Illustration by Shikha Sreenivas
I have to give the Covid-19 pandemic its due for allowing my best friend to stay in India, for 6 months longer than anticipated. Her flight to Canada had been canceled three times already. But the time had now come for her to leave for university; to a different timezone, saat samundar paar. The countdown was on my Instagram stories, my calendars, and in my eyes. Just say the word, and I would start bawling. My father was not home during the day, so he never witnessed these meltdowns. The night of her departure was his first sighting of my outburst. When I expected him to console me and tell me she would be back for Christmas, he just stared at me surprised, and a little disappointed. “It’s just a friend. You didn’t cry this much when your brother was leaving!” I wanted to point out that my brother had only shifted to the opposite end of the same city, to live closer to his college. We could literally meet anytime we wished to see each other; not that we did want to. But I just continued to sob, too exhausted to debate. I guess I am not much of a talker in front of my father either.
My best friend and I went to the same school. We knew of the other’s existence as fellow batchmates for years, but didn’t really interact until we applied to a Summer Programme together. In the process, I came across her poems and fell in love with the way she talked about the world and her space in it. It was a space I wished to share with her. We shared our tastes in music and films, hated our School’s administration, practiced our individual forms of art, and rooted for each other through it all. A trip to Lodhi Garden two days after my 17th birthday was the first time we met outside of school, and was the start of something new. Soon, we started to do everything together – we dyed our hair, explored the majestic ruins of Delhi, and mulled over our losses. What I treasured most about her was how well she understood me in times when I could not understand myself. We had major fights a couple of times a year, but always made up. Her friendship, and friendship in general for me, has been a source of unfiltered joy, sprinkled with insecurity, jealousy and friendly banter. I depend on my friends for a judgement free, corrective space. Spending time with them is not only a way for me to unwind, but also to deconstruct my fixed ideas and breathe life into a side of me that often struggles to emerge.
Friendship holds different meanings for us all. I don’t know where this difference stems from, but even my best friend and I do not conceive of friendship in the same way. But, despite being generations apart, my mother’s interpretation of friendship and mine bear a start resemblance.
Unlike me, my mother has three sets of friends.
First, a tight-knit group with three of her school friends. A comfort crowd, from similar social backgrounds. They meet four to five times a year and have frequent group calls where they boast about their children’s achievements and their in-laws’ antics.
Second, her best friend from her college days. She was the voice of reason to my mother’s impulsive decisions. My mother, by her account, was the “It Girl” of her college days. She listened to rock music, had tons of junk jewellery, curly hair and the fashion sense of a designer, which she did end up becoming.
The third, her friends of convenience and circumstance. This last category includes most of the people she talks to nowadays – neighbours or mothers of my classmates. But whatever the initial intent of this friendship, the care they now have for each other is genuine. Perhaps their shared circumstances and woes help them relate to each other; and the proximity only helps.
After her marriage, my mother’s first two sets of friends provided her the space to express her Punjabi self, or maybe just her essential self, away from the conservative Brahmin household she had married into. Yet, these forty-year-old women were reserved and careful with each other despite their sociable friendliness. Marriage still created an undeniable gap in their relations; you could only cook these friendships at a low temperature.
Gradually, the old friendships grew cold, and new ones never had the opportunity to grow into anything more.. All passion and intensity was reserved for the family. Post-marriage, my mother had been allotted one person on whom she was to depend in times of need. Extramarital emotions for friends had no space. The boxes and categories were clear and restrictive — “you should talk to your husband about your personal problems”, “ghar ki baat bahar mat karo”, “you may approach your mother but not your friends for advice on marital matters.”
Essentially, there should be no pati, patni aur ‘woh’, even if that ‘woh’ is a friend. A boundary was created outside of her family unit, and friendships were supposed to be kept at a safe distance to ensure no family matters spilled over to the “outside.” Now, she lives in a constant state of flux where one option might undermine the other. Going out for lunch with friends translates into her inability to pick my sister up from school. Living in a family where family takes priority over any form of social life, friendships always came second. You really can’t have it all when you’re a mother of three in an almost joint, conservative family.
For my father’s side of the family, friendship had always been a foreign concept. And anything foreign to them, meant it was unreliable. Friendships are surface-level and transactional. A dinner party for a dinner party, one formality after the other. Due to the heavy censoring imposed on them by their families, friendships never gained the same importance for them that they held for my mother and me.
Then, in 2016, my mother made a new friend, through another. Who knew 40-year-olds were capable of making best friends? Isn’t friendship always associated with the young? How do you get close when you can’t get reckless together? But why can’t 40-year-olds be reckless, is a question I forgot to ask; the fact that my mother could be anything but my mother, was unfathomable. I watched in wonder as my mother and her friend filled their days with calls of concern and laughter. They bonded over childhood experiences and trauma. She lived in the States, but my mother almost overcame the geographical barrier with the frequent calls and overflowing emotions. Two years into the friendship, my mother made a leap and started confiding in her about her personal life. The passing of both of my mother’s parents meant one place less for her to be more than a wife and a mother – and this only made their bond stronger.
But, things slowly started to shift. The friend took up a risky position when she assumed the role of my mother’s champion every time my parents had a clash. She became my mother’s support system outside of her roles as a mother, sister, wife and daughter-in-law, and this was not well received. The point of contention now was the involvement of a stranger in our family’s affairs. My mother’s opinions and decisions became irrelevant, since they were all thought to be products of her friend’s “foreign” ideology. The friend became an easy scapegoat for the paternal side of the family, as all the toxicity surrounding my parents was attributed to this new stranger in my mother’s life.
The question of family or friends emerged stronger than ever, and friendship was shown its place in our household, yet again. My mother is no longer in touch with that friend; an unspoken ultimatum ensured that. A relationship with a friend meant a state of domestic instability for us all. And since family, which means the family structure and not so much the people in it, must come first, the answer was obvious.
These days, Facebook posts remind her of times she can never experience again; the friendship that was strangled by the oppressive unit created by an upper-class brahmin family’s stifling norms, especially for women. I have seen my mother’s highs in friendships and have seen the lows for much longer than I wished for her to experience them. The loneliness is gripping, and it shows. Covid only intensifies this heaviness. as her image was jammed onto that of a bahu, a biwi, in the confines of the home. She often comes to my room, moves a few things around, and sits next to me on my bed. Sometimes I respond with dry one-liners to her questions, sometimes I ask questions that she forgets to answer. There are words left unsaid, and a silence that weighs upon the both of us. I don’t want to ask if she’s okay. I know she is not; I just don’t want to face it. She yearns to tell me that she’s lonely, scared, and confused, but admitting it would make it real and complicate the relationship of parent and child. Maybe she should have listened to her wise best friend; would she have done better if she had?
I am scared for her, and for me – for the friendships that make me, me. I ache at losing that side of her; a side of airy frivolity and fun and self, that seems bleached out of the mother I now share my space with. Sometimes, I miss her. Other times, I try to make her forget.
Runi is a rising sophomore at Ashoka University. She is a 19 year old artist and pianist based in New Delhi who hopes to occupy a tiny space at the intersection of Behavioural Economics and Art. When not watching mukbangs online, she can be found curating a list of the best tiramisu places in town.