Friends for keeps

Come what may, there’s no excuse to not make a friend

A young G K Karanth was standing in his college corridor humming ‘Aa jaane jaan’ when another student, within audible distance, joined him to complete the tune. That was in 1969, but it marked the beginning of a friendship that stands strong even today. These days we see a barrage of forwards on friendship to keep the notification bar of our smartphones busy. But Karanth belongs to that generation which has seen friendships kept alive through snail mail, email and now social media. “Friends were important well before such a day or even social media,” says the professor of sociology and director, Karnataka State Labour Institute.

Changing times

A common question Karanth recalls being asked as a child, something most children still love being asked is ‘Who is your best friend?’ “In those days, it would invariably be someone from the neighbourhood with whom you go to school, play cricket or swim in the village pond. But these days, there’s the friend at work, at the gym, and of course on Facebook. Sibi Prabhakaran, my best friend from school and I still refer to each other using our nicknames. In today’s world, it would be politically incorrect and one could never take that freedom with a friend found online. Everyone is now comfortable with compartmentalising their lives. A friend comes with a prefix — Facebook friend, gym friend, it is all space-specific. Friendship today comes with riders.”

Rohit Jacob, a 24-year-old who works as a supply chain consultant, vouches for the advantages of living in the digital age. “Making friends and keeping in touch is easier with technology be it apps or websites like Meetup, Couchsurfing or Facebook events. Although we are picky while making friends this way, the potential to meet more people with diverse or similar interests is massive.”

Going by evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory, 150 is about the number of friends a person can have in one’s real social circle. The professor at the University of Oxford is famous for his theory which states that apart from layers of friendship — acquaintances, casual friends, friends, and good friends, there are cognitive limits within each layer. So that is five ‘close friends’, 15 ‘good friends’, and roughly 50 people one can simply call ‘friends’.

“As people grow older, a friendship becomes a conscious decision unlike in childhood,” Karanth notes. “Paradoxically, in the past, ‘lonely’ would mean no friends, but now one could still feel so even with a lot of friends. Friendship and loneliness are not mutually exclusive anymore.” Call it one of the banes of modern life — loneliness is what many studies are calling an epidemic. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conducted a survey of the attitudes, anxieties and aspirations of India’s young population (between 15 and 34 years) in 2016 and released the findings a year later: 12% of the youth were found to be feeling depressed often while 8% said feeling lonely was a frequent occurrence. That the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch, was appointed by the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May in January this year is a telling sign.

Sharine Jacob, an RCI registered clinical psychologist who practices with a mental health service in Bengaluru, explains that loneliness is called an epidemic for good reason. She quotes a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that loneliness can be contagious, with the potential to ‘destabilise an entire social network’. “Loneliness is complex and varies from person to person,” she adds.

Author Sangeetha Param, whose books Key to Acceptance and Echoes From My Attic have created venues for her to spread awareness on bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, the twins that she battles herself, identifies social media as one of her triggers for loneliness. “I just need to see some friends together on a social media page and that’s it. But I have learnt to work on my issues and rebuilt ties with friends.”

Karanth remarks that friendship today is about constant sharing, rather than experiencing something. “It does not leave a lasting memory or a sense of nostalgia. I am yet to see someone who, while sitting with someone, is not texting a friend in absentia about ‘having a great time’.”

For Himanshu Poswal and Mohit Munjal, an earnest desire to revive personal interactions led to Stories Worth Sharing, a storytelling platform for the layman. A typical session, held for free, has 15 speakers who are given five plus one minutes to tell a story — the extra minute to wrap up. The founders held their first such session in Delhi which, Himanshu admits, wasn’t a full house. But the 22-year-old received an anonymous email from an attendee that showed him how SWS stood a chance as a change-maker. “It was from a girl who said she had walked into the session while passing by. She was intent on committing suicide later that day. Apparently, one of the stories narrated there made her reconsider the decision.” Ironically, Mohit and Himanshu, who have been friends for seven years now, did not hit it off immediately. “I knew we wouldn’t click. But here we are now,” Himanshu adds. A little more than a year old, SWS has made its presence felt in more than 50 cities.

Remedy for loneliness

Friendships across ages are also hugely rewarding at a time when studies are confirming how loneliness affects the elderly too. “Being active listeners and spending quality time can help build trust between friends, it goes a long way in establishing a stable friendship,” Sharine adds.

Ten years ago, when Mumbai-based journalist Jane Borges was at the start of her career, she found a friend and mentor in her elderly neighbour Ervell Menezes, a film critic and editor of a daily newspaper, who passed away earlier this year. “He was 78. In his later years, as he was forced to stay at home, the balcony was where we would sit and talk about random things,” Jane, who is in her early 30s, recalls. “I was mostly listening because he was alone and wanted to speak to someone.”

Sangeetha says she easily makes friends with people from all age groups except her own. “I feel insecure among my peers, thinking I am not as talented or good enough. But as the friend of a youngster I feel important and want them to look up to me while with friends who are older, I look up to them.” Rohit, who took a break between jobs to travel across India says making friends with people of different ages opens up a new world. “I try to keep my ego low and listen to people.”

The Knights of the Square Table, as they like to call themselves, are a testimony to bonds that have stood the test of time. The men who meet at the same table of the legendary Koshy’s every morning have been doing so since their heydays. All in their 60s now, the group, including multi-faceted chairman and managing director of the restaurant Prem Koshy, has friends of all ages who join in for some lively banter and when asked for, are doled out some advice as well. “The title is what a journalist gave us some 20 years ago for the help we were able to offer at various levels,” says the third generation keeper of the restaurant.

Sanjana R, who befriended Prem while she was an intern seven years ago with a PR company, soon took a liking to the other members comprising professionals from different fields as well. She says it has greatly enriched her life.

“They are still young at heart. The boys, as I like to call them, have definitely lived it up and continue to do so, which makes it a delight to hear their stories. What’s more, as someone much younger to them, they look out for you too. I couldn’t have had the same experience with social media alone.” She also makes it a point to keep her phone aside when catching up with people, excusing herself to respond only if the call or text is an emergency.

“There was a time when I was desperate to make new friends, eager to establish a new friendship as a deep one right away. But as I have changed my mindset and accepted myself, I have become my own best friend. I love spending time by myself, doing the things I love. Simultaneously, I found more beautiful people coming into my life through chance interactions. I think it is a reflection of how I have changed. Or maybe that’s what your 30s does to you.”

Karanth recently stumbled upon a storage box full of friendship bands gifted to his daughter by her batchmate from kindergarten to medical school. It got him thinking, “What is lasting about friendships today?”

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Friends for keeps

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