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To Recognize Friendship is to Hear the Unspoken

Illustration of multiple figures interjoined with each other

Paromita Vohra is a film-maker and writer whose work focuses on desire, feminism and popular culture. This article was originally published here.

This year, my friend Anusha Yadav, a curator and photographer, created a unique birthday present for me. She put up a map of Bombay on my wall and ordered every friend who entered the party: “Mark the location where you first fell in love with Paromita.”

People took to the task with enthusiasm, searching for the landmarks of our relationship. A former student, now a colleague and friend, marked the college where I had taught her, another looked betrayed because someone had already marked my favourite (once perennial) haunt, the now-shut Sea View Café, in Juhu. People also marked hospitals, offices, the Goregaon grounds where we volunteered for the humongous World Social Forum, and the houses of mutual friends who had since drifted out of our lives.

Some had been my friends for over half my life, some I had met in the last few years, and one I had met only two weeks ago. They were married, single, gay, straight, bisexual, and ranged in age from 25-67. One thread joined them all. No one questioned Anusha’s phrase, “in love”, which we otherwise usually associate with an amorous relationship, to describe their friendship with me.

Is friendship a romantic relationship? I certainly think so. I’m a fool for love, and an even bigger fool for love at first sight, I admit. My friendships, like my other romances, have also been sort of love at first sight, followed by what the Japanese graphic artist Yumi Sakugawa describes in her comic I Think I Am In Friend Love With You: an intense desire to spend time with the friend, to discover things together, to talk and laugh and share secrets, being dazzled by them and wanting to dazzle them, to bring them delight with a poem or song they don’t yet know.

I remember, some 20 years ago, going to my neighbour and friend Meena Menon’s house after work, as I often did. Meena, a former trade unionist and 17 years older than me, was making gulab jamuns. “Who’s coming?” I asked. “You,” she said. “I just felt like making something nice for you.” My heart flooded with an indescribable feeling of being special.

This being the silver jubilee year of our friendship, it seemed fitting to discuss the romance of friendship. So I called Meena, who now lives in another city. “Hey,” I asked, “do you think friendship is a romantic relationship?” “Yes of course,” she answered, not pausing to think. “It’s a lot like falling in love at first, the same emotional and intellectual headiness. It doesn’t have that constant sheen of physical awareness, of sexual romance. But there is a great emotional sensuality in friendship, that feeling of deep, intimate connection.”

I asked if she remembered when she fell in friend-love with me. “The first time I met you. In that peace march from Dadar to Thane—you were wearing a denim skirt and a striped T-shirt saying, ‘À nous la liberté’!” I laughed at this recollection of my earnest, youthful self, and replied, “I remember you put your hand on my shoulder and I had a feeling of warmth. Then you asked, ‘Are you the crazy kid who works for Anand?’ (he was my boss at the time) and I was indignant!” Our reminiscences lasted an hour.

My college friend, Swati Bhattacharya, now a mother of two and an advertising big shot, says: “My ECG while waiting for a friend will show the same reading as waiting for a lover. Only I’m not caught up in figuring if his degree of excitement matches mine, and consequently behaving like a fool. There’s a relaxed quality to friendship, because there’s a relaxed quality about the future.”

One could argue that though intense like romantic love, friendship eliminates the anxiety that clogs the beginning of many an affair, since it is not based on being exclusive. We don’t enter into a friendship with caveats. It is assumed it will be forever, unless something really isn’t right; that we will keep reshaping it to fit into our lives as long as possible. Friendship is no utopia. Betrayal, anger, pettiness, coldness, competitiveness, have all featured in my friendships. Some trials expose fundamental differences in values and the friendships don’t survive. Chance meetings with these former friends can be as strangled as those with ex-lovers. But most friendships keep reconsolidating themselves.

My friend Anjali Panjabi, a film-maker, and I have often disagreed emotionally and drifted apart for substantial periods. But we always felt love in the hurt or anger, and that kept making us search for the right rhythm and fit. As she said to me once when we thrashed out our issues (never arriving at an agreement!), “Bottom line—we’ve been through so much together and I can’t imagine you not being in my life, yaar!”

It’s not that these friendships are replacements for sexual romances. If you asked me the difference, I would say that the romance of friendship is like sunshine on a winter’s day—lambent, enveloping, making you happy in your skin. Sexual romance, on the other hand, is the languor of an afternoon turned intimately dark by monsoon rain. One makes you shine in the world, the other makes you glow in the dark. They fulfil different parts of ourselves—friendship helps us articulate our individuality, amorous love allows us to surrender ourselves to an extent.

As a woman in my 40s, I may belong to the second generation of women for whom friendships are also a comradeship of feminist discovery and possibility, but I have seen these relationships in people of every generation I’ve known. My parents, aunts and uncles have friends they visit annually and write to regularly. I’ve heard stories of friends living as neighbours after Partition, one dying soon after the other, of sadness. One of my aunts often says about my late father: “I miss Ravi. He was not my brother-in-law, but my friend. He understood my heart. I feel alone in the world without him.”

Despite its rich social existence, friendship is rarely accorded recognition as an important relationship, or to use the right Hindustani word, darja, that family or amorous relationships receive. One of my closest friends, Samina Mishra, a film-maker from New Delhi, told me, “I remember when we drew up the list of invitees for some function at our wedding, our families were bewildered that both of us wanted some of our friends at some family-only functions. But for both of us, our friends are as important as family. I can’t do without mine.”

As with much else, the dominant culture pretends that coupledom, the “hum do hamare do” plus grandparents, are our only major personal relationships. Relationships that don’t fit into this grid are depicted as superfluous or temporary—giggling gal pals passing time till married. Emotional truths are more complex.

And they have always been. To paraphrase what the scholar Ruth Vanita said to me about her new book, Gender, Sex, And The City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry In India, 1780-1870, on Lucknow’s culture, seen through its popular poetry: Everyone was married off as a norm. That was not the sum total of their personal life, which was made up of a rich web of relationships—gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and non-sexual friendships, which, while not exactly respectable, were not considered immoral or an aberration.

These are not elements only of an urban culture. Across more rural Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, there are widespread traditions of ritual friendship. For instance, women who develop close relationships working in the fields, have a ritual of exchanging wheat seedlings (called bhojali) that have been sprouted for nine days and offered to the goddess to solemnize a friendship—after which they call each other Bhojali. A number of such friendships across community and caste, within and across genders, are named after the offerings involved in their solemnizing rituals—phul-phulwari, mahaprasadi, gangajali, and so on. In Varanasi, some women seal their bond by giving each other ornaments, a practice called “tying sakhi”. And of course, in Bollywood, there’s Sholay.
For our own solace, we need to reinstate these social histories. They give a name and place to how our society feels about relational love—the intimacy we easily call prem, whether for friends, families or lovers.

Perhaps one of the reasons we have ceased to privilege friendships is because we’ve internalized Victorian definitions of hetero-normativeness, monogamy and familial relationships. Contemporary culture idealizes the couple who need only each other—my wife/husband is my best friend. The popular media stories around LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights and recognition too stick very closely to this paradigm of coupledom and love as an indication of “normalcy”. This understanding only impoverishes our emotional lives, leaving us far more lonely than we are able to admit.
Two of my heterosexual male friends both hesitated to call friendship “romantic”. RS, a teacher, said: “In friendships with the opposite sex there is always some hum of awareness. It’s pleasant, you like to see yourself through their eyes because they are women, but it’s also a source of tension. It’s more relaxed with men.”

Women agreed there was a different feeling with men friends. Irrespective of their sexual orientation, they too spoke of being very attuned to female friends’ attractiveness from time to time. But they saw it as simply another interesting layer of the deep appreciations of friendship, not as a double-edged one.
Yet both the men—one married, another single—counted their friendships among their most important and sustaining intimate relationships, much as heterosexual women and gay and lesbian friends had done.

Those who value friendship in this way also share a more expansive idea of personal life, feeling it can’t be restricted to conservative definitions of family, any more than personal selves can be restricted by traditional expectations of gender, career, or sexual choices. Perhaps friendships make possible this host of less clearly mapped journeys which families often restrict. They offer understanding, conversation and love, which is not conditional on fulfilling traditional obligations.

Vanita puts it elegantly in her book when she talks of the ghazal: “(Friendship is) a more hidden, (relatively) less stylized love.” In being neither gay, nor straight, neither sexual nor asexual, friendship exists in that space we might call queer—which defies definition, but is yet vibrant and alive, and palpable and in fact, allows for the redefinition of social life. It has no reason to be, except that it springs from being human, and privileges and celebrates our humanity. To recognize friendship is to hear the unspoken, pay allegiance to human desire, to have the confidence that we may love and be loved for no reason, except for being us.