International Friendship Day Reflections

A few weeks ago, I realised that July 30 is International Friendship Day; August 5 is Friendship Day in India; August 12 is International Youth Day, and of course, August 14-15 are when Pakistan and India celebrate their independence–as also, remember the trauma of Partition–a trauma that makes friendship ever so hard for many to contemplate. A full fortnight of related dates–youth after all have the greatest stake in friendship and peace–and so advocacy-ready, that ‘Friendship Fortnight’ was irresistible. It was not an idea that found a great deal of favour but for me, it was impossible to shelve. And I remain, after more than ten years at this work, undeterred by the prospect of almost-certain failure.

Friendship Fortnight poster 2018

So, without imposing too much on my colleagues, I put out a call for articles and essays and reminiscences of friendship. We would post them one a day over Friendship Fortnight. Only our Peace Education intern has written a blogpost, and I will post that in a while.

The United Nations felt that friendship deserves a day of its own in the middle of a thousand pressing causes because:

Our world faces many challenges, crises and forces of division — such as poverty, violence, and human rights abuses — among many others — that undermine peace, security, development and social harmony among the world’s peoples.

To confront those crises and challenges, their root causes must be addressed by promoting and defending a shared spirit of human solidarity that takes many forms — the simplest of which is friendship.

Through friendship — by accumulating bonds of camaraderie and developing strong ties of trust — we can contribute to the fundamental shifts that are urgently needed to achieve lasting stability, weave a safety net that will protect us all, and generate passion for a better world where all are united for the greater good.

This has been my experience too. There is no life situation that has not been enormously improved by friendship. The hard times, of course, are eased by the presence of caring friends. But the good times too are good mainly because one is with friends and the times of growth and learning are also facilitated by friends and what they bring into our lives.

This August will mark forty-three years since I became friends with a girl growing up in the sugarcane plantations of Queensland, Australia. Yes, forty-three. Penfriendship was a special experience. Those exotic airmail envelopes arriving with foreign stamps, stuffed with insights into other lives, and the everyday news of teenage girls, and photographs and small gifts. C’s school magazine found its way from Innisfail to Bombay, reinforcing my own wish to have and edit a school magazine–which we started during a long teachers’ strike period in 1977-78. We called it ‘Pen-it,’ not wanting to use ‘Penman’ which for some reason was a front-runner.

But C was only my first penfriend and over time, I had about thirteen or fourteen, a couple very short-lived and a couple of them from Calcutta which was exotic and distant to my life as a Bombay Tamil. I am still friends with four of my original penfriends. We have moved from letters to notebook-long sharing to email to SMS and WhatsApp to phone calls, and I have met all the friends I still keep at least once–C, S, N and M. At least one is now a family friendship, including siblings and cousins and parents.

I used to say that with people to people contact, it’s hard to imagine hurting the other, and of course, it is. But you have to experience what it is like to relocate to another part of your own country and feel really friendless but know you can pick up your mobile phone and dial Islamabad or Colombo or Baltimore or Peoria and hear the voice of someone who will stop what they are doing because they know you need their presence to really understand how ridiculous our world is. How can you possibly pay heed to jingoistic rhetoric or hate speech after that?

A few years ago, my Pakistani penfriend, his wife and I tried to set up an organisation that would connect kids the way we had connected. But the moment for letters was past. I know there are dozens of ways young kids can connect but like all older people, I would have to wonder whether they would endure as our slow-cooked-over-snail-mail connections have.

But it’s not just these dramatic across-the-border friendships that are special. There are also the chance encounters that stay with you. I have a friend in New York that I have not seen for more than ten years now but it seems there is never any gap. What is unusual is that we met entirely by chance, taking the train together from Grand Central to Albany (I stayed on the train). We talked non-stop and then hung out through the summer, and stayed in touch all the years that letters were still being written. Ironically, we began to lose touch as I transitioned to email and she did not. But someday we will meet again and there will be no awkward pauses when we do.

School friends–almost together forever because habit is a kind of affection, and if you are lucky, some school friends grow up with you and you can still travel together. College friends scatter faster perhaps, but the ones that stick around really do walk with you. And somewhere along the way, if you are lucky, your school and college friends work in similar spheres and past and present enrich each other. The professional relationships are anchored in a kind of mutual knowing that is amazing and rare and special.

There are the friends you make when you are in transition between lives, and that become your fortress as you struggle through a difficult time. Sisters, really, not friends. With those friends, you never have to pretend because they’ve already been in your worst moments with you.

There are the friends you inherit from older brothers and sisters, including cousins. I have several of those, and like my elders, they have been mentors and advisors and really over time, Akkas too. Particularly, Akkas. You can’t have enough aunts or Akkas.

The song goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” It’s so true. This is why Friendship Fortnight was so important to me. In a moment that is so fraught and so full of negativity, I wanted to take time to remember one of life’s most beautiful gifts and one of the enduring building blocks for peace.

There is still time if you want to join this celebration. It is always the right time to celebrate friendship. And no matter what happens, how many respond or read this, we will be here celebrating Friendship Fortnight.

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