That woman

When one lives in an apartment building, one comes across a weird mix of the human species and my building is certainly no exception. In an earlier post I mentioned some of the different types of neighbours that co-inhabit my building. One of them is a woman I shall refer to just as ‘the woman’, and in this post I am going to explore the different ways that I CAN’T STAND her.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as friendly and affable as the next Sagittarian, a trait that the woman and I strangely have in common. Then why is it that the sight of her just makes my heart beat faster in a not-so-pleasant way? Methinks it’s the ol fight-or-flight hormone kicking in…

She is in her late twenties, and she is pretty, in a petite pointy way. She has an easy laugh, and bursts out laughing quite frequently during conversations. Every time I used to see her (in the early days before I officially declared hating her guts) I found myself envying her figure, her elegance and the fact that she always looked so well-groomed. She never seemed to have a bad hair day, or to repeat an outfit. Her eyebrows were always perfectly shaped, and her makeup always impeccable. I inwardly groaned every time I ran into her. It’s a girl thing I suppose, but I always found myself failing miserably in a mental comparison between herself and I.

Enough reason to hate her? Read on.

We moved into this building before she did, and we could see that she put in a lot of effort into doing up her house. She seemed to be a perfectionist and wanted everything to be just so. Predisposed as Huz and I are to being friendly, we didn’t mind if the woman dropped in sometimes to say hello or chat about some problem regarding a mason or a carpenter or a plumber. Often, she would want to use the loo, or have a drink of water.

Am I the only one or does anyone else have a problem with strangers walking into their bedroom to use the adjoining bathroom? I may think that I don’t have issues with it, but come to think of it I do. I didn’t feel exactly comfortable with this violation of my privacy at all. For one, we’re pretty messy people. I hear people get judged by these kind of things. It didn’t help that the woman appraised EVERYthing in our house in a way that I felt was a tad nosy. We’re supposed to be a hospitable lot, but some of us have an acute sense of personal space. Point is, it made me uncomfortable.

It didn’t help when she would emerge from my room, venture into the sitting room, plonk herself onto a sofa and ask me to fetch her a glass of water. Of course I don’t mind fetching someone a glass of water, in fact I would go the extra mile and make her a cold glass of lemonade seeing as she had come in from the afternoon heat. Perhaps it was the way she would ask, perhaps it was my insecurity at being caught IN MY OWN HOUSE wearing my pajamas and a grubby t shirt, probably while I had been busy sweating in the kitchen cooking lunch, maybe because my hair was a tangled mess, but I felt a twinge of resentment. It also didn’t help to find Huz chatting agreeably with the woman in the living room, laughing at something she was saying, as I brought her her glass of whatever. I sat down diagonally across from both of them and put in my two-bit during the course of the conversation, and watched as she put down the sweating glass, ignoring the stack of coasters, right on the wood part of the wood and glass coffee table. I also realised, with a mounting sense of confusion, that I was being royally ignored! She had no interest in anything I had to say, and even though I have never witnessed my husband being flirted with, that in fact was my perception of what was happening in front of my very eyes! Was I being insecure? I think I mostly felt amused. But I didn’t quite enjoy the feeling of being invisible. And the only way I could communicate this to Huz was by rolling my eyes at him and pretending to barf when he glanced my way.

Once again, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I wasn’t really miffed at the perceived flirting. Perhaps being more comfortable talking to men is another trait that the woman and I share. After all, women can be scary. Men in contrast are not quite as judgmental as we are.

But there have been many other instances that I have been forced to acknowledge the fact that there is something about this woman that gets under my skin. It’s like ‘There’s Something about Mary’ only with the opposite effect. Instead of being drawn to her, I actually feel the urge to put as much distance between us as I can, a sentiment not shared by the woman it seems.

Ever had the weird feeling that someone calls you a ‘friend’ just so that they could merrily proceed to abuse that friendship? It’s a very toxic feeling. She would often call or message with some request or other. Sometimes she would want to borrow our garden chairs for a party on her rooftop, or the barbecue grill, even before we’d had a chance to use it ourselves. Then there was the time when she was training to become a hair stylist and wanted to bring a friend over to blowdry her hair using our generator during a power cut. I was appalled at this request because I would never even think of imposing on a neighbours space like that. At one time, when most of Karachi had been without electricity for 72 hours during a massive breakdown, she requested to keep some of her things in our fridge so they wouldn’t spoil (we switched on a generator for a few hours every couple of hours) and dropped off her emergency light and her cell phone to charge for her. Often she’d drop in along with her kids to have a chat, on or around dinner time, and of course we would ask her to join us. And I don’t recall a single time being invited over for even a cup of tea. Not that I was dying to hang out with her anyway. Bleh.

Does it sound like reciprocity is important to me? Well, perhaps it is. It just seemed to me there was too much give and not enough take going on around here.

The thing with people like her is, you know you’re being used by them but there’s nothing much you can do about it. It’s like being in a bad movie where situations just aren’t in your control. Despite the fact that I found her increasingly annoying. I couldn’t bring myself to offend her, though I thought my body language and facial expressions should have effectively conveyed my reserve. She was either sublimely thick-skinned or just incapable of getting the message. But I still tried to overcome my misgivings and played the good neighbour, and even helped her out with putting up frames in her house, and continued to allow her to stash a huge sack of ice cubes in my tiny freezer for a couple of days when she was busy throwing parties and had limited space in her own fridge. And I gritted my teeth and bore it when she came over to discuss building affairs with Huz, unfailingly making me feel like a fifth wheel, and ALWAYS taking the call if her phone rang to have a long-ish chat with a friend, while Huz and I twiddled our thumbs.

Perhaps she sensed that I saw through her fakeness and recognised the artifice behind her syrupy sweet phone voice. I don’t know! I just couldn’t stand the way she would call and ask for Huz (to discuss important building issues) in this simpering, nauseatingly condescending tone of voice….like I was an imbecile child or something. Did I mention I am way older than her?

Anyway, we finally did end up having a showdown, as a culmination of a series of unfortunate events that occurred in our building. There was the matter of yet another troublesome neighbour (someone I fondly call ‘the witch’) the police were involved, Huz and I were being made into scapegoats over actions taken collectively by all the residents of the building, and at a time when we actually needed the woman’s support, she had the gall to back off. Later, she decided to change her mind, but it was too late by then. The damage had been done, and now even Huz began to have doubts (yayy!!)

Does this sound like a dramatic turn of events? Trust me, it was. Long story short, I was furious, and in no mood to be conciliatory. The woman’s husband had behaved like a jerk at the police station and I let her know this. She in turn sent an indignant message to all the residents of the building that I was a very rude person and instead of being grateful for her husband’s support I had the audacity to criticise him. That for me was the final straw because, obviously, now I ended up looking like the bad guy when in fact SHE was the bad guy all along!

I privately swore never to have anything to do with her ever again, after sending her a politely worded, perfunctorily apologetic email.

So you can imagine my astonishment when a few months after that uneasy truce, the woman was having problems with her internet,had a dinner party at her house in the evening, yet was so worried that her crops would die on Farmville that she absolutely HAD to come use my computer to harvest them.

If ever there was a jaw-drop moment, this was it. I think I felt so numb with shock that I couldn’t respond appropriately.  So I let her come over, and I allowed her to play her Farmville.

What has been the point of this whole rant, you ask? So I have an insufferable neighbour who gets my hackles up every time I see her. Big deal.

I guess it just makes me wonder if it was just me, or if most sane people would react to her the way I did.

(Oh please tell me it isn’t just me!)

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A chronicle of neighbourly times

I was roused from a dreamless, fidgety, power-cut-induced-sweaty nap in the late afternoon, by the throb of an idling diesel engine under my first floor bedroom window. Unknown voices were shouting instructions in Sindhi, accompanied by the sound of heavy objects being dragged and dropped onto the metallic platform of the back of a pickup truck. It was the unmistakable commotion of someone moving out, and I peeked from behind the blinds to get a clue to who it might be…and felt that weird stomach-lurching sensation of something resembling sadness as I realised who it was.

We were the first ones to inhabit the new ground-plus 2 apartment building, with a beige exterior and white painted balconies, on a hill in old Clifton.  More people moved in a month or two later, a 30-something bachelor-type with six cats and great taste in music in the apartment directly above ours, a couple with two boys on the ground floor, an Iranian family (who didn’t speak a word of Urdu or English) on the second floor, a pretty, friendly yet annoying woman, with husband and two kids in tow, into one of the penthouses on the top floor; the apartment diagonally across from ours was first taken up by a family with lots of kids under the age of 8. They moved out a year later, and after a few months a new family moved in. We’d see them sometimes getting in or out of their car in the parking lot downstairs, and got to know them as a friendly young couple with a very adorable little son.

They were both originally from Lahore and Islamabad and had come to Karachi soon after getting married as Osman (the husband) got a job in a multinational based here. Leena (the wife) was a stay-at-home mom, who had her hands pretty much full with their almost 3 yr old toddler, Abdullah. The trio made up a rosy-cheeked, happy little family and I was glad and relieved to have such nice neighbours. They had quaint manners, and always spoke with a good-natured politeness whenever I ran into them on the staircase.

The politeness blended into a neighbourly friendship as Leena came over bearing a plate of  homemade ‘zarda’. I’m not a big fan of this dish of sweet, nutty yellow rice, and the one made by Leena was frankly pretty bad as zardas go; but I invited her and a very shyly smiling Abdullah in, and over the next half hour or so, as we got to know each other a bit better, I felt an instant kinship with her. She was a lot like me in many ways, very do-it-yourself, completely unglamorous, chatty and prone to punctuating self-disclosures with fits of giggles. I think she felt a bit lonely sometimes, as she didn’t know a lot of people here and she worried about her sister and father in Lahore who were alone after her mother passed away.

Abdullah had apparently just learned to talk, so it was only a matter of time before he opened up. At first he was happy to cling to his mom’s kameez and stand close by or sit on her lap. He got bolder with every successive visit though, and soon enough he had explored each room in the house in search of my elusive cat, examined every DVD on the shelf (and torn some covers off in his enthusiasm), flung some books around with the joy of familiarity in ‘Muinyya Aunty’s’ house….and he was fascinated by Amu, whom he inexplicably called ‘Bhai’. After that first visit, Leena claimed Abdullah was a huge fan of Muinyya Aunty and Bhai, and always pointed to our door on his way home and told his mom he wanted to go ‘there’; sometimes he would wake up in the morning and say he had dreamt of Muinyya Aunty and so it was very important for his mom to bring him over. I was immensely flattered, as I had never had the adoration of a 3-yr old before…..apart from Amu, though I’m not too sure about that (maybe little boys are more affectionate than little girls).

All buildings need a formal or informal committee to run it, and this includes regular maintenance and upkeep, paying and keeping an eye on the chowkidars and the sweepers, making sure that we all had a regular water supply, and resolving any other issues that arose. A lot of  friendships sprung up and were torn down within our committee, largely due to a couple of unpleasant incidents that led to an atmosphere of resentment and suspicion in the microcosm that is our building, and I would need to write a whole other blog about those. More than a year had gone by but Osman and Leena kept a low profile through it all, until it was time for them to pitch in too when things just fell apart, and Leena agreed to look after the accounts. It was then that I realised she had a good head for calculations and a sharp eye for irregularities that was in complete contrast to her roly-polyness.

Things seemed to stabilise again, and it seemed the worst was behind us until one day Leena turned up at our doorstep and let us know that she and Abdullah were leaving for Lahore for a month or two and that she wouldn’t be able to handle the accounts anymore. She was vague about reasons and attempted to laugh away our concerns, but my sixth sense told me something was amiss. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to her abrupt departure, and that too without Osman. After a few weeks she let us know by email that she probably wouldn’t be coming back, and she would greatly appreciate our discretion in not asking why. We understood immediately.

It wasn’t as if we met all that often, but I missed Leena’s unobtrusive presence. We didn’t see much of Osman either anymore, but we knew he’d lost a dramatic amount of weight after a tryst with hepatitis-A. His status updates on Facebook were forlorn verses of Sufi poetry, full of loneliness and loss, and the money plant outside their door wilted and eventually died.

Discretion is inhibiting, and several months went by… and I never wrote to Leena. Osman moved out today, and I’m left wondering if I’ll ever see them again.