Archive for March, 2009

Of a friendship that lives on

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Mar 22, 2009

Last fortnight I wrote about a recently-passed-away friend. Since then, questions about friendship have been lodged in a corner of my mind. What is true friendship really, if there is such a thing?

What one knows for sure is that there are different classes of friends. There are fairweather friends, there are drinking buddies who are not true friends, true friends who are also drinking buddies, and so on. I, for myself, take the word “friend” very seriously, and use it very infrequently. I possibly consider 15 people to be my friends, in the sense that I believe they are true friends. Strangely enough, a majority of them I have not met for many years, maybe even a decade. These people are scattered all over the world, and we are in sporadic e-mail contact. About eight years ago, one of them took the trouble to set up a yahoogroup for us to meet and chat (we had all been together in business school two decades ago). The first four years, there was frenetic activity on the site, with some people posting three or four times a day. But then, as we got more or more involved in the business of life, activity on the site came down to a trickle. Yet, I believe nothing has changed between us.

The reason. As young men, we lived in the same hostel, and when you are living 24/7 with a bunch of people, there’s no way you can pretend to be something you are not. You will be found out. In those two years, we saw one another in all sorts of circumstances: under terrible stress, in love, in failed love, proud achievements, performance in extremely competitive situations. We saw one another take ethical decisions. We knew one another, and today, at the very least, we know what we were when we were young. And when we meet each other physically or on the Net, we revert to what we were in those days. Sometimes even the lingo and slang of those years come back into our conversation. As persons, we may be quite different today, but we are different based on the foundation of that time.

The point is, even if we haven’t seen one another’s mugs for a decade, or heard their voices, if I am in some sort of trouble, I can always turn to these guys, and they would help me in whatever way they can, without asking a question.

Without asking a question. True friendship, I really believe, is based on a total refusal to judge the other person. A friend of mine’s only extra-curricular interest lies in paid-for sex, but he is a true friend, and I would never judge him on that. I wouldn’t lecture him, criticise him, avoid him. As he wouldn’t me, for my bad habits.

Even stronger friendships are forged in undergraduate hostels (I keep harping about hostels because most of my friends are from the hostels I stayed in. This is not to imply that you can’t develop deep friendships if you lived with your parents). There, you are even younger, and you are making the transition from boys to men, or girls to women. Your characters are being shaped, and unconsciously you imbibe a lot of traits and values from others around you, just as your quirks or beliefs infect them. A Singapore-based friend of mine, who I hadn’t met for a decade, called me up once after seeing the cover of a magazine that I was working for. “This cover picture is your idea,” he said. It was. He knew me.

Two friends of mine, Susant and Bubun, have been meeting every Sunday at 7 p.m. at Bubun’s home for the last 20 years. If I am in Kolkata on a Sunday evening, no one has to be forewarned, I just ring the bell, and they are there, and there’s Old Monk. No one asks any personal questions, but there is no bar on anyone speaking about deeply personal things. No one judges anyone. An unspoken covenant guides and rules.

Isn’t friendship much more complex than love? I believe so. It is never unrequited, yet it needs no physical proximity. No one needs to speak of it, or affirm it, in fact, no one needs to think about it at all. One doesn’t, actually. This column is a waste of space. When you have a friend, you know.

In memoriam

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

March 08, 2009

I wanted to write this column about the great pleasure of meeting old friends after a long time. How we revert to what we were at some time in the past, unburdened by subsequent experience, untouched by the wages of time. You pick up from right where you left the dialogue, when you were much younger and more innocent, and no one judges anyone.

I wanted to write this column on that, except that last night my friend Punya called up. Arjun was a strange and unique person. One of the most intelligent and erudite men I have ever known, he made a hand-to-mouth living as a freelance advertising copywriter. He had held various advertising jobs, but could never hold them for long, because his incorruptible intelligence rebelled against the inevitable compromises that his profession needs to make to inferior intellects. He was brilliant, but unknown, unrecognised.

He lived in slovenly conditions as paying guest in a room not much larger than him. He drank, and when he drank a lot, there were incidents. I remember him throwing an encyclopedia at my face full-force. If he had been on target, he would have broken my nose. I remember reversing my car at furious speed while he ran after me hurling stones.

But he loved me and I loved him. When, in a drunken state, he climbed a tree and fell and hurt himself, he asked his landlady to call me. Punya and I took him to hospital, and it was discovered that he had broken the femur in both his legs. Lying there in great pain, he got into a scholarly discussion with the doctor on bones and painkillers. It was two in the morning.

He drove his friends up the wall. We got him projects, and he never landed up. He would rather utilise his time discussing Fellini or Sartre or the theory of relativity. In fact, that’s how I met him. A bunch of us had gone to watch a Russian movie at a film festival. During the intermission, we were having coffee and discussing what did that scene mean and what did that piece of dialogue signify, when a large bearded man walked up and said: “See, there’s so much of Catholic semiotics in Tarkovsky’s films that unless you know the sources, it’s difficult to get his films fully.” The bell rang. As we hurried into the hall, he said: “We’ll talk about this after the film.” We didn’t meet after the film (in fact, we did not want to), but we met later by accident and became friends.

We forsook him often, because of his infuriating focus on self-destruction. But early morning of the day my daughter was to be born, he, a total atheist, went to the nearby temple, and prayed for my coming child. It was the height of winter, and he ended up with a completely stiff back and neck. I have never had more enjoyable and intelligent conversations with anyone else. In the good times, we would meet almost every night.

Some years ago, while leaving my home, he wanted to borrow an Umberto Eco novel I had just bought. I agreed, on the condition that he had to return it within a week. I knew that he had a habit of disappearing for weeks, sometimes months. He wholeheartedly agreed to my condition and left. I never saw him again. I changed house, very far from where I used to live, he did not have a phone, we walked away into our different worlds.

Punya called last night. His blood sugar levels had risen so high that the doctors amputated a big toe. In his slum-like living conditions, rats smelt blood and ate away at two other toes. Gangrene spread up his legs, and doctors said they had no option but to amputate both legs. But before that could happen, he died. That is what I have been told. There is no way to confirm. Do I feel guilt? No. I feel an unutterable sadness. What a waste!

But I also remember walking to Punya’s house so often at night and seeing Arjun’s football-sized head silhouetted against the lights through the window and immediately, happily, looking forward to an adda where nothing mattered other than the quality of ideas. And the comfort of knowing that I had a true friend. I am lucky to have known him. Arjun Dasgupta, 1955-2009.