By Shreya Ramakrishnan
Indian children are taught many cardinal lessons, like touching our grandparents’ feet and returning dabbas to mom in pristine condition. The prime one is that girls and boys can never be friends. As a girl with seven close male friends, I’m often the centre of curiosity and judgment.
The early days after everyone moves into a girl’s hostel are the honeymoon period. Bright young women from across country fill the halls with excited chatter, exchanging numbers, making promises to mom and dad on the phone, chalking out plans to explore their new city, and most importantly, choosing the perfect set of fairy lights for their room.
I met my best friend Avantika during this charmed phase. She, clad in army boots and carrying a rucksack, walked in to my neighbour’s room in the middle of a heated discussion over whether Kamla Nagar was the new Sarojini. Like all the girls before her, she decorated her wall with photos from back home. The only problem, according to her roommate, was that none of those pictures had her pouting, smiling, celebrating with any female friends.
The first few days in a girls hostel are carefree and jovial, but they are also the days when judgement is as swift as it is scathing. Within days, whispers of Avantika’s “tomboy nature” and “attention-seeking behaviour” were in the air. Many resorted to gossip when confronted with her unconventional personality.
Of course, she was perfectly capable of making female friends. I’m living proof, even years later. During our time in college, she made many new women friends, and just as many male ones. An army brat who learned taekwondo alongside Bharatnatyam, she was gender agnostic when it came to friendship.
I’ve recently been thinking of her; with seven close male friends, and three female friends, I find myself in her shoes often – the centre of a cloud of curiosity and judgment.
Indian children are taught many cardinal lessons, like touching our grandparents’ feet and returning dabbas to mom in pristine condition. The prime one is that “ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ho sakte.” This extremely dated view of intergender friendships finds takers even today, with 2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil starring a “friendzoned” Ranbir Kapoor, who simply can’t come to terms with the fact that Anushka Sharma sees their equation as a platonic one.
Karan Johar has been meddling with my generation’s friendly relationships for a while now. For better or worse, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was the introduction for most Indian kids to male-female friendships. Actually, it was only for the worse. It set us up to believe that friendship is just a predecessor to courtship. Perhaps if Anjali had five male friends she didn’t fall in love with, instead of just one arrogant Rahul, the argument for guy-girl friendships might be stronger.
Instead, what Hollywood and Bollywood have routinely given us, are films glorifying female friendships as the best thing a girl can hope for, and definitely better than having a male friend. Whenever films have touched upon friendships between opposite genders, the ending is a romantic climax that has us rooting for the union of two best friends in holy matrimony. Even Forrest Gump, which is a heartwarming tale of a differently abled man’s unlikely journey to success, couldn’t escape the draw of a plotline with a long-lost childhood sweetheart.
Whenever films have touched upon friendships between opposite genders, the ending is a romantic climax that has us rooting for the union of two best friends in holy matrimony.
Life imitates art, or maybe it is the other way around. Whatever the case, you find popular culture’s judgmental views echoing in the real world. You first experience this judgment with your parents, and their sheer distrust of the male species. Informing your parents about an outing leads to questions like, “How can you trust a boy?”, “Is he your boyfriend?”, and the final test, “Will there be any girls there?” Our parents must think our safety is directly proportional to the number of female friends accompanying us.
This glorification of female friendships has also seen me at the receiving end of strange comments from other girls, about how I’m so “comfortable” around boys, listening to their presumed “demeaning” conversations about women, almost with a hint of betrayal in their voices – as if my identity as a feminist cannot co-exist with my friendships.
However, the beauty of having close male friends is that I have been able to get a more holistic perspective on most issues, as well as make my friends less ignorant about gender inequalities. My now more sensitive male friends are quite grateful for female friends who have shaped them into better human beings.
Despite the misconceptions and erroneous assumptions, moments of hope come from the most unexpected places. My nosy neighbour in Mumbai wasted no time in informing my landlord that my male friends were a threat to my innocence and his sanskar. My 80-year-old landlord – bless him – was quick to admonish my neighbour and laugh at my fear of getting thrown out on the streets over the complaint.
“We all have friends, and akele rehti ho iss sheher mein. If your friends aren’t your family, then who will be?” If I hadn’t already shed enough tears paying him exorbitant rent, I might have spared some more for this moment.
The next surprise I was in for was on a trip to visit my grandparents in Delhi. I was travelling with a friend who needed a place to stay overnight. Anxiously, I called my grandparents, already sure that they would faint, or even worse, tell the entire extended family that I was bringing over a boy. To my absolute joy, and my parents’ dismay, they welcomed him with open arms and even insisted he come back for lunch before leaving Delhi.
Seeing people generations above me with an ability to accept and understand personal choices, makes me think that perhaps there is room for the story of the girl and her guy friends to exist.The hope is that much like my grandparents and my landlord, people will finally understand that yes, ek ladka aur ladki sirf dost bhi ho sakte hain.
Shreya Ramakrishnan is an author at Arre.
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