As a child, I remember hopping over the neighbours’ really low-lying wall to have a look at some new board game my friend had bought. Even though the main gates of our adjacent houses remained wide open to let the stray dogs escape the Delhi summer outside, we had our own way of doing things.
We hopped over first-floor balconies where if one slipped, one had the fear of breaking an arm on the cemented patio below. We would jump over the little walls of the third-floor terrace between our houses as we played touch-and-go or threw water and bucketfuls of colour at each other at the time of the festival of Holi.
The main gate was never an exciting option to enter and exit. In fact, I remember my friend’s mother jumping over our balcony once to see the colour of the freshly painted walls of our house.
Not to mention, these low walls also worked in case of a quick emergency exit like a fire or when we had to sneak in at night (when the main gates were locked) to see a new film on the VCR that our neighbours had and we didn’t.
An exchange of conversations, hot, steamy food and neighbourhood gossip, sounds of fights, quarrels, sobs; all of it happened over these low walls just a couple of feet high over the ground.
It was almost as if the two families and others on the street were not just sharing walls but lives. It was a 24×7 reality drama across the wall, witnessed by each other; the only difference being it was really real.
What made me think of these walls was the earthquake.
A 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit South West Pakistan and the tremors were felt in New Delhi in India, a few days ago. It sounded like any bit of news, maybe a bit more immediate if you felt the tremors but largely a piece of news that would be forgotten like yesterday’s newspaper.
You might think I am crazy when I say why does an earthquake in Pakistan be felt in Delhi in India?
Didn’t we define those country boundaries long ago? Weren’t the walls of our countries fenced, bricked and sealed on a piece of paper some sixty years ago? How is it that nature deems fit to cross those man-made barriers and encroach over the neighbour’s walls?
No. It is not another heart-rending piece on India-Pakistan being long-lost warring brothers or not-on-talking terms-sisters or some out-of-touch distant cousins. It is simply a question about the presence of these walls.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” said Robert Frost in his 1917 poem ‘Mending Wall’.
The words seem eerily resonant in today’s times where the world has shrunk to the size of a laptop or a phone; where the new synonym for travelling is browsing; where the new word for reaching out is tweeting; where the semantics of our daily language have changed and where the world over we are struggling to find a new language for this new-found world where there are no walls.
Or am I judging it too soon? Maybe the new word for walls is Password. These are virtual walls after all and I as a creator of these walls choose who can view it and who will be kept out. I can choose which people can view my profile and read my blog and compliment me at the beauty of the effort. I can also choose to be a moderator and reject people who would critique, disagree or simply ignore my efforts.
Am I not, even today “walling in or walling out” people without the physical concreteness of a wall in front of me? I forgot to mention that the stray dog that ventured inside the main gate of our houses to escape the summer heat was always shooed away, the moment he was seen and the gate firmly bolted and locked behind him.
Time passed, we grew up and so did the walls between us and our neighbours. Slowly, at the pretext of crime and criminals, barricades were put behind houses.
First came those long iron rods, where we could still see each other and smile, then came the thick plastic sheets over those iron rods on the pretext of rain water coming in. We could still see each others’ heads moving across the verandah towards the toilets and hear muffled sounds.
And then came the huge wall between us that brought with it a sort of finality; a complete stop to all kinds of exchanges – pleasant and unpleasant.
No whiffs of freshly-cooked food, no squealing delights of laughter, no angry and abusive words. The gossip died down and suddenly we found ourselves living next door to people who once had a shared past but were living in an alien present.
I recently applied for my visa to Toronto and was rejected thrice, this when I was told it would be a piece of cake. It was. Just that the crust of the cake was a bit hard to dig in and had it been a fourth round of applications, I am scared I would have a left a piece of my tooth in, with biting the cake so hard.
At the same time, the news reports were full of Canadian government denying visas to officers of the Indian Army as well as the Border Security Force because they were on the list of Amnesty International as organizations that supposedly violated human rights.
I, on the other hand believed that if ever I had violated any rights, then they were mine and no one else’s. However, this was no laughing matter, at least back then. The idea then comes is from whose perspective is the wall being built?
Who decides who is staying in and who is staying out?
Is the global world, simply a macrocosm of the reality TV show Big Brother or the Indian Big Boss with a certain set of rules laid down and a warning sign that says, ‘Rule-breakers will be prosecuted?’ I am sure the terrorists who crashed into the Twin Towers did not ask for a visa and never will.
I think what the world really needs is a Tsunami that floods down all mock-barriers because these barriers simply place us in a complacent zone; they give us a fake self-assurance that ‘All is Well.’ Because if good fences made good neighbours then there wouldn’t be two world wars, a nuclear bombing and countries fighting each other over pieces of land just like neighbours fighting each other over a parking spot today in my old neighbourhood.
I still remember the memory of my neighbour friend and I perched on the walls, she on her side and me on my side of the house.
My uncle had brought a brand new make-up kit from Dubai for my mother who in those busy days of rearing a joint family did not even have time to look into the mirror. That make-up kit became the subject of our exploration at ten in the night with a street light across the road for company.
Even as we painted each others’ faces in the dark, relishing at our brush strokes and dwelling in our colourful world of pinks, red and blues, we did not know that the low-wall we were sitting on will soon become a sepia-tinted memory of our past.
P.S I wrote this article for Kuchbatao.com, a website in Toronto. I was reminded of this as i read about the impending Mexico wall that Trump is planning to build.