Sunday, August 7, 2011

SAKHI …..MERI….. SAHELI!


Indian languages are very interesting in the sense that the word “friend” is not gender neutral as it is in English. Almost every Indian language has different words for male and female friends. Sakhi, Saheli, Thozhi, Bandhobi – words used to denote the feminine gender when it comes to friends. So, today, as you may have guessed from the title, I am going to be reflecting about friendship between women. (Please note that this does not in any way suggest that I do not value my friendship with men!)

I often feel that friendship has  been idolized and depicted as a strong masculine relationship. In Hinduism, the friendship between Krishna- Sudama is well known .  In history  we have read  about the special friendship between Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru as also between the Mahatma and Jinnah ( apparently Jinnah was the only person who could smoke in Gandhiji’s presence). We also hear about  the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien. Each writer is famous for the worlds they created: Lewis's Narnia and Tolkien's Middle Earth. The two became the best of friends because of not only their belief in the power of myth and writing but also because of shared religious beliefs. I am not able to get similar examples of friendships between women.

In the Indian films we have many stories around friendship– Namak Haram, Satyakam, Sholay, Dosti, Dostana, Dil Chahta hai etc. But all these friendships are between men.  I do not remember if there are any stories around women friends on the Indian screen.

So, coming back to the question- why is it that much is not written about women and their friendships? Or is it that women’s relationships are so guided by family that they do  not have the time or opportunity for any relationship outside of that? There are some  nasty people who believe that women can never really be friends! Women’s feelings of insecurity, jealousy etc have been stated as the cause! It is really sad because some of my closest friendships have been with women. I can never share with a male friend what I can tell a female friend because a man will never understand how I feel about something the way a woman would.

I think one of the reasons that friendships among women has not been recognized or acknowledged is not because it does not exist but because men have always been the chroniclers of history and creators of literature. So they wrote about this emotion as it applied to them. But listen to all the folk songs- songs that women sing while working in the fields, while swinging on the swings during the month of “Sawan” (the rainy season) or even during weddings and that is where you will feel the fragrance of our friendships! These songs, unfortunately are not written anywhere. They move from generation to generation in  true oral tradition!

I was once involved in a study with adolescent girls who were working in the garment units of Chennai. These are really awful places in the sense that they overwork the girls, do not pay them much and have poor working conditions. But we found that while these were issues that the girls did not like, what they really enjoyed was the camaraderie of going together to work, talking to each other, giggling and sharing stories and that made workdays bearable and enjoyable! We probed further to understand why that was so because most of them came from villages and neighbourhoods that were very close to each other. It then came out- girls , unlike boys faced a lot of mobility restrictions. They could go to school but not visit friends after school, or “hang out” with them in public places like boys. So opportunities for friendships to develop did not really arise.

Friendships require opportunities for nurturing. We women often change our  surnames after  marriage and leave the towns and villages we grew up in and with that goes the ability to stay in touch and nurture the relationship. I remember a telephone call I received from an old lady a few days after my mother-in-law's death. She was an old school friend of hers who had read the obituary column and had called me wanting to confirm if it was the same "Susan" she knew at school. When I told her that it was she was very upset because it turned out that she stays in our neighbourhood, has been staying there for nearly ten years and she never knew that her classmate from school was living so close by! Both the ladies had lost touch after school, each one's life moving in a different trajectory!

 I also realize that almost all my women friends are those who I have known from my school, college and days prior to my marriage. There are of course some who I have met at work but they are fewer in number. Today, I do not have time to make any new friends as my life is a very busy one. Once I return home from office, I am busy with cooking, homework etc and weekends are spent catching up on what I could not do during the week. It is the same with all my other women friends. But we do try to meet or at least speak over the phone. Unfortunately, these opportunities may not be available to my less fortunate sisters.
There are stereotypes about women being jealous of each other’s clothes, jewellery and “bitching” about one friend to another. I would like to ask the people who have created these stereotypes whether men and their friendships are so pristine pure that it does not have these blemishes? Believe me folks, we women do discuss things that go beyond our clothes and our various acquisitions. We discuss our children and  our marriages probably much more than men do! I think that is because of the way we are so much involved in these matters that we are unable to separate ourselves from them. Besides, for women, we have been taught to believe that our success lies in being a good wife and mother. So whatever happens, we want to do these things right! Hence, we spend a lot of our quality time with friends discussing these issues. Our expectations from our friends are also higher. Ask any woman about what she feels about loss of trust and you will hear the word “betrayal” come immediately on her lips.

There has been an interesting study done by a US based university that talks about how women relate to each other in an office . It says that these relationships between women at the work place often have negative overtones simply because the office as a work place is an unnatural one for development of relationship between women as  relationships  here are determined by rules which are different – usually developed keeping the male gender in mind. We women as you all know have been relatively later entrants to this corporate world. As we have tried to imbibe these rules and internalize them we have somewhere along the way tried to behave like men and that is where the problem comes in – the way we make friends is just too different from what such imbibed behaviour prescribes. We have tried to use power the way men do and it does not fit well with our kind of  friendships!

Somewhere along the way, our friendships take us back to our girl hood – the happiest time in our lives. I have discovered through Face Book atleast  twenty of my school friends and we are reliving those moments in the virtual world. I think it is important that we bring back that energy into our relationship with each other and find the time to talk about things besides family and children. Let us do some wild things- go for a movie, eat some street food and laugh the way we used to. Let us be ourselves and not be Mrs XYZ or ABC’s mum. So that is my resolution for Friendship day! Sakhis, make it yours too!

12 comments:

Ibhade said...

Yes! most of Indian friendship films are btw men, i am yet to see a female version...sholay is still one of my favs....like you said, we women bitch about ourselves, we are our own worst enemy! I met a secondary school mate of mine on FB we were very close then, but i was reluctant to renew the friendship to that level...i really dunno why...just felt uncomfortable since we both have our own families to take care of......women are more competitive than men...checking out each other's husband, children and success ....for example, i have a BF whom i had known for the past 6years. When i traveled last year for the first time in my life to spend just 2 weeks with my BIL in UK, i didn't tell her the exact date i was going but simply said i & my hubby would be traveling soon. I came back and went to greet her with gifts the next morning since we arrived at night. she was angry with me even when i had apologized profusely. she kept grudge with me for weeks! until she aired it out...we apologized to each other but it had never been the same! i DON'T confide anything in her again becox it baffles me why she would be angry when in NIGERIA, it is a norm not to tell people the exact date of traveling for security reasons! .....unlike my hubby who didn't tell some his friends,but they welcomed him heartily & asked for chocolates.

IRFANUDDIN said...

Interesting topic...but i think even if it is there then female are only responsible for this....i know there are couple of ladies working with me but they are never comfortable with each other and believe me no male co-worker is responsible for this rift between them...
so whatever may be the reason, you can't blame male for this at least....:)

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks Ibhade, Irfan. Friendships between women are complicated as we relate not just as individuals but also as extensions of a stereotype! It is sometimes unpredictable. Thanks for stopping by! Happy Friendship day!

SUB said...

i always thought women are better friends because they listen...and i am talking about men-women as well as women-women friendship...

men either like to drink together or stay alone :)

nice post...

Lara said...

yea i agree that friendship between women can be a chore! its just crazy! but on the bright side when you have a good one you are better for it! nice blog you have here. you can check mine out www.laraecxel.blogspot.com

Christopher said...

That was a fascinating insight friendships among women. Even in our school days, we could see that girls had a stronger bonding between them than boys did. In this case, it probably offered them a sense of solidarity as they were in the minority in a co-ed school and could hold their own against teasing or bullying by the boys.

You do portray a negative stereotype of a man in a corporate environment when you say, "...we have somewhere along the way tried to behave like men and that is where the problem comes in ..." I do not agree and its not because I am a man. Perhaps you should revisit this notion.

Today's corporate world is a rat race with fierce competition which is sometimes unhealthy. This could be the cause of an environment that is not conducive to developing lasting, meaningful friendships.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Lara thanks for visiting my blog. Christopher, it was nothing derogatory about men in my comment. It is just that men behave in a certain way and women in another - both these based on the way we have imbibed our traditional gender roles. The trouble comes when women try to act like men and relate to another woman in the same way- it does not work ( may be it works with man to man). If I have offended you or any other man, then let me tell you that is not the intention!

anindita said...

Oh, a really nice post and a very pertinent one. We really miss our friends so much and have spent most of our best times with our girl friends. The excitement of school, the hostel life, the secret of first love, reading the letters, sharing Nancy Drew and also sometimes helping each other during exams...what could we have done without our girl friends.

My friends have been my playmates during school days, my source of sustenance during hostel days and my pillar of strength at office.

Thanks for writing this post, Meera and reminding me of thanking all my girl friends.....

mannbikram said...

Loved the post as always.
Frienship is a bliss I am lucky and god has been kind ot me to have given me such lovely people as friends ..

But friendship also is a big responsibility .. reminded me a lot of things your post Thank you.

Bikram's

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Ani and Bikram, friends light up our lives!

Deepa said...

Very well written Meera. And apt for friendship day. I like what you said about 'Friendships require opportunities for nurturing.' It is so true. Brings to mind two friends, you know who they are so I will not take names. We were very close in school and college. Through FB I was able to locate one of them and we had a get together. But she has changed beyond recognition. And I mean mentally and emotionally. Totally wrapped up in her life, her kids. Those trajectories you mentioned - ours could not be more diverse! And it seems to me that she cannot control the changes that have taken place in her life.

We are totally different people now. And I simply cannot relate to her. And it is very sad. Coz I value friendship very very much.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Well Deepa as I say , life takes us on different paths and we become what it makes us..!

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