Our neighbour, our enemy

My mother and the Syrian lady next door were enemies.

Theirs was a feud that excelled in the tactics of non-verbal intimidation. They practised their stares and their cold shoulders, and how best to turn one’s face away when they each saw the other approaching. We were amused and confused, we did not know what started their rivalry.

It was the food, said my mother, whose tolerance for anything not vegetarian went only so far as to ignore the eggs my father made me. All those smells driving the air out of our second floor corridor, she complained. Cooking meat any time of the day. Beef today, she declared, sniffing the air as we stepped out one evening. Crab, she snorted, one afternoon, when a pungent smell greeted us as we opened the door.

The Syrian lady wasn’t one to be intimidated either. She disturbed the kolam my mother drew outside our apartment every morning, she was worried those rice flour patterns on the floor might be voodoo. She blew out the lamps that my mother placed at the doorstep every evening in November, saying they were a fire hazard.

She was always by herself though, and this didn’t escape my mother’s notice. No husband, no siblings, no parents, no children, we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have. What was she doing here all alone, my mother couldn’t imagine. We watched her bring up the furniture, carry home carton boxes of mineral water, clean her car. We saw her arguing with the children who threw tennis balls into her balcony, thinking it would be fun to upset her mood for five minutes every so often. We continued to watch as she left for work every morning, cooked for her friends who visited her with clouds of perfume, we could hear their laughter past my bedtime.

I must have missed the thawing that happened, because one day, my mother said to no one in a voice just above a whisper, “I am amazed by her courage.” Later that year, we wished her Eid Mubarak, and she gave us rice with beef on New Year’s day. My mother left it on the small table in the living room, I suspect my father ate a little of it when she wasn’t looking.


Written with the prompt: I am amazed at her mountainous courage. Crowd favourite this week on the fiction|poetry grid – thank you for the votes!

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14 thoughts on “Our neighbour, our enemy

  1. Lovely slice of life. “we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have” was especially good as it conveys a feeling of loneliness in contrast to the Tamil family.

    It does make one wonder though about that thawing moment. Good piece of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this piece. I especially enjoyed how you mentioned casually your Dad’s penchant for eggs / non-vegetarian food. That set up the final line perfectly.

    I also liked the fact that you didn’t elaborate on the “I am amazed by her courage” line. You left it to the reader to fill in the blanks the way they wanted. That, I think, is a sign of a mature writer, one that trusts her readers. Nicely done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice, simple, first sentence that grabs the reader and pulls them right in. The narrator, the characters, and the descriptions are all quite engaging. I do feel that more description/observation/comment on the thawing would make this wonderful piece even stronger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Amy! Let me think about that. Another reader mentioned it too. While writing, I left the explanation vague because the narrator wasn’t aware of what had happened. Or if anything particular really happened.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love all the details that contrast the two families, or rather, the one family and the lone woman – the different diets, the perfume, the lanterns, etc all help convey the differences without judgment. I felt like the “thawing” happened a little too abruptly – it would have been nice to see one or two moments where they behaved differently towards each other to build up to the winter gift exchange.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just read the comments above on the “thawing” moment. Just to offer my perspective, I liked the inexplicable nature of that moment a lot. It’s because certain things happen, relationships evolve and sometimes, we don’t quite fathom what led to that. To me, as a reader and an aspiring non-fiction writer, there is a certain amount of beauty in things left unsaid.

    I totally understand the other POV; just recording the fact that that moment worked for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe. Thanks for your offering the explanation behind your point of view. I actually didn’t think there needed to be a specific moment to tell us they were cautiously extending friendship. Maybe they just realized it took too much effort to continue this way? 😀

      Like

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