Neighbourhood Watch

Neighbourhood Watch
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First Published: Wed, May 23 2007. 11 57 PM IST
Updated: Wed, May 23 2007. 11 57 PM IST
More than three years ago, I shifted from a row-house village near Palakkad town to a small plantation in Akathethara panchayat. Our interlude in the village had been a downshift from East Delhi. Our Internet was slower, our Fabindia kurtas faded to grey, and I got used to living in a neighbourhood in which everyone knew my business.
The market town of Palakkad is the headquarters of the district, one of the two most backward in Kerala, and Akathethara is, in every sense, on the other side of the tracks from town. Moving to the panchayat, just five kilometres away from the village, was another leap altogether in terms of infrastructure. The nearest streetlight is a kilometre away, at the bus stop.
Among the 50-odd families around us, we are the only ones who subscribe to English-language papers so on days the Malayalam papers are not published, we go without. Last year, we got a DTH, so when it is not raining, we get Doordarshan in a dozen languages and can watch any number of documentaries on silkworm cultivation or dances of the Northeast. The cable guy says he can run a cable to our house if 10 families will subscribe, but those families here which have television sets are happy with their local cable arrangement of four Malayalam channels for Rs40 a month.
In some ways, we are frogs in a well, but with dial-up. My husband, who makes frequent forays into the metros, keeps asking Palakkad BSNL about broadband. They usually answer that there is no demand in our area. Dial-up suits me fine. When we read the lifestyle sections of newspapers, our interest is now increasingly anthropological, or just plain idle. We wonder whether a BlackBerry can be used to convey a raspberry, and we try to feel for the Fifth Avenue family that has been struggling without balsamic vinegar for a year.
I lived the first year alone. There were more frequent snake and scorpion sightings then and no radio to give me the illusion of company, but I felt safer than I ever have in my urban life.
I mostly got home before dark, but the sense of safety came from my neighbours. In the velvet nights, every sound from these scattered houses is magnified, so that if I cough in the night and get up for a drink of water, Shanti asks me about it the next morning.
Every stranger on the road is subjected to intense watch. Wherever we stand (because I also do this now), we watch him to his destination, until he feels the hair rise on the back of his neck and volunteers his identity and intentions to everyone who catches his eye.
Whenever I come back from a trip to town, Omana, whose house is nearest my gate, tells me there was a man who looked at my jackfruit and went away again. Or, the silk cotton man came to give me an advance and she had told him to come back in the afternoon.
We watch each other as well. When there is a registered letter being held at the post office for me, every passer-by stops me to tell me so. If the mechanic is to pick up my scooter while I’m out, I tell everyone so that they don’t rush out with their machetes to defend my property. After visitors leave, Mrs Paulose calls me to the fence to ask whether she should send over the man who climbs the coconut trees, and then asks all about the visitors.
We dance a fine line when we answer our neighbours’ friendly but pointed questions. We can’t shock them with the whole truth, which means not mentioning that we went to Kuala Lumpur or ate ice cream in the rainy season. We don’t want to be the elephant in their living room. So, we give plausible responses.
You may be sceptical about reading notes on rural life from a muesli eater who has three remotes, and a caddy to put them in. Or, from a person who tells plausible fiction. But this is my life now, and these are the stories of the people I live among.
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First Published: Wed, May 23 2007. 11 57 PM IST
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