How well do you know your neighbour? There was a time when our neighbours were almost like extended family. We trusted them with our homes, our children and sometimes even with our money. Over the last decade, however, we seem to have lost touch somewhat, especially in the urban set up. Issues like privacy and choice of disclosure are important today and additionally, the hectic pace of urban life does not allow us the space to take the time out to even walk across to say hello. Nonetheless, the need for us to interact with those who live around us has never been more acute, especially in today's globalized, multicultural and multiracial world. Much of what we think of other people is in reality largely an unreliable notion, picked up from internal prejudices or social conditioning. This is precisely why it is important to get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. Tolerance breeds where knowledge and mutual respect are present in good measure. And this was what some Singaporean citizens were trying to achieve recently through the ‘Cook a Pot of Curry Day’.
A local newspaper had recently reported that one Chinese family, recently arrived from the mainland, took serious offence at their Indian neighbours' cooking habits. The family apparently resorted to mediation because they could not stand the smell of curry. The Indian family, who were mindful of their neighbours' aversion to the smell of their favourite dish, had already started closing their doors and windows whenever they cooked the dish, but this did not seem to work as well. Instead, the Chinese family took their neighbours to Singapore's Community Mediation Centre to seek a ruling on the matter. The mediator eventually ruled that the Indian family could only cook curry when the Chinese family was not at home. In return, the Chinese family promised to try the dish. The judgment infuriated most Singaporeans, many of whom have eyed the recent flood of mainland Chinese immigrants with some exasperation. The positive outcome from all of this was an idea for all Singaporeans to host a ‘Cook a Pot of Curry Day’ for their neighbours and friends, as a protest to the insensitive and almost xenophobic tendencies the Chinese family had displayed. The idea went viral, with almost 60,000 locals pledging support on Facebook in a matter of days. The day itself was a huge success, with Singaporeans standing up for an inclusive and compassionate society. I myself was invited to a barbeque meal by my neighbour and was heartened to see the healthy turnout – there were Indians, Malays, Chinese and Caucasians as well. For the first time in many years, I actually spent some quality time with the people I live in close proximity to, but hardly know. The curry, (a local blend of the less spicy variety) was great, but in the end, just an excuse for a wonderful cross cultural exchange. The evening was cordial and genuinely warm, and made even more informal and lively by our gracious host, who by the way, we learnt later, has scaled Mt. Everest… twice. There is now talk amongst citizens, of making this an annual event, and one can’t help but be in complete support.
On one level this event was about getting to know and appreciate each other’s cultures and backgrounds and promote tolerance, and on the other it was actually about just getting out of your house, knocking on your neighbor’s door and saying hello. I can’t help but feel that we in India’s large and increasingly impersonal cities can learn a thing or two from this. When was the last time you introduced yourself to your new neighbour or invited him over for a meal? Our parents did this often enough, but currently we don’t have the time, apparently. Either we’re working too hard or we’re relying entirely on home based entertainment to amuse our selves which takes us away from communicating with one-another on a human level. This means that we as individuals are slowly losing basic communication skills, which will cause us to withdraw into ourselves, and also, more dangerously perhaps, cause festering feelings of separation and loneliness to manifest themselves into something more debilitating. And one can already see the growing physical distances. Yesterday’s ‘adda’ is today’s Blackberry IM and the 140 character tweet. How does this prepare kids and teenagers for tough years that lie ahead? Not very well. More seriously, we clearly still harbor inherent prejudices about our fellow citizens - north Indians are bhaiyas, those from south are Madrasees, those from the north-east are often called ‘Chinese’ and far worse…and so on. The pluralist society our founding fathers envisioned will remain a distant dream if we refuse to interact and understand each other. Living in culturally homogenous ghettos will do us no good. We should be aspiring to a community where everyone, regardless of origin, knows one another well – like the good old days. We can easily make that happen - one hello, one handshake and one footstep at a time. And perhaps, we should be cooking loads more curry.
This article first appeared in the October 2011 issue of KINDLE.