I met Zainab on the third day of my new school. I was five and fidgety, she was four and wiser than all the boys I'd grown up with so far. I hated everything about the new school — it was all girls, the library was bigger than the jungle gym and our uniform was a dress. I resented everything and everyone; except, that is, Zainab. She carried within her a calmness you couldn't help being drawn into. She was my first proper girl friend. We've been in a blissful best-friends relationship for 25 years now.
It's easy to remember a friendship by the big moments of life — important birthdays, anniversaries, heartbreaks, deaths, pregnancies, career highs and lows and, of course, radical makeovers they try really hard to talk you out of — but its true import in your life can only be felt when you think of all the memories you'd never be able to spill on social media.
I remember sobbing uncontrollably when Zainab didn't show up in school for a few days, convinced she was dead.
At 6, I didn't have a word in my vocabulary for the terror I felt when I overheard my parents talking about the Muslim areas that were most vulnerable during the riots in Mumbai. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when Zainab didn't show up in school for a few days, convinced she was dead. I remember thinking, even through my haze of uncontrollable grief, that I'd miss her mother's sheer khurma. The thought led to another deluge of tears.
At 14, my mum was very unimpressed when I woke her up urgently at 2am because I needed to use the phone in her room to call up Zainab and tell her that Aunt Flo was finally knocking at my doorstep too. At 15, when I ran away from home for four terrifying hours, they were spent huddled with her on the steps of her building. At 16, I picked a fight with the most powerful teacher in school for her — something I paid for dearly for the rest of the year, but I never regretted it for a moment.
Only a woman who has seen, judged and accepted the ugliest parts of you can take your grumpy denial of life's inevitable changes in her stride without missing a beat.
The day she got married, I remember writing a long, rambling Facebook post about our love affair-like friendship. It made the class of 2003 tear up and collectively go "Awww".
I was helping her put on her makeup for the reception when she read it. She rolled her eyes so hard, we had to wipe off the eyeliner and start over.
How do you impress a person who knows, in the way only a best friend can know, that while the 27-year-old you is rehearsing a wedding toast, the 5-year-old version only she remembers would like nothing more than to rip off her newly acquired husband's face for dimming your importance in her life? Only a woman who has seen, judged and accepted the ugliest parts of you can take your grumpy denial of life's inevitable changes in her stride without missing a beat.
I decided to hate Em, cementing the tenuous bonds of friendship between Vartika and me.
I met Vartika in college. We were 18, drunk on the idea of adulthood and insufferable know-it-alls. For the first couple of months, we gave each other a wide berth. We'd probably never have been friends, if it wasn't for our shared dislike for, let's call her Em. Em and Vartika fancied the same boy and hated each other's guts. I'm not quite sure what my role in the unfortunate love triangle was, but I decided to hate Em anyway, cementing the tenuous bonds of friendship between Vartika and me. No one expected us to remain friends — she was ambitious, focussed and driven, I'd almost certainly have failed computers if it hadn't been for her meticulously prepared notes, complete with highlighted portions I was to memorise if I wanted to pass. We sometimes still giggle at her thunderous expression when through some cruel twist of fate, I scored more than her on the exam. It took her a long time to forgive me for that "betrayal".
Vartika was the witness and co-conspirator for most of my adulthood firsts. The first time I sneaked out of home to go partying, my first sip of alcohol, blowing up my first paycheck, first godawful makeover, my first byline... None of them would have been quite as adventurous without our combined silliness. It was also the time when we were growing into people with beliefs, opinions and moral compasses. Vartika and I often found ourselves on the opposite sides of many ideological spectrums. We constantly bickered in the early years of our friendship, and suffered long sulking silences neither would deign to break out of stubbornness. Even so, eventually, whether it took days, weeks or months, we always found our way back to each other.
When I think about the kinds of things we've said and done to each other, and then forgiven each other for them, it stuns me. I've left her stranded in a foreign country without a phone and walked away in a huff of anger, she's jilted me for boyfriends several times. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to confront our nastiness in the form of romantic entanglements, but much before they materialise and start wreaking havoc in our lives, our friendships are the mirrors that show us, in painful detail, how much capacity for rottenness we hold within ourselves.
In so many ways, my friendship with Vartika lay the groundwork for the person I'd be in future relationships. It taught me patience and the ability to wait out even the most turbulent of storms. It taught me that no relationship is perfect, but some are just worth the effort and hard work. I learned forgiveness and resilience from Vartika.
Our friendships with women follow a trajectory of their own since there's no blueprint outlining the rules of engagement.
Growing up with middle class Indian values, you learn to see yourself in the context of your relationships; especially if you're born a woman. You're taught, from the time you start comprehending the world, to focus all your energies towards being a good daughter, a good sister and later, a good wife. There are innumerable expectations to meet and boxes to tick before you can hope to lay claim on this tag of "goodness".
But our friendships with other women follow a trajectory of their own. Since there's no blueprint outlining the rules of engagement, you simply make stuff up as you go along and, hopefully, find yourself somewhere along the way.
Some of my life's most important epiphanies are the ones that tiptoed into my heart during forbidden whispered conversations with my closest girl friends. I've realised truths about myself while trying to answer questions that no one other than my best friends would have ever thought, or dared, to ask. It is our female friends who fan our first fleeting sparks of rebellion; who give us the courage to take a shot at being the person that looks nothing like the template handed to us.
Inevitably, at a certain point in life, foolish ideas of love attack our brains and take over our faculties. Every other relationship pales in comparison to the blinding dazzle of love. Its urgency is underlined by the unsaid messages that assault us from every direction: unless you have it, you don't truly deserve your seat at the adults' table.
My best friends were my husbands, much before a rigid definition of the word took root.
There comes a moment in almost every Indian woman's life when she seriously flirts with the idea of marrying her mistake, just so she can get on with the rest of her life without the giant weight of singlehood on her shoulders. I had that moment not too long ago. "It can't be worse than this crap," I found myself thinking resentfully. It's not rocket science to guess who were the first two women who rushed to tell me, in graphic detail, exactly how miserable life could be when you force fit your piece into the jigsaw puzzle of the wrong person's life.
Of my many blessings, I've always considered my wonderfully weird women friends among the few I'm truly, whole-heartedly grateful for. I'd be lying if I said all my friendships have endured or thrived. Some have gone down in flames after fights we could never recover from; others fizzled away quietly after their purpose was fulfilled, without fanfare. Some get divvied up after bad breakups and others you outgrow, or, more painfully, they outgrow you.
Despite the many ways in which my girl friends have nourished my intellect, cultural references offer me little more than glib epithets to describe their significance.
Life surges ahead, changing pace, priorities, cities, countries and sometimes even continents; and with each consecutive change, the tapestry of friendships it leaves behind becomes even more fragile, intricate and interwoven. I recently looked back at my own and realised that despite the many, many ways in which my girl friends have nourished my intellect and emotions all my life, cultural references offer me little more than glib epithets with which to describe their significance in my life.
As a child growing up on a steady stream of American sitcoms and romance novels, I was fascinated by the idea of wedding vows. As a grown-up, when I hear the words, "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part", I can only think of Zainab and Vartika. My two very best girl friends were my husbands long before a rigid definition of the word took root. They're my life partners and soul mates, in every way as important and enduring as my romantic relationships, and they deserve to be acknowledged for all the emotional labour they've put in to make me the person I am.
In a world that only celebrates couples, I want them to know that they are just as vital to my emotional and mental well-being as a romantic partner. It pains me that in the pursuit of love, we've allowed ourselves to treat our friends like afterthoughts; as fun extras in the movie of our lives instead of the starring roles they earned and deserved.
There's more to women's friendships than shopping expeditions, duck-faced selfies, and sitting around and discussing men while sipping wine all the time. Real life, and friendships, are made up of future-destroying mistakes, uncomfortable truths, dark secrets, financial insecurities, crushing loans and mortgages, miscarriages, abusive exes...and there's no Deepika Padukone GIF in the world that can adequately capture the warped conversations and enriching complexities that make up a friendship between two women.