By: Alina Gufran
The airplane felt stuffy, too hot, the seats too cramped, the aisles reeked of pickle and mustard oil, the air hostesses’ make-up wasn’t blended right. Everything was overdone, stereotyped, wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on why. I realised the vowels of the foreign tongue grated my nerves; foreign yet within my own country. I found my tired brain jumping to hateful clichés when I heard a man sitting behind me on a phone call. My education prompted me to ask him to shut up; the flight was about to take off. Exceptionally irritable, I’d been feeling little of the snugness that a best friend’s wedding is supposed to bring. I felt anxieties and fears – familiar and new – sitting at the base of my navel, sitting as tightness in my chest. Inhale, exhale, repeat the steps, go through the motions until I can manufacture some of the heady happiness I’m supposed to be feeling. I suspected that the discontent stemmed from me.
Chennai seemed familiar and alien all at once. The weather was balmy, the air smelled of a pungent, tired sea, knock-off designer perfume and cocktails made with cheap alcohol. What was it about this over-the-top, bourgeoisie wedding nestled in the posh but ultimately, trite quarters of a boutique hotel by the beach that summoned my inner critic? Was it the expensive, rather gauche bar where a highly mediocre Negronis cost 800 rupees? Was it the attractive North-Eastern sommelier’s disapproving brows, disappearing into his hairline when I chose the least expensive wine on the menu? Was it the oblivious American working-class hero from Wisconsin with his steady diet of greasy cheeseburgers and coke, or his Asian-American girlfriend, with a sixth-generation Chinese father and first-generation Chinese mother (the right degree of exotic?), who steered every conversation towards herself and her modern-day immigrant inconveniences? Why was I trying so hard to disassociate?
At Radio Room, the bar where everybody congregated for an informal ‘meet and greet’, I finally saw Bhoomika, my childhood best friend, who’d been sending me increasingly excited voice notes in the weeks leading up to this. Despite warm greetings and liquor trying its best to smooth every social interaction, I was out of place amidst the throng of guests making small talk. I missed my former best friend, even though she was right there. The cruelest distances are the ones with people next to you. She was my first real friend, at a ridiculous time of unshaved legs and acne and crushes on boys with dull personalities. At fourteen, she’d chucked my first packet of cigarettes out of the window of my eighth-story home and in retaliation, I’d thrown her phone to the floor. She was everything I wasn’t. Charming, warm, open, loving. I was everything she wasn’t. Assured, aloof, unpopular, slightly feared. Best friends have an interesting way of complementing each other.
We’d taken to each other without judgment, Indian schoolgirls in Dubai, and fallen into our own groove of friendship. We’d stalked young Arab boys in libraries, walked by the beach in a strange land where we didn’t know the language but couldn’t get enough of the exotic sights, sounds, smells and strange social hierarchies. Together we’d understood what it meant to be cool or rich, to live in a particular pin code, to have the means to pursue a PhD abroad, to allow yourself the freedom of studying philosophy. We’d been through our first heartbreaks and first major bouts of depression together. Most cultures attach so much significance to romantic relationships that we easily forget how for many of us, the first real adult foray into love comes through our closest friendships.
I moved from event to event, cocktail dress to Indian attire, with a lingering sense of nostalgia and an abject lack of pathos. I was there for Bhoomika, but I didn’t feel the need to be charming or friendly or approachable or distant or sexy, I didn’t feel the need for anything. I found myself imagining how, decades ago, my parents had their whirlwind romance that spanned continents and religions. I know how that turned out. I wondered if I had believed that I, too, would meet the right person at 16 and marry them and live out the various boring but ultimately safe rituals of a high school romance turned life-long partnership. Well, now I felt an immediate discomfort with anything not characterised by the brand of cynicism and hopelessness that had marked my twenties. Increasingly, the idea of a wedding, of a marriage, of a life shared with one person was beginning to look like some other girl’s dream. At a bar called ‘The Library’, its name legitimised by a wall lined with first edition hardcovers locked behind a glass panel, doused in angled mood lighting, their dusty sadness proving they’d never been opened, I sat across from the American couple. “Do you meditate?” Wisconsin boy asks me. I catch myself before an audible groan can slip out. He briefly tells me about his brush with drugs, how he’s debating selling his DJing gear since he’s been unemployed for four months, how it’s beginning to take a toll on his Brooklyn life. We discuss siblings, growing up Catholic and their desire to move to New Orleans. The Asian girl wants to get married at Monterey Bay Aquarium and only asks me questions about film because she works as a copywriter in New York. I marvel at their easy, almost simplistic relationship, the blind spots that come with growing up with an American passport, the myopia that comes with believing the country you’re born in is the only world you’ll ever need to inhabit. The girl whips out her phone and shows me her Chinese family in LA. The genteel, shrewd looking grandmother, the grandfather with an oxygen tank, the conspicuously masculine pit bull, the buff younger cousin, the straight-edged ‘work hard, play hard’ second cousin, the matching Christmas sweaters. I realise her ease with her dissonant identities and her doting boyfriend make me slightly jealous. We smile widely at each other, we take sips from each other’s drinks, we exchange antique silver and gold-plated neckpieces for an event later and hug goodbye. Away from the wedding bedlam, I feel a grudging affection for her.
The sangeet begins with all the aplomb one would expect at a fancy Indian wedding. Copious amounts of liquor, a lavish buffet, a DJ spinning house remixes of Bollywood classics from the 90s, generations and nationalities brought together by the blend of tradition and intoxication. I hadn’t been eating well since my break-up. Food was mere sustenance, but that meant I couldn’t keep up with the drinking. Bhoomika’s eighteen-year-old brother grabs me by the wrist and pulls me towards the bar. A pale, lavender liquid in a shot glass materialises, and I clutch it with desperation. The brother’s eyes glazed with a post-charas haze, he bounces on his toes as a group of people – including his parents – form a circle and clink shot glasses. I slip away, handing the shot glass to the bartender. “Hide it.” My best friend finds me through the crowd and makes her way to me. “Are you not going to dance to shitty Bollywood songs at my wedding?” I shake my head vigorously, accompanying her to the dance floor despite my inability climb out of my head and be present for her.
Bhoomika’s family were diamond merchants from Gujarat who’d immigrated to Dubai – the erstwhile land of opportunity, lack of taxes and material abundance. Her father had chalked up enough money to raise three kids in a palatial beachfront home, send them to one of the better schools in Dubai, and finance their move abroad for their respective universities. The kids, all said and done, possessed a certain humility that others our age conspicuously lacked when thrust into the obscene power of new money. The shots were a celebratory indulgence, an attempt to impress overlaid onto their endearing Gujarati simplicity. The husband’s family hailed from Tamil Nadu and Punjab respectively. His father was the CEO of an Indian airline fast fading into obscurity. Despite more access and exposure than the average Indian, the acute consciousness of their own class led to a gnawing lack of acceptance of what they deemed to be a lack of sophistication from the other side. Religion wasn’t the divisive factor here, but their different backgrounds and predilections were.
Bhoomika’s father’s best friend’s son makes his way to me across the carpeted dance floor, his face streaked with red and green neon. A flash of a house party in Friedrichshain at 5 AM on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. Neon lights, spindly bodies snaking across a makeshift dance floor, my then boyfriend behind the decks, me whispering into his ear, trying to convince him that Eric Andre was at the party. Life’s displacements were like tectonic plates shifting beneath you, the heart and mind struggling to create and conquer old meanings in new contexts. The boy went by Nemo and complimented me on my hair, my moves. I smiled a sincere smile and excused myself. My initial response to compliments was now to accept them and then look away. This wasn’t a tactical move, nor a sly manoeuvre meant to elicit a reaction. Maybe it was shades of discomfort, that slight consciousness at being put on display and yet aching to be put on display. Either way, I really just didn’t know what to say.
Outside the basement ballroom, an oxymoron in itself, I light a cigarette and observe the flames across the expanse of water flanked by Grecian columns on either side. I lie down on the cold marble, lehenga askew, hoping to see some stars in the sky. A whiff of Versace. I chuckle inwardly at the contours of my hyper-capitalist upbringing as a slender boy with impeccable sartorial sense slides in next to me.
“I cried this morning after three years. It was so beautiful,” he says in a distinctive drawl, his diction chiseled with private education as he begins to roll a joint.
“Crying is cathartic, isn’t it?”
“Yes, anti-depressants don’t ever allow for that sort of release.”
I’m unsure how we’ve slipped so easily into such an intimate conversation. I find myself drawn to his pale skin, freckles and eyes with schisms of empathy and impenetrability. We smoke lying on the freshly trimmed grass, discussing the merits of the male contraceptive, the current political climate in the country, and raising puppies. I find myself withdrawing slightly as he showcases a certain shade of martyr complex, placing himself at the centre of the nation’s political turmoil. He pulls me back in by telling me about his mother’s internalised patriarchy, and how hollow victories feel when they’re against your parents. Our effortless conversation is interrupted by a local gentleman who’s down a few drinks, slurry as he shakes our hands. Arnav gets up to address him. I feel a familiar flicker of irritation despite the pot’s pleasant haze and excuse myself yet again.
Back inside, hearing about some perceived insult by the groom’s father, I wonder why institutionalised marriage even exists anymore. Why is the bride’s father’s identity inexorably tied up with the grandeur of his oldest daughter’s wedding? Despite coming from a fairly regressive North Indian family, my father only ever mentions marriage as an afterthought, a private joke shared between the two of us on a phone call late at night, the thought only really occurring to him in passing when I say I want to shift jobs or cities or continents. I remember him threatening me with marriage when I failed my 11th grade exams. I remember regarding it as an act of betrayal – succumbing to the idea of women as property to be passed on from the father to the husband. Perhaps his intended outcome was what happened next year, with me acing my school graduation exams. After my parents decided they wanted different things and that more importantly, they didn’t want them with each other, he could never use marriage as a threat. We all developed an almost sinister sense of humour to deal with the separation. All talk of marriage faded into sardonic jokes about how they should have expiry dates, feeding into my fatalistic assertion that being alone is the only constant.
I was sharing a room with Bhoomika’s other best friend, who I’d methodically avoided despite years attending the same school. She’d lost her voice on account of spending the last two months attending a slew of weddings. When I returned to the amber-lit darkness of the room, I found myself unable to focus. The girl was snoring like a truck while I tried not to breathe too loud, lest I wake her up. Later, she helped me tie my saree almost perfectly as I took my place beside her in front of the bathroom mirror. We both lined our faces with powder in silence, me conscious of the music playing from my laptop. She wants to borrow my eye shadow palette; I apologise for only having nude colours. She laments the weight she’s put on through her adult years in Bangalore, working through late nights with erratic food schedules. I glance at her sideways.
“Thank you, you’re kind.”
“I’m not being kind, I’m only being honest,”
She meets my eyes and smiles – a genuine warmth filling up her eyes. That’s all it takes. One sincere interaction after years of avoiding each other, not having much in common except a best friend and suddenly, I feel the warm rush of winning somebody’s favour when you least expect it. Over the next couple of days, when I find myself slinking out of parties early or hiding behind marble columns to smoke, I often receive texts from her, checking in. I reply with platitudes but don’t go back.
The next morning, I managed to steal an hour or two for myself. The wedding was done, after a hazy sequence of ceremonies and rituals. Still, there was a drunken brunch and some sort of reception to follow. I go for a swim, savouring the solitude of the cool water, until my thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of Mariliria – the chubby Greek girl with no understanding of personal boundaries and a propensity for flattery. She tries to make conversation with me as I continue my swim. It is a strange dichotomy; how comfortable I can make others feel in my presence and how quickly I tend to withdraw from them if they reveal anything true about themselves. Mariliria wants to talk to me about the guy she hooked up with last night. I passively notice the tension between them as he comes out to the sun-beds. I vaguely wonder what sex looks like when Mariliria has it, how conscious is she of her body, what the boy finds attractive about her. She says she thinks I’m the most beautiful girl at the wedding, after the bride. I’m flattered but later bemused by the off-hand comment, as though beauty superseded anything else I might have to offer as a woman; as though such a compliment was anything but definitive and entirely suffocating.
Later that morning, Bhoomika and I get a few moments to ourselves. All her friends flock around her, air kisses and goodbyes one hopes would be finite ones. I observe her cycle through the hugs and the pleasantries with the ease and charm of a politician and I laugh to myself. I think of how I’d always been a bit of a ‘back pocket friend’ – neatly tucked into the compartmentalised folds of somebody else’s life, my value increasing with the need to be hidden, preserved and I could settle into the backwash of somebody else’s limelight. I wonder what I can ask her that will not be weighed down by shared histories or stories. A couple of evenings earlier, I’d immediately asked if she still planned on pursuing her PhD, my head swaying and my eyes brighter than usual with the wine. I want to ask if she thinks of a time where she might not want to be with Tarun anymore, if she plans on only doing this once, if she knows what the moment was when we drifted inexplicably but surely from being attached at the hip to living such different lives? Did she know or remember?
Instead, I find myself faltering when she wants to know about my love life; my mind turning over the various threads of romance resistant to definition, paling in comparison to the weighty, resounding certainty of marriage. I lay my head on her shoulder and we take a few selfies – ephemeral moments to be captured and stored. Moments that make sure that once I recede into the comfort of my solitude, I can still reach out and indulge in a past that no longer exists.
To everyone’s surprise, I had made a concerted effort to dress up for the brunch. Something about being away from the mundanity of Bombay made me want to exploit the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, hoping that this physical transformation would enable an emotional one. Instead, as I bitch on the phone to my other best friend while she mocks my privilege, I’m overheard by Bhoomika and Tarun. “You’re just a pretentious writer who’s entirely self-involved,” he tells me as his face cracks into a self-satisfied, silly smile. I’m disconcerted but nod along to his assertion. The day’s too bright, the conversation’s too dull for me to defend myself. Bhoomika breaks out of her post-wedding haze, the unremitting lull of satisfaction only some of us can afford, to defend me. “Alina has a tendency to agree with anything negative said about her even if it isn’t true.”
I wonder why I’m there, why I missed the memo and turned up overdressed to this event, why my facades are so brittle, why I haven’t slipped away to meet an old friend who is in Chennai – a cinematographer I know through my ex who’d once advised me on a script that never went anywhere.
Slipping out that evening wasn’t difficult, given everyone’s exhausted mental and physical state. After a forty-minute rickshaw ride I found myself at a rundown rooftop bar overlooking a beach, barely visible under the night sky. Bargav was a good listener, unafraid to wear his limitations on his sleeve, leading a wilder life than his slender, non-threatening frame and kind eyes suggested. We’d last met years ago at a quiet, nondescript wine bar in Neukölln, and I worried about the unsaid discomfort of knowing each other through my ex-boyfriend, the longest relationship of my life that almost felt imagined at this point. Yet, I found myself relaxing in this presence, the tension in my shoulders and back receding as my tongue loosened with the wine. The conversation went from film to collective anxieties – the lack of money in attempting to pursue an artistic life in a developing country, the possibilities for art in a nation on the brink of outright dictatorship, his brother’s pending wedding, the absurdity of legal contracts and gold bands meant to bind people together. Despite all the wine, it was ironic that I felt more comfortable talking to somebody I’d barely known three years ago than to my best friend who I’d known for decades.
The attendant baggage of old relationships is that people tend to want to pull you into directions they remember you from, into patterns they constructed with you. If, like me, you have a habit of wanting to give before somebody can ask, relationships can often exist in eternal limbo, in a space where finding words to express exactly what is it that you need becomes harder each time you nurse the idea of expression, and then reject it. Physical distances can often make way for emotional ones and as women grow up with the idea of being somebody’s somebody, the phone calls taper out, continents change, text messages are few and far in between, time zones and husbands and kids (I’m told) get in the way. Childhood friendships are now defined by making the effort to turn up at each other’s engagements, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries – the gradual, inevitable shift into ‘acceptable’ constructs. I can barely wrap my head around the present, much less the deceptive nature of the future. I find comfort in Bargav’s uncertainty, in the humility that comes from not pretending to know all the answers, in the shared identity of being an outsider.
We finish our drinks and walk through empty Chennai roads towards the main highway, dodging stray dogs, lazy bulls, parked cars and buses. We stand by the highway as he calls me a taxi. We chat absent-mindedly about the incoming rise of right-wing supporters in Tamil Nadu. I argue that the state’s political mechanics would never agree to a largely north Indian political party gaining and exerting majority control; he’s dubious – the fast deteriorating state of the nation relegated to an intermediary chat before the taxi arrives.
Inside, I feel a pang of longing for the private jokes Bhoomika and I share, how easily my dumbest comments make her laugh, how widely I grin when she’s impressed by my most transparent ploys and most ordinary expressions. I remember how often, at social settings, she rolls her eyes at me after running out of patience or charm, how often I’d called her up beset with tears, hiding in my room as a teenager, fruitlessly attempting to drown my parent’s rising voices with some insipid pop album, how she’d defended me against bullying senior boys when I refused to grant them the respect they felt entitled to. I begin to understand why it’s hard to let go of old friendships even when they distinctly seem to have run their course, why I would take the time and energy and money out to wear a saree and a smile each time my best friends expected me to, if it meant making them happy.
I remember, vividly, the moment from two nights before, when all the girls – the loud ones from New York, the shy ones from Dubai, the conventionally pretty ones from Chennai, the rich Gujarati aunties with large hips and larger jewels – congregated in the bride’s suite, attempting to help each other with the folds of our disintegrating sarees, charming and laughable in equal parts. I remember Bhoomika, decked head to toe in a bejeweled lehenga that weighed over 10 kilos, her skirt unnaturally starched, standing across me, arms akimbo, against the setting sun, a complete silhouette, asking me how she looked. Her hair perfectly coiffed, swathes of make-up across her elegant face, her expression as vulnerable as the text messages I hid behind. In that moment, she was all of twelve years old again and I couldn’t help but smile.