In an era where we fetishize opinions we don’t own, the weekly ‘Moderate Mahila Mandate’ presents unadulterated and non-partisan views on what’s happening to women in India today.
A week after I’d given birth to my second daughter, I was walking in my building garden, soaking up some early morning sun, as I always do. An aunty came up to me and scolded me for showing my legs: “In our times, new mothers did not leave the house or ‘expose’ their bodies for 40 days.”
I could’ve reacted badly and told her to mind her own business. Instead, I told her to come and sit next to me, and soak in some Vitamin D. It would help her old bones. I could see her surprise. She’d not expected this. She quietly rolled up her pajamas and sat with me, finally asking how I was doing as a new mom. From judgement to sisterhood in a quick minute.
There are many moments in our life when we ache for goodness, simplicity and innocence. To feel a sense of belonging and kinship with family, friends and relatives. Most of these moments come through these unexpected instances of warmth and kindness.
It’s no surprise then that during the past week, the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Uunchai has been in the spotlight for exploring octogenarian friendship. Like Baghban, which was a success in exploring the loneliness parents face at the hands of sophomoric children, Uunchai is a heartfelt ode to friendship no matter what your age. The movie’s success is also perhaps a proscriptive reminder to the film industry that post the pandemic, audiences are looking for clean and simple stories about human relationships. Perhaps, like the film, friendship is our only motivation.
And this got me thinking: wouldn’t it be lovely if we also explored female friendships for the elderly, or between the elderly and the young? For there are so many unexplored stories in our country about female friendships, just waiting to be told.
For the uninitiated, India has a rich of celebrating female friendships. During the 19th and 20th century, a tradition in Bengal was followed called ‘Shoi Patano’––bonding with girl friends. The shared experiences of women would be captured with fond nicknames, thoughtful gifts, and sometimes even passionate letters, which would even evoke jealousy in neglected husbands! This inspired similar traditions like ‘Makara Basiba’ in Odisha. The Dawoodi Bohra Community too kickstarted a concept of ‘Thaal Pe Charcha’ where women formed groups to meet every month to eat and bond.
These friendships are further deepened by the fact that women’s friendships with men, even on screen, rarely exist. There’s no friendship explored; only cataclysmic romantic interests pursued, such as if a woman is not interested in a man, he will not relent till he wears her down.
There are really so many themes to explore within this gamut of female friendships. Because in India, of course, friendship has never been simply about women. It’s tied to larger issues like colonialism, nationalism, development, and the conflicts we are seeing in democracy today. Female friendships are often also called situationships in cities, a sort of cordial bonding that gets developed amongst say mothers whose children go to the same school, or live in the same neighborhood, or have shared interests. We all seek various ways in which bonding might help us navigate our life’s journey.
There’s also the fact that, for some reason, women being friends makes some men uncomfortable. When two women at a restaurant table leave together to use the restroom, the men on that table are visibly roused. What information is being exchanged, what secrets divulged, what affairs discussed? The strength of female bonding is so strong that even a whiff of it arouses deep suspicion. Perhaps that’s why women getting together in elite circles is sometimes derisively called ‘Kitty Parties’, even though its subtext is to empower women by enabling them to run funds through a rotating savings association. Perhaps that’s why for so long feminism was considered a bad word. Women coming together in a show of strength is the most powerful thing the world has ever seen, and sometimes the world knows not what to do with this power.
And how can we forget what really broke the camel’s back? Social media. The buzz around sisterhood gained more and more traction, snowballing into a unified voice. For the first time there were no barriers to female friendships––no children to put to bed, no in-laws to make round-round chapattis for, no nosy aunty poking her nose into your business. It liberated women everywhere. You could support any woman, anywhere in the world, and help her not to feel small when faced with molestation, eve-teasing, domestic violence, dowry harassment, rape, rape threats, unequal wage, glass ceilings, slut shaming, body shaming and anything shaming. We were one in one easy click. And that’s when female friendships really came into the forefront.
As I see it, female friendship is about playing by our own rules and making our own choices. It gives women access to happiness, equality and agency––agency to our private and public space. It has been needed to defend the social, political, economic and cultural rights of women, especially in rural areas where women face ghastly social inequality and discrimination. Female friendships have so much going for them, isn’t it time Bollywood had a go at them too?
Meghna Pant is a multiple award-winning and bestselling author, screenwriter and columnist, whose latest novel BOYS DON’T CRY (Penguin Random House) will soon be seen on screen. You can Insta her @Meghna.Pant.
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