with whom you can have a good time and share your everyday chitchat with,” says sociologist Anis Pervez. “But with urbanisation, we have to accept that some obvious social changes like these are bound to take place. We are becoming more individualistic day by day. Now what we do in our pastime is completely different from what we used to do even ten years back. In fact the recent expansion of virtual neighbourhoods in cyber space and electronic communication technologies have made a drastic transformation in the nature of traditional face-to-face interactions,” opines Professor Anis. “At the same time, sharing of common interests and perspectives contributing to a sense of community between neighbourhood residents in Dhaka has also decreased to a large extent,” adds Professor Shafie.
“About a decade ago, we used to have wide stair landings and entryways in front of our home in Dhanmandi and that alone could accommodate two to three families,” recalls Showkat Osman, a resident of Mohammadpur. “Often kids were found playing hide and seek with our neighbours' children. Even the adults would indulge in a game of chess or carom. But these days, apartments can promise you all the modern facilities but not a common space where you can communicate and share interests with your neighbours.”
In reality what do clients demand from architects? Terming Dhaka as a “square-feet city,” architect Abid Hasan Noor claims that its populace are more concerned in having a large personal space rather than sacrificing one extra square feet for a common space.
“Dhaka has become such an expensive city for living that if you want to enjoy a neighbourhood you need to pay for it,” he opines. “For example, if we design a living space with the facilities of having more common spaces like a library, a community hall, a meeting place and a playground, you need to pay extra money to live in such a flat.”
“This city is facing such space restraints that we are left with the bare minimum space for residence,” he adds.
“At present if we design a wide stair landing, most of our clients would term that space as wasted space. The architects can provide you with common space for activities and performances, but the real question is, do people feel the necessity for them?” he asks.
Given that new technology will keep changing our lifestyles and space constraints and our busy lives will take us far away from sitting on a porch talking to our neighbours, should we give up on knowing the community that we live in?
“Being a technology optimist, I personally don't see any harm in getting in touch with your friends over the internet,” says 24-year-old Farah Hossain, a resident of Mohakhali DOHS. “But at the same time, I don't see any harm in inviting my neighbour's children over to play scrabble or ask the aunty living upstairs about her health. At the end of the day, if you are left stranded it's your neighbours you can reach out to, not your Facebook friends. So why not get to know them?”
As Farah suggests, kids actually can be a great means to break the ice with your neighbours. If you have kids, the dire situation of not knowing your neighbours can actually take a very different turn. Children can bring even the most diehard introverts.
“Let your kids go out in front of your house for riding their bicycles or play with other children. If you make the first move, it can draw out other kids from the block,” says Professor Pervez. “Along with them, you will also find their parents coming out of their shells. Then only you will probably get your kids to come out of their kingdom of video games is when you give them the chance to play with their friends living next door.”
Like kids, people of same interest groups can actually make this situation take a different turn. For example, jogging, praying together or exchanging books, movies and recipes can also help build a strong locality, believe social scientists.
Does the idea of having carefree afternoons spent with your neighbours depress you? We bet the tale of Manashi Lake View residential area in Mirpur 1 will help you to be optimistic in that regard.
Unlike many other neighbourhoods in Dhaka, Manashi believes in living together in unity and harmony. In a residential area of around two hundred families, the women play the role of an adhesive force, bringing everyone together through cultural activities and the maintenance of the small park that they all share.
“Every year we celebrate Pohela Boishakh, the English new year and independence day together. All the performers belong to us,” says Nayeem Morshed, a resident of that locality who is working as Assistant General Managar of Otobi.
The women members of the family have a stronghold upon the residential area's populace, and so they make sure everyone participates in scheduled fun filled programmes. Interestingly cricket has proven to be strongest catalyst in developing a sense of community. The most fun filled celebration that they have here is a mini version of cricket premier league. Like the Indian Premier League, the tournament is called Shinepukur Premier League where all the procedures of the actual league game are followed. “Before starting the game we too hold an auction where the bidders can bid for players,” says Morshed with a laugh. Starting from the night of the auction till the end of the nail-biting matches, the tournament is filled with excitement.
People from Old Dhaka also share the same kind of bond. “People identify with our exotic food and historical relics, but we can also boast of our sense of kinship in our neighbourhoods”, says Monzur Chowdhury, a middle-aged old Dhakaite.
According to him and fellow Old town Dhakaities, here you can rely on your neighbours no matter what. Your water pipe has burst? You don't need to wait for the technicians to come and fix it, your neighbours will show up before anyone else does. The lid over the manhole is stolen? Youngsters of the locality will take the initiative to fix it before anyone has to suffer from the theft. “We too have Facebook accounts, but we prefer having our evenings spent with real human beings, not the virtual ones,” says Morshed.
We are aware of the fact that being neighbourly is not imperative for you to live in a neighbourhood. But if you want to be a better neighbour but are not sure where to start from, just follow the rule of thumb: treat your neighbours the way you would like to be treated. If you find it hard, just start with a smile. Trust us, it will help.