16 April 2024 06:38 AM



Friendship in These New Normal Times


The new normal is here, there are few holy cows except holy cows, and reset buttons have been pressed on many relationships and settlements we have known. The secular foundations of the republic are no longer a non-negotiable; state and non-state actors steadily encroach into the citizen’s private domain, dictating what they must eat, study, chant, celebrate and watch; institutional mandates and priorities are being systematically reworked; the media is turning from watchdog to poodle; and, consenting adults can be killed for, well, consenting.

Not surprisingly, friendships are mutating too. The upcoming Friendship Day (August 6) is as good a time as many to reflect on how and why they are mutating.

My reflections on friendship in these new normal times must begin with the beginning. With something peculiar that happened in the neighborhood shopping complex in Gurugram within days of Narendra Modi being sworn in as prime minister. A number of collection boxes came up. Most sought support for gau raksha and remain around three years later. The ones dedicated to liberating (Muslim-dominated) Mewat and reclaiming Brajbhoomi quickly adopted cows too.

Something, I remember thinking, had changed for those boxes to appear overnight. The cause and practice might have been old but its footprint was in a new, more proximate space. Even in those early Modi Sarkar days where many sensed promise, the conclusion was inescapable for someone like me who hadn’t bought the vikas pitch: the Hindu Right had realized it was time to step out of the closet and proudly identify itself.

What has followed since – despite the strikingly visceral rancor underlying spurious debates on nationalism and freedom of expression and the brutality and impunity of mob lynchings – has hardly been a surprise. What has been a surprise though is the kind of creature that stepped out of the Hindutva closet. For marching not far behind the produce of the hydra-headed Sangh parivar were unexpected names from the media, films and academia – and, most worryingly, some old friends.

They, those friends, flagged their new identity a little gingerly at first, moved on to eerily similar ‘facts’ and toxic language from WhatsApp groups, and now (post the events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) particularly) don an unsubtle, unapologetic avatar. Every development that I think should rile them - far from compelling a review of position - only seems to harden them. I suppose my views have provided cause for bewilderment to them as well and, at the end of the day, it is probably fair to say that all parties have wondered if they ‘knew’ the other properly at all, despite all the joys and sorrows shared and generosities reciprocated over time.

It is a question capable of testing the strongest of friendships and if many, including ours, have remained intact nevertheless, it is because of strongly binding moments – and a conscious decision to steer clear of political conversation. It means bottling one’s views and holding one’s tongue in the presence of those before whom one has always unburdened oneself freely in the past, but it is a price we have decided to pay.

Not inclined to bear the same frustration with new friends, a lot of us, on either sides of the spectrum, have taken to applying filters before responding to overtures. Anyone with obviously conflicting political views is out. In other, more watchful cases, there are meanings read in everything from a proclamation of Akshay Kumar fandom to the posting of a news item on JNU’s high rank among universities to a shared link to Urdu poetry.

The spontaneous clicking between two individuals, the beginning of many a wonderful journey, isn’t reason enough to pursue friendship anymore. That decision is a considered one, based on where a prospective friend stands on the hot button issues of the day. Would we have made the same good friends in college had we applied similar filters back then? Almost certainly. But that would have been because the times then afforded space for gentler argument, for welcoming the testy outlier into the circle and the heart.

With old friends, we now converse across a growing (political) chasm, unwilling to bridge it fearing confrontation and loss. With new friends, where solidarity is more important than chemistry, we enter echo chambers. Ahead on either route lies embitterment, something friendships aren’t supposed to generate. If social media theorists are to be believed, we have been swayed by the charms of a cleverly packaged leader or the prospects of an ‘intellectual’ label but there may be deeper issues of self-esteem and identity at play. Alas, they can’t be unraveled on uneasily quiet evenings or from inside echo chambers.

Happy Friendship Day. There’s much to cherish (still).