Friendship in all its forms is valuable. And it’s time we acknowledged that.
When I think back to my days as a child in Mumbai, one of my earliest memories is of being enthralled by a rare male-female friendship – of Mowgli and his playmate, Shanti. The Jungle Book afforded me a glimpse of an extraordinary bond that broke gender barriers to define childhood fun and innocence as depicted through their many thrilling escapades. I grew green with envy as Mowgli introduced Shanti to his friends in the forest, and laughed as Shanti stared wide-eyed at Mowgli’s carefree existence.
The Shanti in me yearned for Kipling’s Mowgli. Fun-loving and unusual, Shanti’s Mowgli showed her a world that was very different from hers. He had a fascinating perspective on life and he taught her to look at everything in a fresh light. Without Mowgli, Shanti would never experience the adventures she did or learn that the jungle wasn’t such a bad place to be.
Mowgli’s friends were remarkably different than Shanti’s. He lived a life that was new to her. He was a very special boy, and fun enough to be Shanti’s best friend. There were moments of misunderstanding, but the simplicity and straightforwardness of their relationship helped the two stay together. Kipling did give their friendship a romantic tilt but that didn’t diminish the wild-hearted fun they embraced despite all their differences.
My closest friends include men more than women. I like women but mostly, I adore men. I have always felt that my female friends tend to size me up regardless of how well we get along or how close we are. To a woman, who I am, comes later. My attire comes first. You would argue that perhaps I don’t have good female friends, but I do. I can rely on them. That’s not the point. It’s just that I am competition. I am someone they can compare themselves with. They may not want to compete, but I am still competition. We may not be fighting for anyone or anything, but I am still a rival. Besides, few women I know can talk about a wide range of subjects. Frankly, I get bored with most women I meet.
It’s through men that I began to see things differently. They made me come to terms with my prejudices and assumptions. We are not disconnected, they told me. And we are not always available for sex, they added. It’s through men that I know it’s possible for wives to be abusive and for society to be brutal against the male. It’s through men I learned that just as women feel chained by societal expectations, so do men. It’s a male friend who explained to me that in the liberation of women, lies the liberation of men. It’s a man who revealed to me that though his eyes seek the bodies of other women, his love for his wife remains unchanged. He finds it strange, he said, but it is the truth.
You would tell me that men check me out as well. They do. We all know men look at women, but I am not competition to them. Most live up to the faith I place in them and see me as nothing but the friend I seek to be. I haven’t yet caught a male friend staring at my scarf or the color of my shoes. None has asked me about my poor taste in clothes or glasses. Not even the most observant of them has noticed the color of my lipstick or commented on my shirt being half an inch loose around the shoulders. It doesn’t matter to them. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be anything they would want to include in a conversation with me.
My ease with men perhaps springs from the terrific relationship I share with my sibling. India follows a patriarchal culture where older brothers generally share little with their sisters and try to control their lives in a big way. I was blessed with a brother who loved to listen to me talk and protected me without patronizing me. We were friends, not siblings. The lanky boy next door – who is now a graceful man of 40 — was one of my dearest companions in school. He was someone I always looked for if I had an adventure in mind. We invented nicknames for teachers, gossiped about our families, and shared food on the roads of Mumbai as we walked together from school every day. We chased each other on flooded streets, our gum boots filled with water and our faces with glee. I once shook with fury, as I watched our teacher slap him repeatedly across the face, and stopped studying math with her because she had dared to hurt my friend. Life took us all in different directions but there isn’t any doubt in my mind that my preference for male friends stems from the wonderful memories I have of childhood and teenage life.
Yes, it is possible to cross the line with men. Sexual tension always exists between a man and woman. However, you can avoid the quicksand that is love or lust if you are willing to place your trust in each other.
I believe that a woman usually knows what a man is after. She can intuitively tell if he is watching her. I have withdrawn from men who have made me feel uncomfortable and to be fair, they have kept their distance or respected the limits I set for them. Some have tried to tiptoe around it but not in a threatening way. I have also learned to include their spouses in the circle of friendship that exists between us, as not all men and women can appreciate or understand male-female bonds. The advent of the Internet has made it easier for me to find and stay in touch with all the men who have been part of my childhood and teenage years. Though some have changed and grown into people I can’t relate to or admire, most have remained the funny, level-headed blokes they were.
To all the Mowglis I have grown up with and continue to learn from – a million thanks from Shanti!
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