At eight o'clock this morning, our doorbell -- a shrill bird-sounding thing -- rang three times. The woman from downstairs called through the grates: "Shower and come down for breakfast!"
For one month now Archana, Megha and I have been been wondering about our neighbors. They've never called us for chai, or said more than namaste when we greeted them. Especially in India, where people have no problem asking me my salary, weight or caste, it seemed strange to have that kind of isolation.
In that way, Chandigarh is a strange, albeit beautiful, city. As the first planned city of India, there are ample green gardens, neighborhoods organized by numbered sectors, and pudgy ladies taking group walks in their kurta-salwar and a pair of sneakers.
When I first arrived, I almost felt the urge to turn back. Was this still India? I could hang out in my veranda without honking and vegetable selling in my ears. I hardly saw ragpickers, and everybody seemed to have their own car or scooter.
It was only when I came to the colony (the word they use for slum areas) that I saw the India I knew and loved. People bumping into each other, carts of fruits and fried foods, children in blue and white uniforms all over the street. And only because the poorest people of Chandigarh had been pushed to the edges of the city.
"Nobody knows their neighbors here," an old auntie complained to me one day. And I was reminded starkly of Florida suburbs and DC apartment buildings where moms had to set up "play dates" so their kids could get together safely.
But not this morning. This morning we walked into our neighbor's home and they instantly washed our feet with water. Today was the eight day of Dussera, a ten-day festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and specifically Ravan's defeat to Lord Rama.
On the eight day of Dussera there is a tradition here called Kanchika. After days of keeping a fruit fast, the mothers call girls (or in this case, 20-something women) to their homes for channa, fried puri and halva glistening with ghee. The father tied a red mauli thread on our wrists and handed us money and a banana.
We ate to our stomach's max capacity, thinking of the toast and chai we usually scarf down, and went happily back to our house in a food coma. But we didn't know this was only the beginning.
Neighbors were hanging out, almost scouting for girls to feed. When they caught sight of us walking around we got three more invites. We were called from house to house and handed plates of food which we respectfully sampled and then kept in our fridge.
By 9:30 my ride to work showed up and I practically rolled into the auto, a tupperware of puris in tow, a big red tilak on my forehead, and several red threads and bangles on my arms.
But more than my full stomach I recognized another satisfying feeling -- the fact that we had finally met our neighbors, eaten with them, played with their children, and planted our feet a little more firmly in the community.