I got a call the other day from a friend I had not seen or heard from in decades. She was visiting her daughter’s family in Victoria, British Columbia and wanted me to visit her there. I was not sure if it was a good idea. Did I really want to go back and relive our years together? Did I want to mar the images of my childhood?
So I vacillated. I am protective of my memories. Every vignette, every encounter, every experience is material for future re-creation. Writers’ minds work that way. Did I want to leave the old memories untouched? Or did I want to color them in the light of new ones?
Eventually I relented. It would be foolish to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I thought.
Still, I arrived in Victoria feeling somewhat apprehensive.
Much to my amazement, the person who met me was the same girl, only she had matured wonderfully with age. This sounds clichéd until you think about people you knew long ago. How many have retained the essence of their beings? How many have added to that original core with new layers of generosity, love, and maturity?
My friend Shobha had.
Our friendship as children was purely based on proximity. When my father built our new bungalow on the outskirts of town, Shobha was the first friend I made, by default. Our bungalows dotted, then, an expanse of black agricultural soil. Plots stood empty and few children were around. So my mother sent me to play with Shobha. Thus began a friendship that was to last until we both left Nagpur.
All I remember of the early years were bitter fights over a card game called Nine-Seven, referring to the number of tricks each person was required to make.
Maybe it was the fighting that brought us closer. But over time we developed a companionship so sweet that we became inseparable. With a third girl named Prafulla, we walked to the market, rode our bikes to movie theaters, and stood on the sidewalk eating chaat. We played bhatukli, or house, in each other’s houses.
Yet, the three of us could not have been more different. I was a skinny bookworm who scarcely paid any attention to clothes or looks. Prafulla was a singer, an actress, and the designated beauty of Shankar Nagar. And Shobha? Well, Shobha was a tomboy who seemed to have no particular talents except the ability to be social.
Our family backgrounds, too, were distinct. Prafulla was a widow’s daughter; Shobha came from a large, affluent, Vaishya family, her father being one of the few people around to own a car, and I came from a modest home with a mentally ill mother and a domineering father.
People would perhaps have voted me the most likely to succeed academically and professionally, Prafulla the most likely to marry a rich and powerful man, and Shobha? They would not have known what to predict, except a traditional life.
In one of life’s ironies, Prafulla made an unhappy marriage, thanks to her beauty, which elicited an offer from an eligible man at an early age. I achieved academic and professional success, but at the cost of my personal life, which became scarred by the disastrous arranged marriage my father coerced me into. And Shobha, the girl no one had expected much from, evolved into a successful wife and mother, in addition to becoming a social and political activist and a major personality in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Who would have thought?
Over the years, my friends, old and new, have learned of my divorce. No one has offered me much sympathy, or inquired of the reasons, as if they have, deep down, always believed that I was at fault.
Shobha was the first person to whole-heartedly be on my side. She was the only one to actually shed tears over my tragedy! “You were so smart, so good looking too. We had such great aspirations for you,” she bemoaned. Her grief was not put-on. And it was not born out of jealousy or competition, but a true sense of sisterhood. She still genuinely loved me just as she had always done. She wished she had known that my father was pushing me into a disastrous marriage. She wondered if she could have done something to stop it.
She remembered my favorite dishes, my favorite movies, the stories I had recounted to her and her siblings from classical literature. She reminded me of the story of the Bottle Imp I had once narrated to all the children in the neighborhood. Her sister, now a school principal, still tells it to her students, she told me, albeit with an altered ending.
“I will have to Google it,” I said. For I had forgotten the story. I had not realized that it was written by R.L. Stevenson. Nor had it occurred to me that my favorite childhood story had been set against the backdrop of Hawaii and San Francisco, two places I would one day live in.
I was moved to tears when Shobha volunteered the name of the tranquilizer, Tofranil, she used to fetch with me from the pharmacy for my mother all those years ago.
After decades, her recollections seemed like affirmations of a life I sometimes doubt if I ever lived.
Feminism notwithstanding, women often do not support one another. They are bitchy to one another, competing for male attention. When something goes wrong in another female’s life, instead of standing by her side, they take the male perspective, wondering, “What did she do to bring that on?” I know it is sacrilege to admit this but think of all abuse women inflict on other women in India. Think of bride burnings.
By some miracle, my childhood friends and I escaped this curse. Gifted with a sense of abundance, we did not resent each other. Perhaps it was the era we lived in, of a newly independent India, shaping its destiny. I am glad I made that journey down memory lane. It revived in me, once again, that sense of wonderment at the magic of friendship.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com