Books

Friendships From Literature Reside In Us As Memories And Make Us Better Human Beings

Our classical texts are replete with many different examples of friendships, from Andal to Kamban, Valmiki to Ghalib

Advertisement

Friendships From Literature Reside In Us As Memories And Make Us Better Human Beings
info_icon

‘Words are easy like a wind, faithful friends are hard to find,’ says Shakespeare. In literature, we keep seeing friends everywh­e­re, and faithful friends are not that hard to find. But excepting a well-known few, the rest remain in the mist of our memory, reluctant to come to the fore. I’m reminded of a story about Mirza Gh­a­lib. He had a very close friend with whom he sha­red many things—except mangoes. The friend did not care for mangoes. One day, he was seated in the vera­nda of Ghalib’s house, and Ghalib was there as well. A driver drove his donkey-pulled cart thro­ugh the lane. Some mango peels were lying the­re; the donkey took a sniff but left them. The fr­i­end said, “Look—even the donkey [gadhā bhī] doesn’t eat mangoes!” Ghalib said, “Exactly, a donkey doesn’t eat it.” This story, apart from being a fine example of Ghalib’s biting wit, says one more thing—only with close friends could one take such liberties. The funny thing was that I couldn’t remember the friend’s name. I had to search online for long before I could find it—Hak­im Razi ud-Din Khan. There are several such people lurking in the pages of literature.

Advertisement

Human civilisation’s perennial and greatest con­tradictions are war and friendship, but they both have contributed to its progress. If it has been war that has impelled human beings to inv­ent new things, it has been friendship that has made them seek new pastures. Science and tec­h­n­ology thrive on war and friendship. At least thus far, every civilisational advance has these two as unmistakable markers. No wonder then that our literature and history celebrate both. War is thu­nder and lightning and easily identifiable. In contrast, friendship is subterranean and quiet, and thus easy to miss. That is why we incessantly spe­ak about wars of yore, but hardly about ancient friendships.

Advertisement

info_icon
Bonds that matter Gandhi with Sonia Schlesin & Herman Kallenbach in South Africa Photo: Getty Images

But friends are everywhere, just as God is to the believer. There is a Tamil usage that aptly descri­bes this belief—thondra thunaivan—the one who never appears before you but is always with you. In Hindi too, there are several words to denote friendship. Ali and Fratt, in their essay on the history of friendship in Ind­ia, say: “…(F)riendship has a rich vocabulary in Indian languages. The variety of words in modern Hindi alone, which can be translated as ‘fri­end’ (yaar, dost, saheli, saa­thi, sahayak, bandhu, jaani, ukht, mitr, hamdard, hamdam, habib, sahyogi, akka, sanghrakshak, wali, bhai, jigari, raf­iq, sajjan, sakhi, aziz, nadim, hamsafar, to name only the most common) is vast. These words, whi­ch derive from both Sans­k­ritic and Persi­an­ate roots, suggest that concepts of friendship were diverse and far-ranging in ‘traditional’ Ind­ian society.

The Rig Veda says Agni, the God of Fire, is a fri­end who never hesitates to do what is in our best interest. Soma, the God of Drink, is a wat­c­h­ful protector who sees to it that we never come to harm. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna requests the Lord to forgive him as a friend would readily forgive his friend—sakheva sakhyuh.

The variety of words in Hindi alone, which can be translated as ‘fri­end’ (yaar, dost, saheli, saa­thi, sahayak, bandhu, mitr, ukht, hamdard, to name the most common), is vast.

Advertisement

In the Valmiki Ramayana, Trijata, a dreadful-­looking (ghora darshna) rakshasi, strikes a fri­e­ndship with the beauteous Sita and consoles her on two different occasions when Sita is distraught. The Ramayana story has several such friendships. Kamban’s Rama says, “My father gave me the forest and now he glows because he has gained a few sons”. Rama considers his friends—Guha, Sugriva and Vibhishana—as sons of Dasaratha. Likewise, the Mahabharata has countless stories of friendships, the most glorious being that between Karna and Duryo­d­hana. Panchatantra’s fables are collected in five parts, the first two parts of which are about friendship” “Mitra bheda (Losing Friends)” and “Mitra labha (Winning Friends).

Advertisement

info_icon
A painting depicting a scene from the Ramayana Photo: Getty Images

Tamil literature, too, has many references to friendship. The famous Tiruppavai of the poet An­d­al is a celebration of camaraderie. She says, “kudiyirundu kulirnderol empavai”, which roug­hly translates to “Let us all gather and chill out”. San­gam literature is full of poets who don’t hesitate to chastise their king-friends who have tur­n­ed rog­ue, or praise those who have acted hon­ourably. My favourites are stories about two poets and their unusual friendships.

Advertisement

The first is a charmingly embellished account of friendship between Kopperuncholan and Pisi­ran­t­haiyar. Kopperuncholan, a ruler somet­ime in the second century CE, was a patron of many poe­ts. But the one whose poetry he loved most was of Pis­iranthaiyar. The king had known him only through his poems, as the poet lived in a distant town in the Pandya kingdom. The poet too knew about the king’s abundant love for good poetry. They kept exchanging notes, each pro­m­ising the other that they should meet one day. Unfor­tu­n­at­ely, Kopp­e­runcholan entered into a dispute with his sons who were in a hur­ry to take over the kingdom. Unwilling to conf­ront them in bat­tlefield, the king decided to take his own life by fasting. He sat facing north, and beg­an to sta­rve. Secretly, he was sure his friend would visit him and, dri­ven by gri­ef, end his life. When Pisira­nt­h­a­iyar heard of Kop­p­erun­cho­l­an’s fast, he rus­h­ed to the Cho­la kingdom to be at his friend’s side, but arrived too late. Then, exactly as Kop­peruncho­lan had expec­ted, Pisiran­thaiyar ended his life in grief.

Advertisement

info_icon
Statue of Tamil poet Avvaiyar

The second story is about the friendship betw­een the poet Avvaiyar, a venerable old lady, and Adiyaman, a minor king who was in constant qua­rrel with neighbouring kingdoms. The story goes as follows: The king gets a rare amla which is supposed to make whoever eats it almost imm­or­tal. The king doesn’t eat the fruit. He calls his friend Avvaiyar and gives it to her, saying, “If you live long, it will greatly benefit both the Tamil lan­gu­age and the Tamil people.” Avvaiyar celebrates this in a poem, in which she says Adiya­man too will live as long as Neelakantha (Lord Siva). He didn’t, but that is another story.

Advertisement

As usual, Mohandas Gandhi had distilled the ess­ence of friendship perfectly, when he wrote of his close friend Herman Kallenbach. He said the memory of a friendship became a treasure, as it enabled us to translate into our lives the best par­t of the friend. This is true even with friendships we read about. They reside in you as memories, and make you a better human being.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Yaarana")

(Views expressed are personal)

Advertisement

P.A. Krishnan is an author in english and tamil

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement