Last month I received news about the demise of a classmate. We didn’t speak after we finished college. He had married another classmate with whom I’d been friendly but she hadn’t invited me to their wedding. In our student days, I had clashed with her because of our very different expressions of womanhood. I had no time for what I thought were her ‘girly tantrums’ and she definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed my biting diatribes. So she had gotten filed away in my head in a box called ‘People I don’t need to think about’. Reunions are always rife.
As the news of any death does (even after the last three years where it has become more commonplace), this triggered a bustle of phone calls, messages, revivals of old connections, laments about life overtaking us and promises to keep in touch. I’ve had so many new/old conversations in the last month.
One of them had exchanged words with me over a problematic joke some years ago. This happened after a reunion where she approached me with a cheery enthusiasm that hadn’t been there when we were students. Back then, I was the one who initiated our friendship, when I noticed her crying on the staircase and sat down with her. The reunion had been a pleasant surprise, seeing her shyness blossom into confident womanhood. And then the problematic joke. Maybe I was too sensitive. Maybe she wasn’t as confident as I’d imagined. Maybe we were both not ready. When I reached out to her with this news, her response was curt & didn’t encourage further contact. I’m learning that some things can’t be – shouldn’t be rushed. And also that some things dwindle without clean endings.
The friend who told me the news was playing the part that he started on our first week in college. He was the one to bring us together in a group. He initiated birthday celebrations and group gifts. Later, he organised alumni meets. We’d joke about his overly social ways and laugh about ‘charon taraf gopiyan, beech mein kanhaiya‘. When college ended, I stumbled out of a bad relationship and poor health and had a small get-together at home for my birthday. He was very surprised to be invited. And later told me he never imagined that he’d be so welcome in my (seemingly more glamorous) world. It took me aback because I’d never noticed any self-esteem issues in the years we’d studied together. In retrospect, I can string together what I’ve seen and it gives me a picture of such bravery, inspired strength and a touching modesty; I was just too self-centered to realise it then. I’m proud that he calls me friend.
Then there is the friend whom at a naiver time, I’d imagined we’d stay friends forever. I couldn’t have known about patriarchy eroding female bonds with the acid of spousal demands & familial restrictions. We had two conversations, on call and on text, threading in unspoken anguish through fact-dropping, emoji and Hmms laced into scripted words. I understand. She was on her way to another classmate’s home for her daughter’s birthday party. She said she’d give her the news but tomorrow. That statement was so many things in one. It was a question – do you want to be the one to tell her?. A reassuring pat on the arm – I’ll take care of it if you can’t. And as I realised from our later messages speaking about deeper things but carefully avoiding this, it was an unspoken – I’m here if you want to talk about her but we don’t have to if you don’t. The richness of women’s relationships with each other may be as much in the disrupted seeds as in the fruition.
I got to reconnect with a guy with whom I hadn’t been able to sustain a friendship, primarily because of other people (we were both too young to realise it then). I remember him at 20, wide-eyed and broad-shouldered from a new gym membership but also quiet, drinking in new experiences. I remember thinking, he’s just like me but he doesn’t yet know it. I remember thinking, when the opportunities you want don’t exist, you must create them. He was our elected class representative and he admitted that he’d assumed it would be him and I running the student government together. It inevitably leads to the memory of the class elections.
I vividly recall the candidate speeches, the voting that my-then best friend said we should keep out of ‘to be fair’. And then a profound betrayal. The minute the door shut behind us, she announced to the class that she had known me for years, that I was power-hungry so it would be a bad idea to vote for me. We were called back inside and told that I’d lost by a massive margin. She delivered the news with a sympathetic smile and I took it for granted that she was the only one to support me.
Back home, my father told me, “That’s your first lesson in politics. It’s not about how good you are, it’s about who likes you.” That had me confused for a long time afterwards because how can these two be separated from each other? That loss filled me with such despair & shame that it pushed me into doing other things. I was the college singer. I became the events coordinator and put my college on the festival map. I was on the magazine editorial team. I wrote a column. I scripted speeches for debates. I took the lead in class assignments and pushed my classmates into some of the more unusual projects in my batch. But none of that made up for that bitter event and now I know why. It wasn’t just disappointment at losing something. It was having something I earned, snatched from me by somebody who didn’t even want it; she just didn’t want me to have it. Nothing makes up for that kind of inexplicable malice.
I didn’t learn about her betrayal till much later. It took me a long time to accept that malice overrides loyalty in many relationships. Years later, I think about what it says about the people who were in that classroom. They witnessed someone stabbing their best friend in the back and became friends with that person. They watched me walk around with that knife in my back, never realising it was there or who put it there and called me friend, accepted my help, worked with me. I would never have been able to do such a thing. Betrayal, spite, lies poison me like cigarette smoke. Poison is not normalised in my life and that has shaped who I am.
Two decades later, I look back at the petty jealousies, the dramatic cruelties, the unspoken kindnesses, the tender strengths that we have all navigated. I can string together stories, looking back to the truths that best suit my narrative. There are no answers to whether justice was served, who was right, what was the better choice. Life doesn’t make a lot more sense now than it did back then.
I’m going to have to speak to that final girl, the one who lost a spouse. It is a wonder that the two of us ever interacted, coming from such different backgrounds & personalities and our lives going on to such divergent places. And yet, there were connections we formed across those chasms. She was nice to everybody (including me). It has taken me years to realise that not everyone weaponises their tears, even longer to know that it’s on me to accept (or not) the burden of saving other people. It lets me feel something I didn’t have room for earlier – compassion. I am gutted to think about the burden she carries now, of having nursed an ailing spouse and losing him at this time of her life.
I guess we don’t actually get to stop thinking about people because it’s uncomfortable. We may be able to temporarily put thoughts of them in deep freeze. But eventually we must examine what connects us to them, how they move us, how we change them. We are defined by how we engage with each other. That after all, is the essence of life.