One day in the Hundred Acre Wood, Piglet asked Pooh: “We’ll be friends, forever, won’t we Pooh?” “Even longer,” answered Pooh.
Once upon a time, I was, like AA Milne’s lovable characters, sheltered by a friendship that I thought was invincible. In the way of intense young people everywhere, we were square pegs in round holes — and we bonded with all our defiant angularities. She was unlike anyone I had met before: the smartest woman in class, impossible to box into any labels, funny, wise and formidably tough, someone who gave me — a socially awkward outsider in a Kolkata university — courage to be myself. We were like no one else in the world, and that’s why we needed no one else. Two was exalted company, three an intrusive mob. The rest of the class called us, not without a few sniggers, “horihor aatma”, the inseparable soulmates.
Much more than love, which upends everything you know about yourself, you chose friends as a way of defining yourself — against the family and its dull, monochromatic middle-classness, or the horde of peers urging you to become just like them.
Literature, love and all the invaluable intangibles of life — you chat endlessly of these and the words begin to shape who you are, and who you want to be. Wasn’t it Plutarch who described a friend as the “theatre of his actions”? She is, also, a witness to your life, someone in whose eyes this jumble of courage, oddities and failings add up to you.
But you step out of the Hundred Acre Wood. You become, perhaps, someone else. While many are lucky to have friendships that sustain them, it is also true that life overtakes some of us, and that you leave friends behind — even the best of them.
For a long time now, I speak to my former soulmate once a year, a rushed, awkward filling in the blanks — of what we were once, and what we are now. What came between us? The choices that we made — the cities we moved, the partners we chose, and the distance we, or perhaps, I travelled from my former self.
In my mid-30s now, I have 287 friends on Facebook and a phonebook with a few hundred names. Quite a few I have never met. Social media and its easy conviviality is the antithesis of what I once believed friendship was — not a “request” conceded to with a click, but a prize to be won for yourself and guarded against time. While I was never good at making a gazillion friends, I made up for that by making very good ones.
A few years ago, when one of them married and moved to the UK, I joked about having lost one-third of my friend circle in Delhi in one fell swoop. I wasn’t kidding (I did have only three friends in the city). All but one of my friends are scattered, like pollen in a spring breeze: to Kolkata and Shillong, Singapore and Cambridge. A few days ago, when someone posted the melancholic Dekhi zamaane ki yaari/Bichhde sabhi bari bari on Facebook (where else?), I joked that this could be the title of my unwritten essay on friendship.
Should I blame it on this time of my life, when leisure has died a quick, efficient death, smothered by grocery lists, the pressure of deadlines and keeping up with the Twitter timeline, and the exhaustion of caring for parents and children? Friendship needs time, acres of empty days when you dawdle from conversation to silence, and bleary-eyed sleepovers that end at sunrise. In its secure, amniotic embrace, you learn to ignore the world — and find yourself. My schoolfriend and I spent every evening standing in a corner of a Shillong street and giggling at whoever passed by, besides consoling ourselves over being comprehensively defeated by the mysteries of trigonometry, failure being the best sort of bonding. We now connect by bitching about all the puke on our timelines on Mother’s Day and other similar trials of parenting — but what we love most, I would hazard, is to watch our daughters take baby steps at friendship.
When I think of friends, I often find myself thinking of my grandmother’s saying: “Gaange gaange mile re, boine boine mile na. (Even the banks of rivers will meet somewhere, but sisters are not that fortunate.)” We would hear it every time my cousin and I would be involved in a squabble-unto-death over something insignificant. It’s a poignant warning from an earlier time, when marriage would be the inevitable disruption of the close bonds between sisters, whose fate it was to be sent off to houses of strange people. All of Jane Austen’s novels, if you think of Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet, Emma and Harriet, are about the most intimate of female friendships waiting to be shattered by marriage.
Our fate was not to be married off. It is to never stay still. Irish writer Tana French’s novels have some very sharp insights on contemporary friendship. The Secret Place is a crime novel set in a boarding school but really about four girls, their friendship so brilliant and brittle that it splinters at the first blow from reality.
In the search for self-transformation and self-discovery, we change, we become unrecognisable. We return to the small towns we came from and the roads are narrower than we thought. We meet an old friend and we can’t just take off where we left. When we need our 4 am friend, she is several time zones away. And when she calls back, you have moved on.
Move on, then. I don’t fret about making lasting friends. I try and get better at small talk. I embrace all the transient companionship I get: my daughter’s teacher, my present and former colleagues, my GTalk companions, a writer who moves me with her columns. What if forever is always out of reach? There is today, now, this moment. It will do.