Friends Forever! By Nidadavolu Malathi

What is the secret of great friendship? What prompts one to become so fond of another is a question I could never find answer for, could never understand.

***

I saunter along the river, a tributary of the river Trinity, which runs by my apartment complex. I watch the tiny ripples weaving through the wind, taking clues from its direction. Occasionally a restless fish pops up into the air and dips back into the water creating ripples in circles. The loosely hanging branches of the weeping willows sway as if recording the wind speed. I stop for a few minutes and make a note of the items the stream is carrying–stray straws, foam cups, empty cans and what not to far off shores without thinking twice who has thrown them into its water or why, I suppose. It is like she has imbibed the preachings of Sankara and Patanjali–the tenet of detachment intuitively.

Little Muscovy ducks with white beaks, glistening like pieces of a broken china plate, float on the waves blissfully. Female mallards with their brood, wood ducks, wood storks are floating around  in the water. A mallard duck rises barely above the water, flies three yards splashing the water with its feet and settles down.

I tried to capture that moment so many times but could never get it right. But then again, it is one of those moments–so many of them have passed in  my life with some splash and no permanent record.

I thought of the question again – how one grows fond of another? I know there is one simple answer–she likes you, you’re a nice person, a good listener, she misses home and you fill in, a surrogate … One can even argue that we two like the same movies, the same authors, the same veggies. … Somehow I am not convinced that is all there is to it, that just is not enough for me. In the past sixty-five years so many people have come and gone in my life. Right from the high school days, there has always been at least one person who has avowed eternal friendship to me and disappeared in course of time, nothing lasted forever.

Lately, I am beginning to wonder if there is such thing as a “friend forever” at all. And, I must admit, it is confusing to me; the question never leaves me.

***

“Come on, let’s be honest. Who can tell why one likes another? All right, I don’t know, I give up. You tell me how it happens,” Veechika laughs.

A couple of minutes pass, she says again, “Uh, it is like the question of the giant Bhetala in the Bhatti Vikramarka stories. I am glad you didn’t say, your head would crack into thousand pieces if you knew the answer but refused to give it … ha, ha .. and probably I should be thankful for that. Well, I can ask you why on earth you’ve got this question in the first place. Um. Well, I don’t know and frankly don’t care, my dear Pinni. All I can say is right now I am fond of you because you are the nicest person on earth,” she says with a serious look on her face.

I smile vaguely. I have heard it all, one too many times.

She says, “I am kind of down lately, Pinni, feeling lost. It’s two months  since I’ve been here, right? All these itty- bitty social customs are beyond me, I can never get used to them. You can’t visit somebody without calling them first, never show up without notice–all these getting to me. I can’t, just can’t get used to the idea. Luckily, I’ve got you. I know you’re not all that excited about me. No, it’s okay, I understand, you don’t have to pretend you enjoy my company … yea, yea, okay, just kidding. I am sure you would’ve told me if you have other things to do. You’re a peach, Pinni, you’re for keeps. When I talk to you, it feels like I’m talking to my mom or big sister, it’s sooooo cool. Why, look at Jaggu, my uncle’s son. He lives in Houston, barely a four-hour drive. We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same school. I called him as soon as I got here. Can you believe it? He barely said two words and hung up. He said he’d call me later, uh, never heard from him again, not so much as a um from him. I know, I know, you are going to say I would do the same, chirp the same lingo after a few months, and that’s part of this culture. Uh, no, no way, I can never speak like that. You may you flog me but you can never make me repeat such stupid lingo. Let me ask this. Yes I am asking ’cause I am stupid, I admit. All our people change into a totally new species as soon as they set foot on this land, why? Where is the need to change our values and our mode of thinking? They can make some changes to get by in this country but why do they have to forget our family values, interpersonal relationships that are so natural in our close-knit families? Yeah, yeah, everybody talks the same cliché – you cannot live unless you jump into the mainstream headlong and swim along, isn’t that what you’ve come here for? Isn’t it to prove your brain? That is the main reason, isn’t it? … No, not for me, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t think that is all that matters to me. I want people. Our own people are standing at arm’s length as if I am an untouchable; that gives me creeps, you know!”

***

I remember the day she came to America. She called me the second day after she had arrived in America.

“Hello! Who’s this?”

“Me, Veechika, don’t you remember? It’s ten years since we’ve met, I think. You came to India for a brief visit. We met at my sister’s wedding. … Yes, I am in America now, came two days back. … No, I don’t like it here. … No, no, I am not crying. This water does not agree with me, I suppose, got sore throat. I am anxious to see you, there is a lot to talk about. Coming Saturday? Of course, I can. Yes, I can make it coming weekend. Let me check the flights. Oh, no, I can manage the ticket, don’t worry about the fare. In fact, it is not just about the money, you know. I will have to check my schedule. Probably, I can talk to my professor and skip the class for one day. I must admit, I am really confused though … I mean about their teaching methods. What are they for, if I know everything? Anytime I have a question, they ask me what I think, or  suggest I find out myself. If I can find out the answer, what are they getting paid for? … anyway, first I need to work on understanding their  method of teaching.”

***

I go for walks along the river every day. I saw a middle-aged woman about three months back I believe. She said her son, daughter-in-law and a seven-year-old granddaughter live here, she came to visit them. They live in the same complex, in the building across from mine. After that, I saw her almost every day, sometimes two or even three times a day.

It started out as meeting on the path by the river, soon became she visiting me in my apartment.

“Are you home? Silly question, ha ha. I knew you’d be home. I was hoping you’d be home. Actually, thought you might be waiting for me, ha, ha, what can I say! My day is not complete unless I bore you with my blabbering. … What, you’re not bored? Yeah, yeah, … What else you’d say? You’re not going to tell me that you’re bored by my chitchat, no, no, that’s not in your character.”

That is the usual opening. After a while I would hear about some thing or other happened in her home, to her grandchild, to her parents back home, … there is always a story to tell.

“Anyway, know what happened today? Well, today is my birthday. Didn’t I tell you? Oh, no? Okay, it is anyway. And, you know how my daughter-in-law is. Always makes lot of fuss for every little thing. Um, yes, she bought a sari for me. Guess how she handed it to me, no, you can’t imagine even in your wildest dream As the saying goes, graduated from college yet knows not how to clean the rice. I couldn’t believe she did not know even a simple thing like one should not give a sari without blouse piece to a married woman. She gave it to her daughter and the kid brought it to me and threw it in my lap? You tell me, is that the way to give a sari to a respectable woman?

“You may say, she was trying to teach our values to the child. For me, it is hard to think so. Had she really thought on those lines, she should have showed it by doing exactly the way we do it in our tradition. She should bring the sari, blouse piece, fruits, flowers, kumkum, turmeric, and paan, and all that give it to me, bow before me, and seek my blessings. That is the tradition. I would never have had a child throw a sari at another woman so casually. You can take it anyway you please, but to me, it was humiliating. I was so angry yet remained calm. After all, I am not going to stay here forever, why bother …”

In a strange way, that story got to me. I remember the times when I was trying to teach our values to my daughter, be good mother. At the time I did not realize the difference between our values and the values she is growing up with, the American values! Come to think of it, I was not doing it right either, maybe.

I have heard umpteen stories from her in the next few months. She would show up like clockwork, tell what happened on the night before, that morning, that afternoon … I started feeling like her ishtasakhi![i] Of course, there is reward for it too. All those gift–veggie dishes I did not relish, books I did not care for, and the prepaid phone cards with four minutes left on it. Every time I would tell her to stop bringing me those gifts, and she would give the same response , “Oh, no, it’s okay, you can use them. If you don’t take, it will go to waste.” That was a bit annoying to me–taking something because the other person could not use it. I told my daughter and she put it in a different perspective. She said they (meaning we Indians) think I am protesting ’cause it is polite to do so. I have a feeling she might even consider it funny. Anyway, the gifts started tapering off even as her visits became fewer.

After her husband joined her in the States, her visits became few and far between. Whenever she called or stopped by, it was only to tell me how busy she had become mostly because of her husband, who needed her all the time for every little thing. I heard no complaints in her voice though and that’s good, I thought.

As the day of her departure approached, she kept insisting that I was her “lifetime friend”, would call me from India, write to me, keep in touch with me.

On the day of her departure, she swore one more time that I was the best friend she ever had and left. As you may guess, I never heard from her again. I do not know where she is and what she is doing. For all I know, she might be repeating the same stories to someone else in some other town. Ha, the mysterious world of being a “friend forever”! Amazing.

I keep thinking about her for a different reason though. Her stories about her daughter’s missing our values make me think about my way of teaching our values to my daughter, who is being raised in a different culture. I must admit, I have to  thank her for playing “friend forever!” routine. Friend for a reason, as my daughter would say! It helped to learn about myself.

***

“What!! Six months already since I called you? Wow, I didn’t even realize six months went so fast,” says Veechika on the other end. “Well, lot of things have happened during these six months. Actually, that’s the reason I couldn’t call you. Ha, ha, I know you will laugh but what do you know about life here? Oh, no. I didn’t mean it that way, I know you know how life is here like. What can I do, you tell me. You know for sure the kind of education in colleges here. These professors, they make us do their work and our work too. What do I mean? I’ll tell you what I mean. Whatever I ask, he says, what do you think? I tell him I don’t know, and he says, find out, try to find out and let me know. Go to the library, read …, search on the Internet …. that’s his teaching! I am telling you, I never saw this method of teaching. If I can find out everything for myself, why bother to attend his classes? And then he tells me how smart I am and that I only need to put in a bit of time, and I can find the answer myself. Uh. You may not believe this, with all this work and worry, I am down to half my size. These studies and the insipid  food are killing me. … I know you also believe that I am very smart and I only need a bit of push to show my mettle. … Okay, I have to go, have to write two papers by Monday. I will call you after I am done. … I promise, no, no more silly excuses. You know, who else is there for me to pour my heart out if not you. Only you are there for me, you’re a good listener and that’s what I like about you. …”

I swallow the words that come to my mind. I want to say I don’t always enjoy being at the receiving end, always listener, and never a talker. I want to say each time I try to say something, she cuts in and disrupts my line of thought. But … no, I couldn’t. For some reason, I do not even see any point in saying so.

“Anyway, I was going to tell you about my classmate, Ghosh. What? I didn’t tell you about him before, uh, I thought I did. Anyways, we’ve been seeing each other for a while, well not exactly seeing, we went to movies a couple of times, had lunch or dinner, … ha ha ha, yes, it sure looks like a date, isn’t it? Well, it is a date if you say so. …I know I should’ve told you. Here, listen, I want you to meet him. How about next weekend? Are you free? Well, I know you’re laughing, but you also know the way things are here. Back home, time for school means time for school and marriage only after education is completed; one after another in a sequence. Here, while you are in college, you also start planning for future–both home and job. … … ….

“Hello, Pinni, uh, … um … no, I’m not crying. I’m really upset, really really upset. You know that idiot Ghosh said I needed to grow up, uh, me grow up? I did not mention it to you, he is a wimp you know, always complaining he should have had this, had that, people don’t see he’s a genius, … you say it and he has got it, nothing misses his list of complaints …. … you know what, I think I am glad I dumped him. He thinks he dumped me but in fact he is the dumpee. … … … … …. … … … … ….   .. … …

“Hi Pinni, me again. I know, I know, I should’ve called you. Did I tell you about Helaku. He’s in my class. Do you know Helaku means Full of sun in the Native American language. I am so excited about learning all these things about them. I want you to meet him. But he wants to take me to Albuquerque for the upcoming weekend. He said it was a surprise for me. It seems it is a great place to learn about American Indians. There are lot of similarities between their culture and our culture. I thought I might as well take upon his offer, I’ve been always interested in their culture you know. … I will call you after I return from the trip. Yes, of course, I will send you pictures. … Oh, I forgot, don’t tell mom. She will freak out, don’t worry, I will tell her myself … yes, … soon, bye for now, I have to go … … … …. … …. …. … …. .. … …. .. … ….. … … …. … …. …

“Pinni, are you there? … Oh, you’re home, how come you didn’t pick up the phone. Ah, sleeping? Sorry, did I wake you up? ha, ha. Of course, you’re up now. Anyway, I am thinking of coming to visit you next weekend, if you’re free. I want to introduce Ram Singh to you. … um, … Yes, I broke up with Helaku. .. um … I don’t know … just … just didn’t work out, let’s say he is not my type … .. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … .. … … … … … … … … … “Oh my God, it is eight months since I called you. I am so so soooo sorry, Pinni. You know how things are here. I just finished the required courses, need to submit a PQ pretty soon.

… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …

***

In course of time, the gaps between calls became longer and longer. A couple of times, I tried to point it out, even teased her, “What, you’ve forgotten me? Or, I am also one of those dumpees?”

“Oh, no, I will never do that to you. It’s just … just got so busy. I didn’t stop calling you suddenly. I thought I was doing it in a matter of fact way.”

“Well, probably it is in a matter of fact way. Okay, I know you do have to attend to your courses. After all, you’ve come to this country for studies, not for my entertainment, ha, ha.”

“You know I do care about you, care a lot.”

“Yes, okay, get to work. We can talk later. I am not going anywhere.”

***

I sit on the shore under a tree watching the ducklings floating in the river. A little away, a father is teaching how to catch fish to his little daughter, probably nine. It amuses me. For some reason, I thought fishing is only man’s sport. Come to think of it, I never considered fishing a sport. After all, what do you do? Let the line into the water and wait until some stupid fish takes the bait. Well, maybe that is not all there is to it. Some day I have to talk to one of those sportsmen and find out. I am glad that father is teaching his daughter though. There seems to be some social justice in that.

The water seems to have risen to a new level. That’s what I like about this river. If it is a lake, the water level rises only when it rains right here. But in the case of the river, it might rain one hundred miles away, and the water level rises here. On top of it, all the foam cups and the trash people throw into the river gets washed away to another shore. … Hum, people! I can’t believe how can they be so indifferent or even stupid. Last week I saw a sofa floating around in the water. For a couple of days, only its top edge showed at a distance, and to me, it looked like a dead body wrapped in a white sheet and tied to a plank. It is only after it got closer to my place, I could see that it was the back of a sofa. …

I squint and try to peek through into the bottom of the river, into its heart. What might she, if she had only voice? Would she be complaining about the garbage people throw into the crystal clear water?

“Why do you worry about the people that come and go into your life?”

I twitch and look around. Who spoke? Whose voice I just heard?

“That is me, I am talking to you,” the words reverberate from the bottom of the river or so it seems, “I know it bothers you that people who vowed eternal friendship to you left you and moved on. Well, that’s life. Nothing stays forever. You are just one piece in their lives, a piece on the chess board; you’ve played your role and that is all. Remember the royalty of olden days? The ishtasakhi  (bosom friend) of the princess, or in modern times the fifth grade teacher–we have any number of examples. They all have roles to play, willy-nilly. In the olden days, the bosom friend was arranged by the king for his daughter. Now, things just fall in place–neighbors, colleagues at work, distant relatives happen to move to the country you are in. … … Most of the time you play the role of a fifth-grade teacher, I suppose. For a young boy, that is the first time, he is exposed to the world and the teacher appears to be the most know-all of all the the people he had known in his short lifespan. Eventually, he gets to know other teachers, makes other friends and his fifth grade teacher is left behind as just one person he had known in the past. That is human nature. Look at all these dead leaves, broken branches floating away to far-off land in the river. You see these ducks, cranes and the turtles? Do you think they are the same you’ve seen yesterday? No, they are new arrivals, came today. They’ll be here for a few days and soon go on to find a new place. Look at that man, sitting on the shore with the fishing pole in the water. This is his first day here. Of course, he is not the first for me. You can’t even imagine how many people sat on that shore and poured their hearts out … He may not even remember this place and this water tomorrow, not even the fish he might catch and have it for supper tonight. Another day, another person sits there with pretty much the same routine. That is the way of life, way of the world!”

I remember all the young men and women who have contacted me as soon as they arrived here and then weaned slowly. It is interesting, it is seasonal!

***

“Ah, what an amazing … oh, no, I am sorry, so so sorry, did I disturb you? I am sorry, really. You seems to be immersed in your own thoughts. Or, maybe meditating?”

I turn around and see a young man, settling down next to me. I smile and assure him it is okay.

“It’s okay? You mean it? I think you’re saying just to please me. That’s your in your upbringing, I guess. You say it’s okay; somebody else would have yelled at me, called me stupid or something, and told me to leave her alone … You know we foreigners are often considered loutish. … Oh, yeah, been through all kinds of experiences. Anyway, what is it in your hand? I stopped because of that book only. Looks like a Telugu book. Who’s the author?”

“G.V. Krishna Rao?”

“Never heard of him. Probably new, an upstart … like Shakespeare … ha, ha. …”

“Oh, no, he is from previous generation, well, previous for me; for you, maybe two generations.”

“Two generations! Wow. Well, there is a lot I to learn, I suppose, might as well start right now, right here. Tell me all about him. What does he write about? Now I am beginning to feel like a fifth grader!”

I remember my daughter saying, “Mom, friendship may happen for a–reason, season or lifetime.”

I give him a sidelong look. What is he: Friend for a reason, season, or lifetime? What is he going to be?!

(End)

Click here for Telugu version,ishtasakhiAugust 14, 2012.

Translated by author and published on thulika.net, August 2012.

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[i]  In the olden days, kings used to employ young women to work as “bosom friend” to princesses, called ishtasakhi, (lit. a friend after one’s own heart). In modern times, especially in these times of one’s own space and isolation, friendships are formed for a wide variety of reasons, not necessarily “after one’s own heart”. For prince, the term is veduka chelikaadu.)