Friendship Fortnight: Mickey and I, by Preeta Balia

When I moved to an unfamiliar town because of the man I had married, I realized in some time that all relationships – acquaintances and all – described loosely as ‘friends’ were invariably people we spent time with as a couple over dinners, watching movies in their company but never quite walking below the surface. Through school and college, we choose our friends without employing any social metric – a girl who fared badly at languages in class, another who raced through all sports events to win medals, the model child, the ungraceful duck, all the snickering, odd balls who set up nooses to trip the hated teacher, were a part of my friend bandwagon. This new territory when your friends came pre-scanned was unusual. One didn’t choose. All the female family population were anointed friends in the first phase. Soon followed wives of your husband’s friends. This situation would have persisted but for the fact that my husband floated a book club inviting his reader friends, and anyone they chose to bring along who cared for the written word. One day Mickey walked into this room. She was warm and friendly and in time we discovered she could say funny things but what struck us was how Mickey could talk about a book, unspooling the story so it became a live beast. She had a knack for dwelling on the details – that cherry tree that the boy sat under as the blossoms swayed to the ground – while staying loyal to the macro structure. She would speak of those bends in the tale and point out the next adventure with her index finger like the sun rising. She made the story a filmable proposition. We wanted to read every book she talked about.

Mickey is a decade older than me and we share some commonalities. We are married to men with orthodox backgrounds and we were content to live a life less conspicuous to remain on good terms with our married families. We lived with in-laws, we had to humour our husband’s siblings and their in- laws in turn. Such was the city’s tradition and we willingly towed the line. But we kept our secret world of books alive. Any time stolen away from children and family would be expended on a book. She was raised in Jamshedpur and I had spent all my childhood summers in Jamshedpur with my nana nani, building some of my happiest memories. So, we grinned and cussed in Bangla, laughed at community songs, poked fun of the distant quirks of Bihar, so far away from the strictures of Rajasthan. Looking back, some of this must have been strange to the ears surrounding us – but at that point, it felt like a special bridge we had built to walk towards each other. A bridge only the two of us were privy to.

For a month, she would pick me every morning for a yoga class we did together. She loved whatever I cooked, baked, or fried, an encouraging departure from all the flak I received for my endeavours in the kitchen, in those early days. After long absences, she would breeze into the house and easily busy my young sons in a board game so I had time to cook. I helped her edit a book she had translated for the Art of Living foundation, working steadily with her every morning for a month. I never heard her complain about her domestic situation and even though we rarely dwelled on our personal lives, just meeting each other and talking without a care for conformity, about a movie or a tv show, somehow lifted the burden of living.

Four years ago, Mickey went to attend a course at the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore. She had been following the practice for a number of years and I saw her grow into a more fulfilled, energetic young person from her experience of the philosophy. She had one child only, who by now had finished college and begun working. We realized in time that she wasn’t coming back from the ashram. She spoke to me over the phone, explaining how much needed and at ease she felt. No more chores. Mickey was ready to focus on objectives that brought meaning to her existence. She said, ‘you know, I have reached the right place, at the right time’.  While she was here, she had taught English to young children, teaching language through her signature methods of playing scrabble, reading, and writing out picture descriptions. She did some content writing when it came her way.  I asked why she couldn’t come back and continue doing those things here. She said it wasn’t the same thing. She was happy with the stipend she was paid and felt more free and untroubled than she had in years. Mickey never marketed herself and stayed committed to keeping in good health, eating right and exercising. All her ambitions took shape easily at this new place, the people she lived around in the Ashram encouraging her to embrace all she could.

She had told me once that she had met her husband at a language school in Pune, fallen in love with him, marrying and moving to a dusty city where women never wore pants. Now she is happily making up for the past years, scaling new fears and finding out more about herself.

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