There is a new breed of people out there and they are a helluva lot better to be around than the others. They are the 30-something war veterans of relationships. They are divorcees. They’ve lived in without marriage and borne the backlash from family, landlords, friends and service people. They’ve been engaged and sent out wedding invitations only to have to retract and learn to say something no one in their families had to say.
“It’s over. I’m sorry. No, umm, it didn’t work out. No, there’s no wedding. Sorry.”
It used to just be me and one or two of the other local urban legends (“There was something wrong with him always”, “She was always a fightercock”, “He must have cheated”, “She must have had something going on with the neighbor”). Now I’m losing count of the number of people starting to drift into this group.
We are different. Our battle scars don’t just define us. They’ve made it necessary for us to shape lives that have no references. We are the generation of Indians that had limited career choices imposed on us. We are the ones who began speaking English earlier, went abroad earlier, dressed ‘like MTV and Hollywood and don’t you know that is not our culture??’. We celebrated Valentine’s Day and got into political trouble for it. Then we succumbed to arranged marriage or love marriages with twenty thousand rituals borrowed from Bollywood and ageing family matriarchs/patriarchs. We sank or swam in the open sexuality of new media which swept away the prudish touch-only-spouse-and-only-in-private attitudes we had been brought up with.
The compromises we made in our twenties, were supposed to be our prodigal returns from the rebellion of our satellite TV/internet bedecked 90s adolescence. Things were supposed to turn out fine. We were not prepared for dowry disguised as expensive rituals paid for by the girl’s family. We didn’t expect to have to compete with pornography or gaming, for our partners’ attention. We didn’t think we’d need to decide between dual-career-no-marriage or single-career-resentful-marriage. We didn’t forsee that mismatched libidos and opposed political views would enter our kitchens, our bedrooms and our relationships.
And we are dealing with who we are becoming in the dealing of these things. We are so different.
Yesterday I asked out to dinner a woman I had met a couple of times. “Just you and me?” she asked. “Well, why not?” I replied. We talked about mothers who called if it crossed 11PM and we weren’t home. We spoke of bitchy colleagues making our lives miserable when they heard about this. We discussed unsatisfactory exes and what made a woman good in bed and why this should mean we had to do things we didn’t want to. We brought up menstrual cups and younger men and how wonderful it was to have a conversation with someone who used the word ‘schism’ casually and correctly. And then we clinked our Cosmopolitans (what a throwback!) and went home.
Last week I met a man who once wore the tag of ‘boyfriend’ and has always brought along an air of fresh cologne and protective warmth to our friendship. Right now he’s walking around under a cloud of messy divorce and alimony induced gloom. I hugged him. He shrugged and told me,
“I’m looking at it as the price for my freedom.”
I hugged him again. I understood and I know he knew I understood. Only someone who’s been in that war will ever understand all the nuance in his statement. Then we went out to the shops. He helped me pick out a new pair of shoes. I stood with him while he smoked an only-during-bad-times-cigarette. And we enjoyed our meal more than the hundreds we’ve shared in the past decade. Because, who knows what poison might infect his system or mine soon?
Yet another friend has climbed his painful way out of that abyss, quit his corporate job and gone off to chase a longtime dream. Last year I asked him out. He didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no. Now, he may never return from the place he has moved to. But he sends me photographs of his life there. We both know something that people who aren’t like us, do. There is relating and that goes way beyond relationships. It took divorce and abuse and alimony and broken engagements to learn that.
We’ve seen too much to believe that rituals are romantic. We’ve borne too much to pretend that families always know what’s best for us. We’ve been through enough and more that something deeper in us, even the least aggressive of us, has sat up and said, “Enough.” It’s the amiable friend who remarried and didn’t invite anyone because he was done with the tamasha. It’s the ‘good wife’ who shed her burqa for a high-low dress and finally got herself a business card telling the world about the business she had run for six years. It’s the quiet colleague who moved to another city to start a bar and live with two bachelor friends.
This for me is the new India. It didn’t have to live through Independence or Emergency or most of the big wars. But it has had to make its way through outdated social rituals, oppressive familial references and being thrust into a volatile international economy that it was not prepared for. It has been on Shaadi.com as well as Tinder. And guess what, it hasn’t crashed as yet.
There are more of us and we are all around you. You’re related to us. You’re dating us. You’re working with us. You’re falling in love with us. You’re living next door to us and borrowing daal from us. You’re sharing parking space and theatre seats with us. You’re asking us for advice on what to wear, which college to go to and if we’ll give you a reference at your next job. You’re selling to us. We are not the others anymore. Many of us are the ones making pathbreaking choices and while they’re not comfortable, the generation after us looks up to us because we’re displaying the rebellion they’re losing in their twenties.
Divorce is not an evil word anymore. Living in is not a sin punishable by death. Sex is not a bad word. Virginity is not a prize. Men are not freer than women. Women do not make better parents. In-laws are not the same as parents. Big weddings are nothing more than expensive PR campaigns. Older people are just older people, not wiser people. Rituals do not ensure happiness. Intelligent people are not sorted-out people. An IIT or an IIM degree does not guarantee a good spouse or even a good life.
It’s time you revised your myths.
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I’ve been thinking about girlfriends a lot recently. Men have comprised a major part of my life in these past ten years. They have been my primary references and the biggest influences on my identity and my relationship with the world. I’m not talking only about boyfriends. There still are more men in the professional world than women. And in the group of people for whom career and what they do shapes identity more than relationships, it’s almost exclusively been a boys’ club. Since my friendships are with people I respect, admire and like, most of them have been men. I haven’t been able to relate to most women. Our differences have come through in the form of competition, judgement and other hostlities that don’t leave room for friendships.
Yet, I have had girlfriends at various points of time. They’ve been really special, possibly because of how rare each of them was, by her gender in my life. Female friendships are different from my friendships with men. This is not devaluing the very many wonderful people in my life who are men. But given the life experience is so gendered in our world today, it becomes more than just (as I like to put it), body plumbing.
*Image courtesy photostock on FreeDigitalImages.
J was probably my first ever real girlfriend. We were buddies in school but at that time I wasn’t really conscious of the differences between boys and girls. It wasn’t till seventeen, when we ran into each other again, that I discovered what it was like to have a girlfriend. I was a precocious, over serious teenager, burdened with intellect expectations, heavy books and heavier conversations. J brought out the adolescent in me. She opened my life up to frivolity. Yes, that’s how I saw it even then, and yet it was an important part of life that was missing for me. She’s the one who taught me about make-up and deodorants and clothes (“It’s not lean-ge-ree, Ramya, it’s lingerie!”). My teenage years would not have been truly magical in that way only adolescence is, if there hadn’t been room for crushes, for dressing up, for agonizing over looks and words and strangers.
J left my life around the start of our twenties. I know now that we were always very different people and it was just our common age that brought us and kept us together. Well, also perhaps the fact that we shared some common problems that are huge for a teenager — bad teeth & braces, unrequited crushes and a delayed sense of coolness. I was angry with her for the way things ended, for a long time. But I know it was inevitable. We were both too young to be gentler about it.
There’s P who also goes by the title of Best Friend. This is a difficult relationship to explain. We were friends in junior college (for the exact period of time that J and I spent apart between school and collage). And then we weren’t friends for a span (when J and I were close). And automatically, almost the very minute J and I parted ways, P returned to my life. We were both older, had grown into our individualities and were young women, not awkward teenagers.
P and I don’t really have much in common. Not shared interests, not personalities, not even common friends. Yet, she is the only one who was there, really there when I was in a bad relationship that I couldn’t think straight enough to get out of. Years later, I was the one who met her at the airport to tell her that her father had died. Once you’ve shared trauma or death with a person, you are bound to them in a way that makes it impossible to walk away completely. This about more than gratitude. In the unlikeliest of ways, P really gets what it feels to be me. And yet, she makes different choices, lives a different life. It’s really quite mind-boggling.
This year has been one of reckoning for a number of reasons. For one, it has been two years since the BIG relationship ended. It made me rethink my priorities, my values and indeed, myself. Marriage and a romantic relationship with a man became less relevant in the recipe for a happy life. And it allowed me to think of my relationships with other people and other aspects of the world (including work, health, money, home and my hobbies).
How I relate to men has shifted. In romantic situations, I’m both more cautious as well as less afraid of risk. That is to say, I’m willing to try a lot more with less fear because I am not as scared that mistakes will break me. And at the same time, I’m also less willing to commit because, really, I don’t even know if that’s what I want anymore. But also in other non-romantic relationships, the way I see and relate to men has changed. I do not idealise men anymore. This means I don’t rever virtues in men as much (because now I know believing passionately in something and being able to act on it when the situation demands, are two different things). Oddly, it also means I expect less and am a little kinder on their failings.
So where do girlfriends come into this? Because men don’t form the rocks, the pillars of my life anymore — how could they? The best of them are struggling to cope with being an overcoddled sex and also hold on to their sense of what is fair. The idols have melted. It has left a lot of space in my world to deal with life’s stuff on my own. I’ve been learning to make less of big deal of things, fewer snap decisions based on momentary emotion. So much space has opened up. And in this space, women have popped up.
There is of course, my wonderful Reema. Time, maturity and life were just right for her to happen as she did. We are both intelligent, independent women who don’t anymore need to prove ourselves with heavy conversation. We are also both pleasure-loving, light-hearted human beings who don’t have to live flashy lives of friovolity either. Reema and I talk about books, lipstick, the future of digital media, stupid people, the cities we’ve known, philosophy, family and life. We are different people, with different lives. And we have some similarities. I love the fact that this friendship allows us both to revel in the similarities (it’s always nice to have company) as well as explore our differences in a safe manner free of judgement.
A number of other women have appeared in my life this year too. They’ve come to this place in their lives through differnet journeys from mine. But like me, they are open to the experience of being with another human being who is respectful and fun, not just similar to them in some way.
It’s only now that I have it that I realise what my life has been missing all these years in not having enough female friendships. With men, there are agendas looming over every interaction. There is romantic/sexual interest in some cases. If that isn’t possible, then boundaries have to be constantly drawn and adhered to so that the rest of our lives are not destroyed. These boundaries don’t have to exist in relationships with women. I say don’t have to, because there are still a lot of women like J who value rules over experiences. But there are other women like me who are willing to risk saying or doing things that aren’t socially usual, in the hope of a bigger life.
What’s especially intriguing is how different these women are from me. Two of them are happily married, one of them is a mother. Several of them are making interesting decisions with their careers — one of them juggles an MNC job with sabbaticals to go travelling, two others have diversified from their traditional fields to include more creative elements (like me), two have businesses of their own and are dealing with the ramifications of this level of independence on their family lives. They are making courageous decisions in their personal lives — living-in, deciding to not have kids, going in for fertility treatment to have kids after a certain age, breaking free from family and living on their own, choosing to be part of a joint family, divorce and remarriage.
It occurred to me recently that female friendships are not celebrated. In fact, they are presumed to not exist. After all, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to keep women subservient, stupid and apart, isn’t it? What logic can there possibly be for statements like ‘Two women can never be friends’? When two women become friends, something big opens up for both of them — they are able to articulate things about their lives and worlds that feel incomplete, they are able to gain strength from each other and support each other in challenging these norms and if they are lucky, they go on to live fuller, richer, freer lives. All because of a meaningful friendship.
I feel like I went through the 20s feeling and believing that I was fighting a solitary battle to be me, to be more than the relationships and gender stereotypes imposed on me. But the 30s are bringing me into contact with several other women who are doing these too. It’s inspiring, it’s validation in a way that male friendships can’t provide and it keeps me from giving up. Truly, my life is a richer place because of my girlfriends.
Take a bow, Reema, Jinal, Rochelle, Reena, Meeta, Paromita, Aruna, Kiran, Sveccha, Fairy, Ankita, Samradha, Netra, Aditi, Shweta, Tupur, Avantika, Lopamudra, Prachee, Niyati. Each of you is an inspiration.