Sometimes, there's that horrible hour between night and day when the darkness mirrors your despair, and you just can't sleep. Your mind is at war with itself and you lie awake worrying about what life may reveal tomorrow. The questions hit you like a flood. Did you make a mistake in turning down that new job? Will you be safe on your next trip? Have you saved up enough to own a house? How aggressive should you be with that manipulative, mealy-mouthed bully at work? Will the blood tests come back clear? And then that last, unforgiving, brutal, clincher of a question leaps at you like a ghost and
asks-- will you have to battle this all alone?
But then, you hug your pillow tight, think of your family and friends, and fend off the phantoms of doom. You know that you are loved. And you are secure in the knowledge that there are more than a handful of people in your life who will hold you when you cry, laugh at you when you are foolish and scream at you when you are wrong.
It's not that friends have dislodged siblings, parents, aunts and uncles in the lives of emotionally disconnected urbanites. Not at all. Instead, they have added themselves to the home and hearth to create contemporary India's version of the joint family. Quite simply, our closest friends are now inextricably part of our family.
I remember a horrific hospital morning of medical tests just recently. The only thing that made the needle jabs and the clinical wisdom of the all-knowing doctors bearable was the reassuring presence of people, just outside, in the corridor. An aunt, a cousin, and two of my closest friends were standing by not just for moral support, but also to ease my hypochondria and propensity for over-reaction. The lines between family and friends had not just blurred; they were indistinguishable.
American writer Ethan Watters' book Urban Tribes was of course the first to formally explore this modern notion of kinship. But while he deftly catches the pulse of a new generation's extraordinary dependence on friendships for emotional sustenance, I disagree with his defining premise. Watters book essentially looks only at the lives of the "never married". He examines why increasingly so many people remain single well into their thirties, and what's more, don't even seem especially unhappy about it. He argues that the singletons, who lived away from their homes and hometowns, tackled their "social wilderness" by spending more and more time together till friendships had almost evolved into alternative modes of companionship.
But that's America-- a country where you never just drop in unannounced, where the closest of friends will divide the bill down to the last penny, where even emotions are circumscribed and defined by a codebook of do's and don'ts.
Here in the messy, warm, and chaotic embrace of India, things are a little different. Yes, of course, more and more people (especially women) are opting to remain single or refusing to just "settle" for second best. And yes, it's a phenomenon that may overturn conventional family dynamics. Godmothers, single parents, gay lovers-- the social landscape of a country once obsessed with the search for a suitable boy is changing dramatically.
That doesn't mean, though, that the outstretched arm of friendship is a peculiarity of the single life. Whether you live alone, or with someone, the hurly-burly of modern life has created its own emotional vacuums. The need to talk, share, laugh, cry, and even grieve is no longer just met by one person. Once upon a time, the sprawling joint family used to provide a one-stop answer for these varied needs. So, you went to your grandmother for buckets of indulgence and fistfuls of toffees doled out of a rusty tin jar; to your mother if you needed to have a good weep; to your grand-uncle for a good laugh and anecdotes from a past you would never know; to your father to learn mathematics and restraint and to your raucous, gossipy cousins to walk on the wild side.
Today our families and friends blend together to meet those eternal needs. Between them we identify who to share confidences with, who to talk to for sage counsel, who to share a drunken evening with, and who to call to hold our hand at the dentist's. The need for privacy and independence may have forever ended the idea of disparate relatives sharing a house. But the nuclear family is looking outwards again.
In the end, it's all about the search for intimacy.