A few weeks ago I shared with you a thrilling story about the marvelous friendship between a black boy and a white polar bear, which I had told in my column Articulations in THE HINDU in 1992 (Stormy Britain, Snowbound America, And A Story Set In Iceboundland, Feb. 17). I had followed that up with some earnest reflections on friendship, and here they are:
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THE HINDU Sunday Magazine:
Articulations, 5 May 1992
A Friend In Need
My Articulations (June 7) about the eternal friendship between a little black boy and a big polar bear attracted an effusive telephone call from an old friend who lives a thousand miles away. This gave me the idea of making an inventory of all my friends, past and present; but when I tried to do so, I had a problem. I just could not complete the list, which kept growing endlessly till I lost my bearings and gave up the whole idea as impractical. In fact, I discovered that I have (or used to have) many friends whose names I had never even known!
A perfect friendship cannot exist in the real world because it implies total bondage, which is not conducive to friendship at all. There is intricate logic in this apparently contradictory statement. A friendship becomes close when friends begin to feel bound to each other, and the bonds become stronger as the friendship grows still closer. Bonds always impose a mutual burden on those involved. Up to a point it is light enough to be carried by all good friends cheerfully, but sooner or later a stage is reached when the burden tends to become too heavy to bear; and when that happens, the friendship can usually grow no further without attracting serious complications.
It must be noted that the increasing bondage created by closeness tends only to restrain the further growth of intimacy beyond a critical degree, and does not prevent a friendship from surviving in the form it happens to possess at the crucial stage. Closeness, however, can have a damaging impact on a friendship -- sometimes destroying it altogether -- when it stretches familiarity or possessiveness beyond tolerable limits, giving rise to powerful negative emotions like contempt or jealousy.
Friendship and family ties
In a way, what is true of friends in this regard is also true of family members. Other things being equal, there is a discernible correlation between the closeness of a given family relationship and the tensions which govern it. This explains why the interaction between husbands and wives is normally more volatile than that between parents and children, which is more troublesome than the relations between brothers and sisters, and so on.
There is, of course, a fundamental difference between close friends and close relatives. In the former case, the affection which exists between persons is voluntary, and therefore always spontaneous; but in the case of the family it is compulsory, and therefore often contrived. This may be the reason why one seldom visualizes family members as friends: for one cannot always be sure of the integrity of their apparent mutual goodwill. The proximity of close relatives, moreover, is not something which evolves, like that of friends. Specific family ties exist in the same form from beginning to end: whether they are honored or not is a different issue.
When a deep friendship between unrelated persons reaches the critical point, it tends to acquire the character of close family ties; and that is what makes the burden unbearable -- either arresting the further growth of that friendship, or beginning to brew a storm. It is an observed fact in all societies that in general men have a better instinct than women for knowing when and where to draw the line, and therefore find it possible to sustain more stable (if less spectacular) friendships all round.
Close friendships formed in one's childhood are entirely based on the joy of innocent companionship. That is why children with very different temperaments and social or family backgrounds can still be great friends. When they grow up into teenagers they become more selective in their choice, and look for common interests as the main basis for picking up intimate friendships. In adult life the choice narrows down still further: for as people grow older they tend to make more severe value judgments and assessments of character.
Grown-ups do continue to take the character of their childhood and teenage friends for granted, of course; but many of those connections have a way of cooling off in course of time. The warm camaraderie which is professed when such old-time friends occasionally encounter is often simulated and not real. This is one of the reasons why the Old Boys' Associations which are started or revived every now and then with tremendous enthusiasm by some idealistic alumni have a way of falling into a rut soon and rarely flourish. But profound friendships made early in life which do survive the test of time are indeed wonderful ones, for they are totally free from moral pressures of any kind.
Men, women and friends
We have noted that men have a better instinct than women for identifying the natural limit of friendship. In this they are also aided by the fact they are usually preoccupied with professional concerns and interact with a large number of people, which frees them from dependence on close friends for spending their articulate energies. In this regard, women who go out to work do have a manly side to their character, and prefer to have a large number of marginal friends rather than concentrate on a few intimate ones. Women who stay home as housewives have a very different perspective. Their circle of friends being naturally limited, they are inclined to put more pressure on their intimate companions. This often confronts them with tense situations of a kind seldom faced by men or by 'working women'.
Another difference between the attitudes of men and women in relation to friends is illustrated by their approach towards the friends of their spouses. The husbands of women who are friends usually have no difficulty in picking up a comfortable friendship among themselves, even if there is a wide gulf between them in regard to professional or social status. But the wives of men who are friends normally do not find it so easy to develop a good rapport among themselves. In this context, intriguingly, the attitude of 'working women' is not far different from that of other women!
Friendship between members of the opposite sex has always been a thorny problem everywhere in the world. Even the most innocent of such relationships is not always free from sexual overtones, especially if the concerned persons happen to be physically attractive. Personal friendships between men and women are inevitable in the progressive working place; but prudence and common sense do normally inhibit their growth to a great extent.
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Reflections -- and further reflections
When I wrote the above essay more than 20 years ago, I did think I had composed yet another text which would stand the test of time -- and I was right, as you can see! Actually the title I had given it was Reflections on friendship, but it was changed by the sub-editor to A friend in need, for no valid reason I could imagine.
I also thought I had more or less said every significant thing I could think of about the extremely intricate phenomenon of friendship -- but I was quite wrong there! For during the next few weeks my further reflections on the theme flowed on and on, in four more substantial essays in my column Articulations in THE HINDU. Let me share them with you one by one in the next few days!