“Neighbors” by Mariya Karimjee

by Grace Bonney

[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of our new essay series curated by Ashley C. Ford. We’re so happy to welcome Mariya Karimjee today. You can follow Ashley online here and Mariya right here. xo, grace]

My father didn’t lose his temper at the downstairs neighbor until the third time he shut off our water supply. I’d been in the bathroom, mid-lather, when the water had slowed down to a trickle before stopping completely. I wiped the shampoo out of my eyes and wrapped a towel around myself, still dripping wet. Then I walked outside my bedroom. I called for my father loudly in the apartment.

“There’s no water?” my father asked. We stood in the living room, and through the screen door of the balcony we heard the gardener humming as he walked around the lawn, watering the plants.

“There’s no water?” my father repeated. The water from the hose hit the marble of the downstairs neighbor’s patio with a distinct thud-tinkle.

“What do you mean there’s no water?”

I shrugged, realizing exactly what had happened at the same time my father did. Before I could stop him, or help him find calmer words, he was running down the stairs, screaming at the top of his lungs.

– – – –

When my parents first showed me our Karachi apartment, I’d been confused. They’d moved back to Pakistan after eight years in the United States and decided to rent an apartment in the neighborhood I’d grown up in. It looked just like every other two-story, bungalow-style house in the neighborhood.

“We live on the top floor,” my mother explained.

It wasn’t until I was inside the apartment that it made sense. The house had been split into a duplex. One family lived on the ground floor, we lived above them, the reconstruction so shoddy, we’d still share many of our utilities with the family downstairs.

Before we moved to the United States, my parents and I lived in a sprawling, 10-bedroom house in Karachi. We had hacienda-style roofs, a wraparound marble porch, and a hand-carved wooden bannister that ran up the staircase. The house had been built with my grandfather’s supervision, the interior planned meticulously for three families to live in harmoniously.

When my parents moved to Houston, TX, they bought a two-story house and lovingly decorated it. I watched them pore over décor magazines, watched as they lined up paint chips on our dining room table before deciding between two identical shades of brown. I remembered how excited they were to lay down the stone tiles they picked out for our kitchen, how my father explained clearly that no two tiles would look exactly the same. My mother cried once she saw the dark, cherry stain on the wooden cabinets for the first time. My parents had never owned their own living space before, and I had never really thought about how much they loved their home in Houston until they sold the house and moved back to Pakistan after their green card application was denied.

The new apartment in Karachi, however, was a far cry from the house we’d bought in the United States. The kitchen was far from functional, none of the bedrooms had closets, and the floor of our living room was covered in a laminate that my mother said made her eyes bleed. The hardest part, though, was that we had to share the house with another family.

Initially, the family that lived below us seemed nice enough. The mother had the kind of round face that dimpled joyously when she smiled. The father was tall with a long, thin, white beard that grazed the middle of his belly.

In Houston, my parents had cordial, friendly relationships with the neighbors. I once came home to find my father propped up on the fence that separated our house from the one behind us, holding a pair of gardening shears while he carried on a conversation with the neighbor. My mother would go on long walks with the lady who lived across the street, coming home covered in a thin sheen of sweat. I assumed our relationship with our new Karachi neighbors would be similar — I envisioned my mother popping over with her flan, exchanging recipes and sitting with the neighbors in the shared front lawn.

In the few conversations that I had with my parents, I heard little about the neighbors. Four years after my parents moved to Pakistan, I moved into their apartment, living with them for the first time since I was in high school. That’s when I realized our relationship with the downstairs family had deteriorated entirely.

When the father downstairs saw my mother and me leaving the house wearing clothes he deemed inappropriate, he threatened to rape and kill us. We’d heard from our landlord and from his wife that he was prone to hyperbole. Though his threats rattled us, neither my mother nor I thought of them as more than an inconvenience. His wife would text us with apologies, then ask if we could order a water tanker to refill our shared house’s water supply, never once paying us back. My father discovered they’d been stealing our electricity; we’d been paying for three of their air conditioners for years. When he confronted them, the neighbor held out a chef’s knife, waving it in the air between my father and himself. Disturbed, my father dropped the conversation, retreating upstairs. My parents lived with these threats for over four years, and both of them told me that though they seemed serious, no one actually believed that the man would act on any of them. To him, threatening us with weapons and words was simply a game. When he turned our water off the first time, my mother and I tried to calm my father.

“He’s entirely unstable,” I told him. “You can’t know what a person like that is thinking.” I thought I’d been clear, that I’d explained to my father the person living below us was so volatile, that confronting him was dangerous. Then I stepped out of the shower with suds dripping down my face, and watched helplessly as my father ran downstairs to yell at the neighbors.

I dressed haphazardly, and ran downstairs after them to see my father standing with his back pressed against the wall as the neighbor loomed over him, his yellow teeth inches from my father’s face. His wife looked on in distress, her hands clasped tightly. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the gardener looking down at the hose in his hands before turning it onto my father and the neighbor, drenching them. In the shocked silence that followed, I grabbed my father’s hand and took him back into our apartment.

“Is that man crazy?” my father asked me quietly, once the two of us were back in the kitchen. I paused, attempting to figure out how to answer my father honestly.

– – – –

Though my father suffered from a debilitating anxiety disorder, and showed frequent symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, he took his medication every day without ever recognizing what he had was a medical condition. He’d been prescribed the medicine by our GP in Karachi, a no-nonsense man who didn’t find it necessary to couple the SSRI with talk therapy. My father had showed symptoms of an anxiety disorder when we lived in Houston, but it was only after we moved back to Pakistan that the disorder began to interfere with his daily life. After I witnessed him melt down over a parking spot, I made him discuss the incident with his doctor.

Once, when a family friend pointed out that my father was slowly, methodically ripping each one of the hairs on his eyebrows off his face, my father looked at his hands as though he was surprised. Later, a cousin told him it was called trichotillomania, that it was classified by doctors in the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

“Lots of people with anxiety disorders have them,” our cousin said. “Yeah,” my father agreed. “But that’s like insane people. Normal people like me don’t have these problems.” I tried to use the moment to explain to my father that there were a large range of disorders and symptoms.

“I’m nothing like Hannibal Lector!” he yelled back at me, when I asked him what he thought the escitalopram he took every morning was for.

My family never discussed that my father was sick. I’d tried countless times to talk about his anxiety disorder in a way that made it seem medical, using high blood pressure and diabetes to explain that it was a lifelong condition that could be managed. In Pakistan, no one spoke about mental illness. Television shows like Monk, and movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, seemed so exaggerated that my father, who could function so much better than the people on the screen, refused to believe that they were alike in any way. When he asked me if the downstairs neighbor was crazy, I turned the question back around on him.

“Do you think he’s crazy?” I asked. My father paused for a second, before responding.

“Yes. What he’s doing is not okay.” I held onto his hand.

“What do you think the solution is?” I asked him. This next pause stretched between us, my father swallowed so hard that I could hear his throat working.

“Medicine?” he asked, defeated. I nodded, turning on the faucet in the kitchen to check if the water had been turned back on. I thought carefully about the next question I wanted to ask, hoping to bring my father closer to the realization that he, too, was sick.

“I wonder what I’d be like without my medicine,” my father said, his first acknowledgement of his own mental illness. I smiled at him as water flooded out into the kitchen sink. Later that night, I’d recount the entire day to my mother, who’d find a power point presentation on mental illness and anxiety disorders and would walk through it with my father. Two weeks later, when someone would notice my father plucking the hairs off his arm, mentioning it with incredulity, my father wouldn’t shy away from the conversation.

“It’s part of my anxiety disorder,” my father would say.

A few weeks later, my father signed up for therapy with a psychiatrist who dealt specifically with control issues. She gave him a series of exercises, and helped him navigate his relationships with the neighbors. When I spoke with him about his sessions, he explained that for years my mother and I had been living with his illness, giving it a wide berth so that we could all exist in a shared space. The neighbors didn’t have to extend him the same courtesy. As long as we all lived in the same compound, though, my father would need to find a way to coexist, learning to confront his own difficult behaviors. I raised my eyebrows. My father responded glumly by recounting a series of instances in which he’d deliberately instigated a fight with the people downstairs. He told me that for months he’d been leaving chicken bones in their yard so stray cats would howl beside their windows all night long. I had believed the threats and violence were one-sided, and was shocked to learn that it went both ways.

His therapist, though, wasn’t surprised. She suggested finding an intermediary to communicate between our families. We decided to let our landlord mediate, sending receipts and grievances to him directly. We stopped all direct conversation with the downstairs family.

A month later, the downstairs neighbors moved out — taking with them the anger and resentment they caused my father, along with all of their belongings. Before the new neighbors moved in, my father convinced our landlord to hire a contractor who split the utilities between the two apartments entirely.

When the next family moved into the apartment below us, my father’s psychiatrist encouraged him to be proactive. He explained that for months he’d been tending to their garden. “Really!” said our new neighbor, clasping my father’s hands in his own. “Then you must continue. It looks incredible.” His wife nodded. “I love marigolds,” she said. “Do you think we could plant some?”


Mariya Karimjee is a freelance writer based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has been published in Marie Claire, BuzzFeed, The Big Roundtable, and Al Jazeera America. You can find her on Twitter @m_karimjee

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  • I’m so glad I read that! Thank you for sharing what must have been a difficult issue for your family. Very well written!!!

  • Heavens–I thought I was coming to engage in a little conspicuous consumption window gazing, and I find myself reading beautiful literature. Thank you for the delightful surprise. I hope that your parents are in good health and have found peace–and you, also.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this thoughtful, beautifully written essay. Both my husband and one of our children suffer from an anxiety disorder. I think many people find it hard to understand or empathise with this illness and prefer to see it as a character flaw or moral failing, which makes it doubly hard for those who cope with it. God bless you and your family.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this beautifully written and touching story about your family. I appreciate your frankness about your father’s mental illness; so many of us have these experiences and it’s good to hear other people’s stories to ease stigma and shame.