Neighbourhood watch
on Roundabouts in Delhi (India), 25/Jun/2012 03:26, 34 days ago
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I live in a flat on my own in south Delhi. It’s a great little flat. Badly patched up concrete walls, a large crack in the ceiling that emerged after last year’s earthquake, huge open vents where the dust floods through leaving my belongings constantly covered in a thin film of brown dirt. It’s basic, and that’s being kind, but it’smine. It sits at treetop level and is my escape from the chaos of cycle rickshaws, barking dogs, vegetable carts, autos and motorcycles circling around below. And one of the best things about it recently is my growing local lookout squad.It’s a pretty unusual thing out here to live on your own and even more unusual for a girl to live on her own. It’s a topic that sparks no end of curiosity amongst my colleagues and Indian friends. ‘But what do you do?’ is a question I get asked fairly frequently accompanied by a look of utterconcern. I think their firm belief is that I spend the hours outside of work quietly pacing up and down my terrace until it’s time to go back to the office. So, if these people who know me and know something about what I do outside of work hours when I’m not pacing the terrace are curious, thenit’s not surprising that my neighbours and local shopkeepers are doubly interested and have my every movement under observation.It’s fair to say that when I first moved here I was treated with the utmost suspicion. I could tell this not by what people would ask but what they wouldn’t ask. My milk would be handed to me over the counter with an accusing look that said, ‘what are you going to be doing with that milk?’ I would smile back pleasantly with a responding look that said, ‘I’m going to put it in my tea thank you very much.’ This continued for a while but after a bit of time people began to except my presence in the neighbourhood and would ask me questions in Hindi or English about where I was from, what I was doing here, am I married and if not why not, how many children do I have, what do I cook at home and talking me through how to cook various Indian dishes. When I went home to the UK a month ago I was quite taken aback when I got to the supermarket checkout and was greeted by a smiling checkout assistant enthusiastically addressing me with, ‘Hi! How are you?’ No suspicion or monitoring of the items in my shopping basket. But the minute I responded and started to give a blow by blow account of my day and describe my excitement at the 2 for 1 offer on shampoos I realised she had already stopped listening and was greeting the next customer. The question had been asked out of politeness, not genuine interest or nosiness, and it was not expected that I should respond.Although sometimes I wish it was possible to be a little more anonymous, mostly I love that my neighbourhood watch team take such a keen interest in my daily activities. Slowly but surely they’ve gotten to know enough about me through their questions and through observing my purchases to feel like they can trust me and take me under their wing. Now when I go to buy my milk and another customer gives me a look of suspicion and asks the Aunty in the shop who I am and where I’m from I can hear her telling them about me in Hindi but in a way that says, ‘back off, she’s ours.’ My toilet paper guy keeps a mental record of any male friend he’s seen me with, ‘The man I am seeing you with the other day, tall, dark hair. He is your husband? Where he is from?’ And when the Indian grandmas try to pull rank in the queue for the vegetable cart (I’m all about respecting your elders but not when there’s ten of them physically elbowing you out of the way) my vegetable guy gives them a telling off. It might sometimes be bordering on intrusive but these interventions are well meant and I for one am comforted to know that I have my own local protection squad, it makes the hours spent pacing up and down the terrace a lot less solitary.