Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

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Friendship in a Post-Covid World

In the post Covid-19 world, the highlight of things returning to the ‘old normal’ is the opportunity to reconnect with loved ones in real life.

Like most practical people, I embraced the relaxation of Covid-19 rules with great caution. Even though it was getting easier in Singapore to move around freely, breathe without masks and participate in activities that had been restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I wasn’t sure if we had truly turned a corner. 

Over the past few months, the trickle of travel had picked up pace. Expat colleagues went overseas to visit parents to ensure their children saw their grandparents in the flesh rather than flickering images on a screen. Professional acquaintances came over for business meetings. I made a short trip to Malaysia in August. 

Yet, it wasn’t until a friend from Australia who was transiting through Changi airport enroute to India asked if we could catch up in person did I truly accept that we were slowly inching towards the ‘old normal’.

Online vs In-person friendships

The pandemic taught us how to get things done remotely. From work tasks to workouts, grocery shopping to home based learning, we tried and embraced new ways of doing things. Not all experiments were equally successful. Despite deployment of cutting edge technology, online interactions couldn’t always replicate the vibrancy of in person connections.

Belonging to a generation that came of age in the pre-internet era, to me, meeting in real life was a prerequisite for friendship. Although marriage, jobs, and other imperatives put distance between us, the fabric of bonds formed in the early years of life were strong because they were woven through unhurried conversations over school and college lunches and in crowded trains as we strained to make sense of adulthood against the cacophony of life. 

When I first left India as a starry-eyed twenty-two year old, I wrote letters to friends and family. Then I waited for them to respond. Checking the mailbox each day, sorting through junk mail to spot my name written in familiar handwriting on the envelope was a simple pleasure that I have long forgotten. My stash of preserved letters and cards are souvenirs of a time that seems distant and irrelevant in today’s world of fast-paced and omnipresent connectivity. 

The upside of connection

When my friend arrived from Perth, it felt like a grand reunion even though we had stayed in touch through text messages and phone calls. A meeting that begins with a hug has a different cadence. And as with any good friendship, the years didn’t matter. The connection did.

In a highly popular TED talk titled “What makes a good life” Rober Waldinger shares lessons from a Harvard study on adult development that has followed the lives of two groups of men in the Boston area for over 75 years. The data suggests that the best correlation with a long, healthy and happy life is not between money and fame but the number and quality of meaningful connections. Relationships with family, friends and community are a major determinant of the quality of life as you age.

The nature of friendship changes with time

Yet, friends and the nature of our friendships change with time. My friend from Perth and I have known each other for only about a decade or so. Our paths crossed when we both lived in Hyderabad. We shared a few things in common including a love for cozy conversations over cups of hot chai.

Sometimes we got together with other friends for shopping or movies, on sightseeing trips, to music concerts, and a particularly memorable night visit to Charminar during Ramzan and generally had a good time.

Photo by Antonika Chanel on Unsplash

And then we spent a  month at an ashram getting our yoga teacher’s training certification. I found the strict regimented life extremely difficult but it was more bearable thanks to her easy breezy approach. Not surprisingly, she went on to become a yoga teacher. I still remain a student practitioner.

Now we sat in my sunny living room in Singapore reminiscing about the past and catching up on our latest joys, challenges and minor annoyances over steaming cups of chai. 

It wasn’t until she had left for the airport that I pondered about what my friendships over the years and across continents have done to and for me.

Friendships across life

In Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Pulitzer prize winning author Anna Quindlen notes – “the older we get, the more we understand that the women who know and love us – and love us despite what they know about us – are the joists that hold up the house of our existence.” 

In its simplest avatar, friendship helps us unwind, uncover and understand ourselves in the context of other lives. Without the burden of ties forged through blood or marriage, friendship gives us a way to be anchored and loved without formal and legal tags. Knowing and loving a person with no ostensible genetic link and without romantic entanglements requires a leap of faith, a suspension of cynicism and a willingness to see and be seen, warts and all. 

Poet David Whyte observes “friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness”. Every so often I revisit difficult moments in my life when friends have saved me and my sanity just by being there. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

Friendship requires work

Friendship, like anything that we value, requires work. For it to last across decades and distances, calls for repeated mutual forgiveness. It requires amnesia and tolerance – for plans canceled, for promises broken, for words that were inadequate, for absences that were unexplained and for all the times you fell short.

Allowing minor irritations to scar a long friendship turns into regret when viewed through the long lens of time. In The Power of Regret, author Daniel Pink reports that drifting away from friends is a common ‘connection regret’ that people experience. Not only can this regret be easily rectified but recent studies suggest that the simple act of reaching out via a text or a brief call is highly appreciated by the recipient.

Small moments of connection and grace are what we recollect from our recent experiences during the pandemic. The best part of the slow but sure return to normalcy this year has been the opportunity to reconnect in real life with all those who matter to us. To me, it is a chance to remember that friends are blessings personified.

Lead image by Manoj Sithamshu on Unsplash

Ranjani Rao

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Her latest book, Rewriting My Happily Ever...