by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
My time-travel fantasies often include a return to my first memory of romantic embarrassment, wherein I had shied away from the unknown boy in front of me, one who I had seen lurking around five feet away the many past weeks, and who had emerged from the shadows to ask, “Will you make friendship with me?” At that time, I had experienced embarrassment and romantic fulfillment in the same breath. In that moment, I had thought myself a lawful entrant into the mysterious world of boy-girl relationships. And in that very knowledge, I had exercised my rights to refuse and walked away. Now, I wish I had been a different person who had paused to find out. Now, I wish I had for a moment, doubted the common knowledge of what a question like that might mean, and instead, waited. Now, I wish I had taken up the possibility of friendship. For what more a radical question than that can there be? To extend one's hand out to a person of unknown and little experienced character, disposition, and gender. To state merely that one's purpose in approaching, was friendship. Thus far. The no further could have come later on. Or not.
Since then, I have been better at allaying my expert suspicions. I have made friends. And I have grown further fascinated with the set of relationships we so summarily explain away with the term, “friendship”. Movie stars in India, when interrogated as to possible amorous connections between them, often respond in the coded phrase, “just friends”. But how could there be mere-ness in the relationship of being friends?
My earliest memories of the parts of a childhood, which trouble me most, are of not having friends. I was a strange person, a quiet creature, and one neither aware nor willing to be aware of people, as much as books. Possible candidates for friendship were beings of light and laughter, as much as I was morose and corner-bound. Then as in now, I was painfully aware of a loneliness that underlined all waking minutes. The first friends I made I was constantly suspicious of, worrying that they smiled to my face while secretly plotting my demise. It didn't help that we were avid competitors for that coveted top spot in class. Other friends, boys and girls alike, must have noticed my craven longings for friendship of whatever kind, and invited me home so I could help with their homework. Even as this afforded me some possibility of claiming friends, I knew something was off.
I envied my parents' friendships, formed so easily within the structures of their dependencies. Mothers were friends with one another, fathers were friends with one another, and everyone knew who could and could not share meals, teas, and day-trips. Within these solid hierarchies, and mild crossovers, I saw them share and exchange language, crises, recipes, and political opinions.
The first happy friendship I can recall was with a supremely kind, older girl who I regret not knowing anymore. In her, I remember noticing a beatific patience, and a feeling of oneness with the world, neither of which I knew I possessed. Even in her doubts, she was nevertheless at peace. We were twelve and thirteen, and took long walks, speaking of people, animals, the trees, and relationships between men and women. When she and her parents moved house, I was left with a renewed sense of profound loneliness and misery, no different from future experiences of romantic disappointments and break-ups. It was not that this friendship was romantic, I realized, but that its intensity matched and perhaps, superseded those feelings that we only easily ascribe to certain matters of the heart.
Growing older, far from the boundaries of family, home, and school within which I was defined, I ventured forth, still suspicious, still unwilling to believe in the possibility of friends. History is after all, the weight of other people. And yet, in the raucousness that is a women's hostel, I bet on people and they bet on me. We played, fought, cooked, set things on fire, and talked late into the night, together enjoying this halfway house that we had been bequeathed before having to venture out into the world.
Since then, the world has re-arranged itself into an array of friends. My face has grown more open, my limbs colt-like, and my eyes wide-eyed at the possibilities of transcendence that only friendship offers. Poets, artists, and songwriters can occupy themselves with love; me, I only pay obeisance to friendship, for like a good Capricornian I prize consistency, and persistence over wild, roller-coaster rides. And then, of course, friendship being the amoeboid that it is means that one need not have to choose. But people do. And I must confess to not understanding the hierarchies between friendship and romance.
I am, not however, naïve. I know that my friendships often orient themselves within familiar grids of caste, class, and gender. But it is in the alteration of these arrangements that I am interested. As I live my friendships, I am also intrigued by their political possibilities; as a critique of the present world and an active desire for its betterment. How better to think of possibility than through friendship? Many, far wiser, and far more engaged than me have considered this as well, but for them, politics and indeed, friendship remains the realm of men. The act of friendship among women that many write and ponder about has also produced an alternate set of possibilities that are worth thinking about. And friendship between men and women and those who identify themselves as sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes neither? And between those of the highest and lowest classes and castes?
Even as alliances, solidarities, and support systems do exist among and across identities of difference, there is work to be done. In these troubled times more than ever, we need friendships. For we need to acknowledge the common conditions of humanity that we share, even as we admit to the accruing of privilege among some at the cost of the marginalization of others. Friendship may disturb that which other structures hold in place. Else, we are doomed to merely regurgitating the language of good and evil. And as those who maintain complex friendships will tell you, the movement of power between bodies and lives is all that determines the production of good and evil. And we need political possibilities that naysay power.
I am charged and recharged by every encounter of friendship. Every one of them plays with my insides, and bends my will. I listen, alert to the Other, seeking the frisson of conversational difference. I look forward to the banter, and the incomprehension, and the back and forth, in the search for that rare moment when the Other makes itself manifest in all clarity and honesty and you see it and it sees you. In the hope of these connections, I open myself to every possible friendship. There is a profound loneliness to being human. Some of us experience it, and some of us distract ourselves from it. In friendship however, is the possibility of being lonely together. And this I miss most of all. I sometimes fantasize about being the host of salons of inspiring, inspired people that will together participate in this project of friendship, but then I realize that salons were public spaces, whereas that which I seek is the most intimate private space of self and Other.
My life choices are a series of errors, I think. Why, I wonder have I chased ambition, and work, and adult-like settling instead of chasing my friends, three score and some times around the world? Why have I not determined that my only chances at sanity and plenitude lie with these people I have chosen and those that have chosen me in generosity and kindness and eternal presence? Why do they not chase me three score and some times around the world, I wonder? But then, these questions I have also asked of lovers past, so perhaps, I need to pose my willful ignorance in a different fashion.
Sometimes, I read obituaries in the newspaper. Tucked away on page fifteen or so, occupying barely one modest corner of these daily bundles of mayhem and chaos, they bear testimony. They are small. I suppose, every paisa spent after death counts as a bad return on investment. Every word, I imagine, to be measured out. “Survived by”, they read. And barely ever, in these little packets of lives is there a mention of friends. Were these people so contained? Is kin all they needed, and all they left? I think of kin as both my family and my friends. My fondest hopes for old age are to live with my friends, for I am convinced that only we will have the tenacity and tolerance for each other's idiosyncrasies. Already, we are the only ones that do. And perhaps, in each other's company, we will learn to be friends with the world.