I tell myself I befriend men more easily than women, because it assigns a certain type of cool. But also, to tell myself that I am incapable of female friendships hurts less than trying and failing at them. Before the consciousness of beauty came about in my life, gender was irrelevant. If you impressed me with your bravery, if you ran faster than I did, climbed higher than I did, burped louder than I did, I wanted to be like you, to be with you. But when the idea of beauty snuck into my awareness, I was stuck with a filter I didn’t want.
For a single year, when I was 14, I attended an all girls’ school. At this Delhi convent, girls primped their hair and rolled up their skirts right as school was about to end, because we shared an exit with the all boys’ school next door. Sneha was the prettiest girl in our class. She wore a button-up shirt two sizes too small. Her legs were waxed, her straightened, her eyebrows threaded. Sneha’s best friend was a fat bully named Charu. Surely, there was more to their relationship than arrogance and appearance, but Charu’s girth struck me precisely because of Sneha’s lack of it. Charu appeared to be Sneha’s bodyguard, or, perhaps, Sneha was the one offering a chubby girl protection. Regardless, that year in a convent was an education in desire. I wanted to be beautiful, like Sneha. Men should desire me. Women should desire to be like me. The alternative was to become someone’s Charu, protected but unliked. This fixation with appearance evaded an obvious question: If I saw myself through the eyes of another, how would I learn to love myself?
It was during this time that female friendships began to terrify me, because they exposed what I was not. My hips were wider than hers, my waist was narrower than hers, she was taller, she was funnier, she was smarter. I could never match up to the multitude of shes around me. With boys, there was no competition, no snarky side glances. Boys were easier, more comfortable in their own skin (or maybe they were really good at appearing to not care). I wanted to be like that. But half the world’s population could not be avoided. In school, in college, I longed for other women to speak to, to find sisters among strangers.
At the age of 17, I met a group of young women. All American, but with origins in other countries: South Korea, Japan, China, Germany, India. I too was part of this in-between, this, ‘don’t forget who you are’ and ‘don’t forget where you are going’. With these girls, there was a sense of belonging, a sense of family. I wanted to be around intelligence, around humour, around beauty, without feeling deficient. It was too easy around confident females to not feel enough.
The first time I fought with another woman – a full-fledged war of words – we became best friends. Our relationship began in my second year of college. She approached me before calculus class, a light-skinned, brown-haired, gray-eyed image of loveliness. “Hi,” she said in a very American accent, “I’m Payal.” She spoke in exclamation marks, everything was exciting. She was a Gujarati, popular and bubbly, like a freshly opened can of cola. She took me to clubs where we danced till three in the morning, she told me about boys she liked, she helped me buy my first ever halter top. We confided in each other, whispered about strained family relationships, what scared us and moved us. We gave each other confidence. Go talk to him. Rock that top. You will get that job. Don’t trust him. I will be the designated driver today.
I liked this, the reassurance of another, validation by a person unlike me, but also like me, that I was enough. Payal became, as in my prepubescent days, the person I wanted to be. I loved the feeling of loving her without hating myself. She accepted my wildness, my uncertainty, my questions. And then, we had our first fight.
I don’t remember the details, but I remember that she cried. I had feared conflict as a wall that would grow between us, but that’s not what happened. We continued being friends, and as the months stretched into years and we graduated and she left and then I left, we continued being friends. When we spread across time zones and didn’t speak for years, we continued being friends. When I called her at some ungodly hour after a fight with my partner (because who else understood but her?) and we didn’t speak for a few more years, we continued being friends.
15 years after Payal introduced herself outside calculus, I am still cautious of other women. Not all female friendships end well. Some singe me with betrayal, others pretend affection and self-destruct. Female friendships possess a certain tension – part aspirational, part comforting, part sexual, part sibling – that can overwhelm. Maybe they become a rehearsal of motherhood before women become mothers. Women are, after all, naturally protective of their own, at times too protective. Which brings me back to Sneha and Charu.
They were friends of a kind I hadn’t seen before, a symbiosis amongst a pool of insecurity. While everyone was busy hating themselves, perhaps they were protecting each other from loneliness; in pushing everyone else out, they were telling each other that they, the two of them, were enough.
(Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites)