Hello Neighbor — Project Diwali

“What took you so long ?”, Anennya asked as I walked into the house carrying Aarva. I regularly walk with our 4 month old on the corridor of our apartment building.

“Today, I took the elevator and went to all the floors in our building. I went to all 8 floors of our building and 20 houses in each floor. That’s nearly 160 houses ! But, do you know what was strange ? I did not meet One. Single. Person.

Somehow, this didn’t have the desired shock effect in Anennya. .

“Imagine walking like this outside at Anand Flats ?”, I continue, referring to the apartment community I grew up in India.

“We can’t spend 5 minutes outside the house without engaging in a friendly conversation. Conversations start simple about how I’m doing and what I’ve been up to but every now and then turn out into life defining conversations that take several hours and have shaped my outlook. ”

“Sometimes that could be a problem, you know ?”, Anennya said even though she was getting the drift of what I was hinting.

“Yeah, it’s not always great. But when we grew up, Amma (mom) could leave me at our neighbors’ and I’d be completely fine. Our neighbors would have no problem about it either. Today, if we have an emergency and have to rush out what would we do with Aarva ?”, I had used the ‘baby’ trump card and it seemed to work.

“Well, let’s change that”, Anennya said flatly. “It’s been 3 years since we’ve been in this apartment and now is a better time than ever”.

Simple enough. I was surprised about how quickly we agreed on this and it then took me only 10 minutes to come up with a game plan.

Project Diwali was born. This Diwali, we will prepare a gift bag for our neighbors and go knock on their doors, introduce ourselves and wish them for Diwali. A simple, yet solid start to literally get a foot in the door.

The thought was exhilarating. We shared the idea with my amma (mom) and appa (dad), who are here with us, and they were excitedly on board as well. Amma jumped on the Diwali batchanam (sweet / savory snacks). She made 7-cup-cake (a coconut-milk-ghee-sugar-gram flour concoction) and murukku (rice based — twisty shaped — crunchy salty snack). Appa, got to writing a short blurb introducing us to our neighbors. Anennya, ordered goodie bags from Amazon. I designed the small holiday card and went to Fedex to get it printed. Anennya spearheaded the assembly line process and the goody bags were ready to go. True team effort and great levels of excitement.

Diwali Arrived. And with it, a case of nerves.

“What if no one opened the door ?”, Anennya asked casually, marking our entry into out-of-comfort zone.

“Should we just leave the bag outside their doors ?”, she continued. A tempting proposal. The perfect lets-text-them-instead-of-calling-them option. Asynchronous communication.

“But.. there’s no way we’ll know who they are. This shouldn’t be hard. All we are doing is knocking on someone’s door and saying “hi”. It’s not radical. We have evolved as a species solely due to our ability to talk with people. We are wired to connect with people”, I was channeling my inner Yuval Noah Harari.

“Yeah ? What are you going to say when they open the door?”

“What am I going to say ? I thought you were going to do the talking”, I blurted.

“It was your idea”, she said.

“But.. but.. I’m holding the baby”, I weakly protested.

“Fine. Let’s go now”, she stepped out goody bag in hand. I followed, Aarva in hand.

Attempt 1

“Let’s start with an easy one. Let’s go to Y and R’s house”. We’ve met 2 kids on the elevator before and have asked their name and we know they live next door to us.

Knock. Knock.

Silence. No one opens the door. Their house is in a nook and is not in my usual corridor walking path. That place looked so eerily unfamiliar that it might as well have been in Mars. But, it was a mere 8 feet outside the door I walk out of every day.

Perhaps there’s no…”, Anennya started but was interrupted by the door opening. Y, the 2.5 yr old opened the door and looked at us like we were astronauts invading her planet.

Hi, Y. How are you ?

“I’m good”, she said, a bit shy.

“Happy Diwali..”, I started knowing absolutely well she has no idea what Diwali was. “Give her the bag.” , I prodded Anennya and used my one free hand to grab the bag from Anennya and gave it to her. I was panicking.

Y remained calm. “Thanks”, she said, and took the bag. She went inside and left the door to close behind her.

We stood outside the door with no idea of what to do next.

“That went well”, Anennya claimed after what might have been 5 seconds. But, in my head, that was eternity.

We came into our house and narrated what happened to my parents. We all got a good laugh out of it.

“Should we go to another house ?”, we wondered. But are we glad we did ?

Attempt 2

We rang the doorbell of another neighbor we have seen in the hallway before.

“Yes, hi”, we heard from S as she opened the door with a welcoming smile.

“Hello Neighbor. Today is Diwali, an Indian festival of lights. We thought this would be a good opportunity for us to meet our neighbors and share sweets and savories as we do in India. Here’s a small goody bag from our family to yours”, I finished.

We could see that she was pleasantly overwhelmed. She was so excited to see us and especially Aarva.

“Please come inside”, she insisted and we did

We met R, who was so excited to see Aarva and us. R and S were so happy that it made everything that we did worth it.

We spent the next 10 minutes having a great conversation with R and S. They have lived 20 years in this apartment and shared their stories about how they came here. We talked about our culture. Aarva was happy to sit on their laps and play with them. They mentioned their god son and how they babysat him for several years (hint hint). They tasted the sweets that we brought and loved it.

Two families who have lived the last 3 years within 20 feet of each other but had our first conversation today. Our journey for the rest of the night continued to several other houses in our corridor. We knocked on the doors, gave them goodies, had a few minutes of pleasant conversation and wished them a great evening.

Reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Brene Brown. “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”

“That was so out of comfort zone, but I’m so glad we did it”, Anennya said as we settled down that night after putting Aarva to bed. “Same here”, I whispered.

“Did you see how so many of the doorbells were broken ?”, she recollected from earlier.

“Yeah. To think of it, if our doorbell broke down right now, would we pay money to fix it ? Who is going to come to our house unannounced anyways ?”, I asked.

“Fair enough”, she said and after a moment added, “Maybe we should change that”