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Sunday, October 7, 2001
Life Ties

Female bonding needn’t be a threat
Taru Bahl

CHAVI made friends effortlessly. She was an all-rounder who was as good in studies as she was in dramatics and sports, as comfortable with her peers as she was with teachers and elders. Her greatest gift was an ability to relate to any person who came in contact with her, be it a rickshaw puller or an MIT professor. Beneath her light-hearted banter was an intense mind which programmed itself to adapt to the demands of the moment. She was duty conscious, had a clear idea of what was right and wrong, did everything in her power to stay on course, without mooning over what could have been.

When she married Biren, a research scholar with an American university, everyone was impressed. His father was Dean of a management institute and mother a museum curator. Theirs was a respected and refined family. However, Chavi’s close friends felt he was a bit too serious for her. Since she didn’t have reservations, they kept quiet. Shifting base to a new country did not intimidate her. She embraced the change spontaneously, confident that she would find her feet. Biren never curtailed her freedom. At the same time, he did not encourage her, talk to her and share with her their common aspirations. He felt her vivaciousness bordered on frivolity and since he was acutely conscious of his ‘intellectually superiority’, he couldn’t dilute his energies taking part in Chavi’s brand of fun. Harmless outings like movies and dinners too had to have a reason, a meaning. His indulgence of her bordered on tolerance not on shared participation and love.

 


Chavi’s first year in New York was painful. Her visions of the USA remained confined to the glossy pages of travelogues. Biren did not empathise with her ‘sulking’. He was not stopping her from doing anything. All he wanted was to be left alone to carry on his work. He had his set of professor friends, seminars and discussion groups, of which Chavi was never a part.

She had an arts background and no serious career aspirations. She only wanted to be happily busy. When she enrolled in a glass-painting course and took up a part-time job in a merchandising company, her husband and in-laws pulled long faces. This was not what they would have recommended. Wasn’t she interested in studying and giving her life a more meaningful direction? The discussion ended when she discovered she was expecting. Having twins sealed her fate for the next few years.

Since Biren was busy studying, researching or travelling the onus of bringing up the boys fell on Chavi’s shoulders. She missed her friends back home. Though they kept in touch, calling up and e-mailing, she missed physical contact. It was only when one of them came to the USA, making a special detour to be with her that she did her sight seeing. The three whirlwind days were a dream, though she knew the family was not happy with her "trooping the countryside like a tramp". Had they openly expressed their resentment she would have felt better. Their disapproving side glances and monosyllabic communication made her feel guilty. Her friend was disturbed seeing how Chavi had changed without even realising it. Rather than address the problem, she was more comfortable getting on with her life, doing what was expected of her. In the months to come, whenever a friend was visiting, she wriggled out of meeting them. Why do something the family didn’t approve of? Besides she felt she was resilient enough not to get hyper over such trivialities.

When the boys started school and she had time on her hands she decided to take up a course in interiors. Much to her surprise, she topped her batch and was offered a teaching assignment in the same institute. She had a good equation with her colleagues, especially with Peter, who in spite of being 10 years senior was easy to get along with. Open and amiable what she particularly liked was that he had no attitude despite being so popular. They spent hours talking of work, life, relationships and their common passions of music and reading. She knew Peter’s feelings for her were changing. She was not ready to confront her own feelings for him. Putting a distance between them was easier than allowing herself to be vulnerable. She didn’t allow herself to question the reasons that led to their comfortable camaraderie. Was it because her relationship with Biren was barren and desolate? Was she holding on to a marriage only for the sake of giving her sons a normal home? Did she have no right to emotional, romantic and, yes, even sexual happiness? Did she always have to put her feelings and desires on the backburner? Before these questions popped up on her conscious mind frame she quit her job and joined a design company.

She lost touch with her friends not because they drifted apart but because she gave the impression of wanting to be left alone. Her domestic commitments always took precedence. There was no desire to forge new friendships. While doing her project on low-cost housing, she met Sanyukta, a second-generation Indian working as a partner in a firm making pre-fabricated houses. What started off as a professional alliance became a deep friendship between the two women. Both were in their late 30’s, married with families to take care of and having similar interests. The only difference was that while Chavi had suppressed desires having spent the best part of her life being what others expected her to be, Sanyukta was very much her own person. She was independent without being wild and had cultivated the knack of putting herself first where it mattered without being outright callous. She would goad Chavi into going for plays, movies and book readings. Initially, Chavi felt guilty, going without her husband and sons. But, she soon realised that she could either wait stupidly for the ideal complete family outing to happen or thanklessly give up all things that mattered to her.

They enrolled in an amateur theatre group which met every week. Chavi’s life changed, miraculously. At home she was still doing all the things that were expected of her. But she was happier and calmer. She had made the transition from existing to living. In Sanyukta she found a soulmate with whom she could talk of anything under the sun. The relationship proved cathartic, healing her of all the hurts she had accumulated over the years

The family didn’t take to this association kindly. They were convinced that Sanyukta’s over influence would ‘spoil’ 38 year old Chavi. They resented the long telephone calls, girlish chatter, conspiratorial gossiping, impromptu outings and the sudden spark in Chavi’s eyes. Their ‘intellectual bent of mind’ didn’t allow them to openly crib but they certainly didn’t like this new-found buddy. Sarcastic remarks surfaced and the sons too expressed their displeasure. They had got so used to having Chavi focused only on them that they could not adjust to a situation where they had to share her with another person. Also seeing that Chavi’s happiness had nothing to do with any of them was unsettling. Chavi, on her part, did not feel guilty about her association with Sanyukta. She had shared a similar rapport with Peter but that had not seemed right. Even if they had not drifted into a romantic relationship, she had felt guilty. Sanyukta, being a woman, offered no threat and there was no need to explain their bonding. She knew Sanyukta wished well for her.

Sanyukta’s contacts in the industry had helped her upgrade her own professional status. Her rational advice always helped when she was in a bind at a time when her sons were going through the ‘turbulent teen’ phase. And when her husband met with a sudden heart attack it was Sanyukta’s physical and moral support which helped Chavi tide over the toughest period of her life. Her friendship had not been cultivated keeping any tangible gains in mind. Yet, when it proved ‘useful’, the family was forced to acknowledge the positive contribution. Her conscience was clear. She knew that by having a friend, even if she was a very close and intimate friend, she was not neglecting any of her personal commitments. She was doing no wrong. And she was not willing to give it up just so that her family could feel secure about her. They had to accept it for their own good. Because wasn’t Chavi now a happier, more exuberant person?

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