Category Archives: Friendship
I used to think of myself as ‘one of the boys‘, because I didn’t identify with how femininity was practised around me. I wanted to own my intelligence, my independence and strength the way I saw only boys do. I walked, talked and dressed in a close approximation of my male peers – dirty jeans, chunky boots and a loud voice steeling myself to incorporate crude speech. I didn’t get a lot of acceptance because gender roles are too deeply embedded in people’s minds. Other girls still saw me as competition for their boyfriends and the boys treated me like I was a defective female.
Once I started working, I was able to experience my personal power without having to dress it up so much. People took me seriously and held me as accountable. Through my 20s, I was able to embrace my softer side – sitting with my legs crossed, caring for my appearance, smiling over snarling, compliments instead of sarcasm. I had discovered I could be/do these without giving away my power.
Now I meet more women who practise my kind of femininity. Not the coy, simpering, bitchy-to-other-girls, defining oneself by one’s boyfriend/husband kind. But smart, independent women who don’t feel the need to hide it or tear me down. They’re also emotionally aware, not just apeing ‘maleness’. This kind of femininity is more acceptable now.
Occasionally a woman expects me to be her knight in shining armour – this is the old toxic femininity, acting helpless + expecting women to do all the work. It’s not perfect.
But I have more fulfilling conversations with other women now than I did before 30. Careers, health, poetry, architecture, sexuality and yes, men too – we talk like two humans would, not like scripts mouthed by strictly controlled prisoners.
Men, in comparison are rarely this interesting. There are exceptions but they’re a scant few. Conversations wth men often have to be ’emotionally dumbed down’. It’s tiring and not worth it when there are other more evolved humans called women.
I’ve come a long way from ‘one of the boys’. Right now I’m every bit a women’s woman. Or maybe, I’m my own person.
Play a game with me. Ready? Pick any one answer:
QUESTION: What do you call a guy who makes a call at 1:30AM stoned and drunk to a girl who said she was having a bad day at 11:30PM?
A. A thoughtful, considerate, caring person who is taking time off partying to help someone in need.
B. A booty call.
If you picked A, you’re either a) a guy or b) a girl who has been told by a lot of men that you’re a princess who will be looked after so long as you’re patient because all men are brave, thoughtful and here to serve you.
If you picked B, you’re a woman. You may have once been the princess detailed in A but you’ve been disappointed too many times.
There is a fundamental difference in how men and women construct a story based on the same sequence of events. The thing is the women who pick B are doing so based on undeniable patterns they’ve lived through. While the men who pick B are doing so, wilfully ignoring patterns they’ve themselves contributed to because it’s inconvenient. Well, maybe I’m just biased and that’s not a good thing for a game designer or a quiz maker.
I’ve had a few conversations this week with men I’m close to – articulate, thoughtful, intelligent men. One of them insists on tailoring our interactions to contract-level precision, complete with ‘Clause B states this’ style references. This is how he understands boundary-setting. He’d be appalled if I called it a loaded term like ‘tone policing’ but that’s how it feels to me. Another apologises every time he doesn’t have a solution for something I share. He thinks this is how he should be a feminist ally. I don’t know how to explain the distinction between empathy and blind agreement, between taking a stand and playing hero.
All of them say “I didn’t realise you’re waiting for me to do this.” about while also asking me to trust them. How to do this without opening myself to accusations of being controlling and mistrustful? I thought we’d agreed on this, now I’m supposed to deal with their disbelief that I’d actually expect them to follow through?
When I talk to one of them about the communication breakdown I’m having with another man, thinks that man is immature, emotionally limited and other such things. It wasn’t till I heard this denigration of the same behaviour in other men that I realised these statements were being made only to please me.
How do you talk to someone who is eager to please you but can’t hear a word of what you say? Me? I’ve screamed and yelled and raged. It is frustrating, especially when it feels deliberate. How is it possible for intelligent humans to completely miss what you’re saying? It seems like that can only happen if they’re not listening.
And yet, why does my validation and pleasing me matter so much? Please don’t comment telling me that these men want to sleep with me and will say what they have to for that. For a fact, that’s not true of some of them and I don’t care to explain how I know. Oh and also, that’s what one of them says about every other man exhibiting the exact same behaviour as himself.
All I know at the end of this frustrating set of interactions is that men and women don’t understand each other at all. It’s like we’re speaking two different languages that just happen to have the same alphabet. We’re coming away with entirely different conversations in our head. How then, can understanding happen?
Anybody? I’ll wait.
This piece is a writing experiment. Tell me what you think.
They pause in the middle of the restaurant. Then he walks off towards the toilets and she chooses a seat. She sits on one side, checks her phone camera then moves to the other side. By the time he returns, she has settled in, a perfect picture. They smile at each other seconds before he even reaches the table.
The movie they’ve just watched was about gay conversion therapy. They start to talk about it, her words an eager jumble, his glances more considered. Abruptly, she picks up the menu. When the waiter comes, he places the order.
She looks slightly older but that could just be their clothes. His body language is more reticent, quiet, filling up his side. While hers, like her words flutter all over the small space she occupies. “I knew this happened but to see it depicted, I mean..” She shudders. Their order, peri-peri fries arrive and they munch on them with equal delicacy.
He takes pictures of her and she poses, laughing, smiling, looking. But when the camera is put away, he smiles and she responds with equal vigour. She asks him a question.
He tells her about coming out. She listens thinking about her own coming out memories, only no one ever calls them that. There are so many coming out conversations that each of us participates in. Statements of our identity, spoken like guilty confessions, asking for acceptance, bursting from us only when we can’t contain them inside any more. This is who I am. That is what I want. This is what I’m good at. That is where I want to live. This is how I breathe best. That feels like the best choice for me. Please accept. Please understand. Please look at me. Please see me. Please still love me.
I watch them exit. He lifts a crumpled piece of paper in one hand. She stops him, palm on shoulder. He stops mid-step. She takes the paper from him. Still talking, he hands it to her. Still listening, she straightens it out and tucks it away in her wallet, the movie ticket.
How sweet, I think. But who do they they’re fooling? Couples like these only exist in rom-coms.
Models: Ramya Pandyan & Anmol Karnik
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COUPLES YOU SEE IN ROM-COMS They pause in the middle of the restaurant. Then he walks off towards the toilets and she chooses a seat. She sits on one side, checks her phone camera then moves to the other side. By the time he returns, she has settled in, a perfect picture. They smile at each other seconds before he even reaches the table. The movie they've just watched was about gay conversion therapy. They start to talk about it, her words an eager jumble, his glances more considered. Abruptly, she picks up the menu. When the waiter comes, he places the order. She looks slightly older but that could just be their clothes. His body language is more reticent, quiet, filling up his side. While hers, like her words flutter all over the small space she occupies. "I knew this happened but to see it depicted, I mean.." She shudders. Their order, peri-peri fries arrive and they munch on them with equal delicacy. He takes pictures of her and she poses, laughing, smiling, looking. But when the camera is put away, he smiles and she responds with equal vigour. She asks him a question. He tells her about coming out. She listens thinking about her own coming out memories, only no one ever calls them that. There are so many coming out conversations that each of us participates in. Statements of our identity, spoken like guilty confessions, asking for acceptance, bursting from us only when we can't contain them inside any more. This is who I am. That is what I want. This is what I'm good at. That is where I want to live. This is how I breathe best. That feels like the best choice for me. Please accept. Please understand. Please look at me. Please see me. Please still love me. I watch them exit. He lifts a crumpled piece of paper in one hand. She stops him, palm on shoulder. He stops mid-step. She takes the paper from him. Still talking, he hands it to her. Still listening, she straightens it out and tucks it away in her wallet, the movie ticket. How sweet, I think. But who do they they're fooling? Couples like these only exist in rom-coms. Models: @ideasmithy & @anmolkarnik #theideasmithy
There’s nothing like girl talk between former tomboys.
It’s dreams and drama
and nostalgia and world dominion
and yearning and alliance and fireworks
all in one.
Be a girl.
At least once in your life.
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I’m surrounded by question marks, in the shape of expensive gifts from you. I’ve discarded the funny, the cheesy, the lighthearted lines like you’ve done our laughs. But what about the Parisian box of songs? La vie en rose may as well be a life of thorns. I don’t like looking at the gold memento anymore. It makes me wonder if all you were out for, was another gold rush of emotions.
I’m sitting in a gigantic suitcase full of question marks that you’ve left behind. What shall I pack? Can I just put them all in there or should I send them back? My house isn’t big enough for all the feelings I have about these things.
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It’s housekeeping time in the relationships corner of my life. I find myself going through this periodically. I unfriend people on Facebook that I don’t even remember ever interacting with. I withdraw from groups and communities that I do not find myself engaged with. And hardest but most important of all, I draw boundaries with people who have drifted into my life.
I live a very porous life most of the time. For the past seven years, I’ve been sharing so much of life online. My work is inextricably linked to the other things in my life. And I’m an active part of the large creative-intellectual tribe both online and offline. All of these mean that boundaries are constantly being dissolved and frequently, new ground is broken where no structures exist. I hate labels, after all.
But the downside of this is that I find myself frequently sapped by the world around me. People presume too much. People give too little back. Situations spiral out of control. And everything crashes as I scream ENOUGH! I bounce back from these pretty quickly and usually back to a life that has very few of its original inhabitants still standing, the rest swept away in the outburst or shellshocked. I’ve done it enough of times and now I know this is not something I need to be ashamed of. It still is tiring, though. The alternative is to live the kind of cloistered, rigid life that would suffocate me before anyone else.
In the past week, I have exploded at this completely awful person. And that is the only way I am able to think of him. If he had shown just a bit more spine, things would have been different. But maybe I also only got as much as I believed I could get. I was glad he didn’t hit me or abuse me. Those are really low standards to hold a human relationship to and I know better now. I ask more from relationships and people now. If a person needs so much game-playing to acknowledge that they like me, maybe that’s not going to turn out great and I deserve better. Equals do not play games; they have conversations.
We know that men are socialised to take and take and take and never give back. And as women, we have been socialised to give, give, give and never question. We are now learning to identify this earlier, call it out and hopefully start teaching the next generation of men to not be so parasitic in nature. But what makes us think men are the only parasites? There is a new breed of Alpha women who think they have to be like men to succeed and that includes being self-centered, manipulative and toxic. They give their admiration quickly and voluminously. They shout it out from the tops of buildings. And they crash spectacularly. Then they lash out. Viciously.
One of them (who in the past, has woken me up at 2 in the morning to discuss her relationship, in whose support I have judged and turned my back on people who didn’t do a thing to me) told me,
“Oh I didn’t notice what was happening to you (right before her eyes). I have problems. I’m selfish. And I didn’t know we were ghosting each other’s exes.”
Her words sliced through me. Was I being selfish? Was I being needy? Was my problem (getting attacked) that trivial? I realised she was doing exactly what my abusive ex did – gaslighting me.
Another one’s callousness cost me a paying project for no fault of mine. She did not apologise. She sounded annoyed when I called her out on it. She said I should ‘understand’ because I run Alphabet Sambar. When I told her no one had ever lost work because of me, she threw out,
“You’re just so perfect, aren’t you?”
She did the other thing my abusive ex did. Reeked resentment and rage at my successes and tried to make me apologise for her shortcomings. It wasn’t even the first time she had done so and I had forgiven her for it.
I had a sudden realisation. Both these women remind me of this other person I cut out last year. I felt the same vague unease each time they announced to the world that they were ‘such good friends’ with me. I winced each time they parrotted out speeches about my strength, my style, my personality and my writing/poetry. I know now what this is.
I was not their friend. I was a trophy. There is an insidious kind of label that I’ve been unable to avoid because I didn’t recognise it as a label. That’s the ‘I WANT TO BE HER’ label. This label marks me off as a benchmark or trophy but not a human being. This is not normal appreciation I’m talking about. It’s an onslaught of starry-eyed compliments that are being heaped in the hope that I will like the giver. It’s trading flattery for validation. And worst of all, it absolves the other person from the responsibility of being an equal – a friend.
I know this now because of two things. One, I do have actual friends who express their appreciation of me but also treat me as an equal. They call me out when I’m being stupid or weak. They joke with me. They step up when I need them. They do not resent my needs. They do not react violently at my imperfections. And finally, they never throw my achievements back at me. And two, if these women remind me of the abusive men in my life, then what they’re doing is not friendship any more than what those men had for me was love.
I finally realised I enable all of these. I allow people to seep in. I allow people to call me friend (what a hateful term it has become, to cover all manner of sins) without thinking about whether our bond is that strong or that equal. I have not yet learnt how to gently put deflect such forced labels. I do not want to hurt the people who attempt to hang it on me; they do it from a deep hungry need and a misguided sense that I can satiate that need. But I cannot allow myself to be preyed on by the endless, one-sided neediness. I want to be able to give boundlessly but only to people who do the same back. I want fulfiling two-way relationships, not a fan club. Maybe I can learn how to deal with these women the way I learnt to deal with those men.
Once again, equals do not play games; they have conversations. Whether those games start with trading insults or excessive compliments, I guess they’re still games.
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I was watching Sex and The City (the first movie). This story with all its flaws and shortcomings, served as a reference point for my early feminism and navigating gender politics and relationships. I saw the film when it first released in 2008 with the mild boredom and indulgent disdain of someone who knows she has outgrown an early affection. I saw the movie a few times again in the later years but it was tainted by my opinion of the second film. I swore off, relegating Carrie (whom I never liked that much) into the bin of my cringeworthy-taste-in-my-younger-years bin. All I saw was the whitewashing, the self-absorption and the deep flaws in the central character. But today, today I saw her pain. And it brought back my own.
My wedding ended, quite the same way as Carrie Bradshaw’s. After years of toiling and struggling and stiff-upper-lipping, just when I was ready to believe that I was getting my dreams, it shattered. It was abrupt, cruel and deeply humiliating. And it ground me down in a way that I couldn’t ever imagine I’d be ground down. It has been over four years since that happened.
The first thing that struck me, stung me, was the fact that Carrie Bradshaw had a rock-solid fortress of her friends that she could retreat into and let herself shatter. I did not have that. I had a family that took me back, yes. I have lived with feeling immense gratitude for that. After all, I am part of a culture where daughters are killed by their own parents, in the womb, at birth and even as adults to protect their honour. My family did not do that. But they do not think that a ‘relationship’ is the same thing as a marriage. They believe a breakup is a silly, minor thing, not to be compared to the devastation of divorce. I do not blame them. They’ve gone far beyond what their generation and our culture has taught them.
But my friends and everyone else around me? That’s a whole well of pain. Time and again, over four years I’ve heard various versions of,
“Who cares about him? Forget him.”
“But you are a strong woman. Get over it.”
“Snap out. You’ve got a great life ahead of you. Live it.”
I have been shamed for being upset. I have been judged for wanting to hide. My anguish has been brushed aside in favour of shopping expeditions, party plans. And I’ve been logicked to prove that I must not feel anything.
I am so angry.
Last week I spoke to Xion after several months. And he told me he would always be grateful to my ex for pointing out that I cared about him. Am I supposed to applaud my ex for pointing out the obvious? Is he to be deified for ‘not saying anything bad’ about me? I didn’t cheat on him. I did not gaslight him, abuse him. I did not curb his friendships, his art. I did not ask for dowry. How does his behaviour get compared with mine, when our provocations have been so different?
For my own sanity, I’m learning to walk away from the terrible relationship that I fell into and struggled and sank in. But I have not been able to get past the profound sense of betrayal I feel from people who were around me then and should have been my support. Why not? After all, I’ve been there for each of them. I’ve not thrown ‘tough love’ at them. I’ve not tried to jolly them out of their breakups, their familial problems, their health issues, just because it’s inconvenient to me. I’ve listened, been as gentle as possible. Why do I not deserve the same?
And what is this ‘Strong Woman’ business? My ex threw it at me all the time as a way to shrug off any responsibility towards treating me nicely, being on my side in front of the world or even doing his share. This tells me that the people I thought were my friends, are not different. It’s not convenient to them, to have me down and out.
Four months after my ex threw me out, without warning, without even the courtesy of an explanation, I was on my feet. I had a job. I went and made new friends, found new interests. I didn’t go to pieces or burst into tears at the drop of a hat. A year later, the pain started to ooze out as I watched my ex exploit what he put me through, into a glorification exercise for himself. I crumbled and tried in vain to patch the leaks, with Landmark Forum, with new friendships, with Tinder, anything. And still, my friends said,
“This is so undignified. Get over it.”
“You are so negative. Look at him, he doesn’t even care. Why are you wasting your time?”
Last year, my insides just collapsed and all that was left was a hollow darkness. I lost my way, lost myself, just lost track of what light looked like. Reema and Adi stood by me, wading into the muck of my emotional gutters and carrying me out when they could.
I ran into my ex unexpectedly last month. It was strange. I didn’t feel a thing. The person in my memories, the monster who ravaged my universe, has nothing to do with the person who walks around by the same name. It was heartening. My ticket out. Validation of the thought I’ve clung to since 2012 that I would not, will not let this horrible experience become my identity. I refuse to settle into the label of the jilted woman, the abuse survivor, the damaged abla nari.
So it was a shock when I found myself reduced to tears today, watching an old, not-even-that-good movie. Reema lit a candle inside my crying. She told me it was okay to feel pain. She told me that this wasn’t about wanting to get back with a bad ex; it was about processing grief. And she said, that takes its own time.
We are in a culture that only allows for grief processing in certain circumstances and for specific situations. If I had been married and my spouse had died, I would have been allowed to grieve for years. If I had let myself descend into fits of crying, into broken fear, I would have been petted and cared for. But because I refused to let this defeat me, because I took it head-on, the people around me decided that my pain was not worthy of their compassion. Adi says most people find other people’s pain inconvenient and that makes them behave like douches.
Well. I’ve spent the day crying, then speaking to Reema, then putting my cupboard in order, speaking to Adi, doing my chores, doing my work, speaking to Reema, eating an icecream, speaking to Adi. I am still walking, still writing. A little compassion did not hurt either of them to give but it took me a long way.
I suddenly feel no guilt, no doubt anymore about letting go of pretty much everyone from my past. My pre-2012 world let me down, very badly. I deserve better – people who can stand through my pain as well as my joyful affections. And people who do not punish me for breaking down suddenly.
Pain, it demands to be felt. And there really is no sane way to grieve. I’m just glad it’s finally happening. There will be a morning after that and perhaps that one will have more kindness.
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A strange thing happened. I only noticed it recently but I think it began several months ago. Back in the summer, at an event, some people thought that Adi and I were dating. I knew a couple of them slightly so I was surprised they didn’t know I was single. I put it down to the overhormonal college canteen-type atmosphere at the time where everyone is crushing on someone or about to break up or about to fall in love or something equally melodramatic. A couple of weeks later, I was having coffee with one of them and he couldn’t believe that Adi and I were ‘just friends’. What does that even mean? As if friendship is a trivial relationship, (such a redundant assumption in our current times of urban families).
“You guys seem so close!”
We are, I assured him, but why would that mean we had to be dating? I don’t think he really believed me but I put it down to his having been a nerd most of his life and marrying a family friend early in life (by his own admission). Maybe the concept of close friendships between men and women that were just that, was new to him.
But I was alarmed when a friend of a few years wondered if I had ever dated Adi or had had a crush on him or currently had a crush on him. No, No, NO, I said, why is this even a question? Just think about it then, she said. It made me want to scream. If this is not a thing, maybe it is never going to be a thing. I’m a pretty intelligent person and so is Adi and if we aren’t a couple, maybe that’s by design. Being in a relationship is not such an obscure idea that it couldn’t have occured to at least one of us in the eight years we’ve known each other. And finally I hit the panic button when two close friends mentioned it on my birthday.
I spoke to Adi about this and he’s as mystified as I am. I am one of his many close female friends. Apparently in the last year, he has been subjected to similar questions about us. He’s stumped by this, having never had to deal with this his whole life. He reckons it’s about (his) turning 30 and everyone else’s need to couple the world up neatly.
For my part, I’ve seen this through college and to some extent in my 20s. The latter came from concerned family that wanted to see me ‘settled’ in the traditional sense of the term. I understand that the relationship references for their generation are different from mine so it never bothered me. But I can’t fathom how people in my generation are choosing to make these mistaken associations. Have the generations regressed again to a time when a friendship between a man and a woman can’t help but devolve into sex and romance? ‘When Harry Met Sally‘ and ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya‘ both came out nearly 30 years ago and it’s a poor call if we’ve gone back to the kya-ek-ladka-aur-ladki-dost-ho-sakte-hain mindset.
I find this deeply unsettling. First of all, it makes it clear to me just how much peer pressure probably goes into making romantic relationships. What is the value of a relationship that you get into because your friends & family think it’s a good idea? Suddenly, in all the popular narratives around me (namely movies, both Hollywood and Bollywood), all I can see is the tug-of-war of two people’s denial and the rest of the world coaxing/forcing/manipulating them into being with each other. Cupid may look cute in paintings but his real life manifestations are just plain annoying. I have never needed the world to push me into reaching for what I want. If I like somebody, logic, wisdom, good sense be damned and anyone who has known me for a few years should know that. Adi is the same.
“How do you know??”
comes the infuriating question. Should I explain exactly when, where, how many times and in what words Adi and I have reached that understanding about each other? What is this thought that one knows better what’s good for two people than they do themselves?
“But what if he’s not telling you how he really feels?”
which is when I’m ready to burst a blood vessel. This assumption is so ridiculous and so disrespectful. A less adamant person or a weaker relationship might allow doubt to come into their interaction, at this stage. And that really, really bothers me. People who ask you questions like these wear smug, holier-than-thou expressions like they’re doing you a favour when what they are doing, is poisoning your existing friendship.
Secondly, it is such a judgemental, limited view of human relationships. Admittedly most people don’t think that much about other people but these are friends and close ones we’re talking about. It’s a bit hurtful that these folks would rather slam us into convenient, superficial boxes than deal with the reality that every relationship, just like every human being, is unique and follows its own narrative.
Adi summed it up in his less angry but still very dramatic way when he said,
“A relationship is something two people build together. You and I have built this, over the years. And we like it the way it is. It’s like we’ve built a museum, exactly how we want it. And the others keep trying to get us to turn it into a house. I mean why??!”
So dear world, it’s great that you’re so interested in other people but how about allowing them to live out their own fairytales the way they like and you focus on getting your own right?
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