Thursday, May 22, 2014

The mystery of friends

Coming from a large and close family, I’m sociable and easygoing (at first), so I tend to make a lot of friends everywhere I go. At least, that’s what my theory has been so far. But the truth, I think, is that it makes me look for family everywhere I go. The wonderful thing is that I’ve found it, over and over.

There are always the precious few friends that cross over into that closer relationship, only these are bound by faith and some undefinable thing, instead of blood. The three most precious friendships that began in Dubai have survived traumatic life changes, the long distances between us seeming only to bring us closer. Ditto with the close friends from much younger days in India. I met one of them after fourteen years of leading separate lives, and we picked up the rhythm like it had never been broken. As indeed, it hadn’t.

Last week, I had dinner with a dear friend who’s close to giving birth. As always, we had plenty to say to each other – our conversation ranges wide across the world and deep into our minds. Nothing is too big or too small to laugh at over steak and mango yoghurt. No news is left undiscussed, whether the iniquities of China or the opening of a restaurant down the road. No life plan goes pale for want of airing, from the buying of a cushion to the planning of a holiday to the probable child-rearing requirements for twin boys.

And yet we didn’t know of each other’s existence until two years ago, when my introductory Skype session with an unfamiliar team was marked by hostility and resistance, except for one hopeful voice in an unfamiliar accent. Unfamiliar, because I hadn’t come across too many French people till then. Now, I can practically identify regional accents from France, because in Saigon - unaccountably shunned by my compatriots - I found a “home community” in the French. That’s the amazing thing about friendship – it shines a light on family in unexpected places, similar relationships that wondrously need no shared origins, let alone genes, to justify or sustain them.

A few weeks earlier, this same friend and I were eating questionable ice cream, and both of us concluded that it tasted like the beach ice cream from our childhoods. Except that one beach was in Normandy, the other in Chennai. We can only assume that there’s a worldwide cabal of beach ice cream vendors, with strict membership rules.

A year ago, I walked into a bar and said hello to someone I’d been introduced to months earlier and never met after. But by the end of that evening, some spirit in each of us had recognized something kindred in the other. She grew up in St Petersburg, has led a life very different from mine and was born when I was already an adult (though my aunt says I was born a teenager, and I suspect I haven't done much growing since). Anyway, she’s as much family now, as the fond cousins I have shared all my life with.

At some point in the dinner last week, I wondered if, 40 years ago, my parents were eating mangoes with friends who were a week away from having their first baby. Tomorrow, the kid who would have been five months old at that mango-eating jamboree will get on a plane to join the fortieth birthday festivities of the one that hadn’t been born yet. Friendship begets friendship, and we grew up to be close friends, independent of our parents’ association. I can only be grateful.

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