Two days ago, and of course, during a pandemic, yet another friend of mine got married. Continents apart, hunched over my laptop, a glass of wine in my hand. I not-so-secretly judged the haldi-full but severely mask-less faces, but I also secretly envied the overwhelming sense of busy-ness and togetherness that a wedding, fleetingly, entails.
I never thought I would envy the company of a crowd, really, but over the past eight months, the pin-drop silence in my one-bedroom in wintry Chicago has become too unbearable even for someone who genuinely loves living alone. No amount of blasting Kumar Sanu hits on my new speakers can paper over this kind of a painfully unremarkable solitude.
Don’t get me wrong. My life has been anything but uneventful. In the midst of this swirling shitshow since March 2020 – and, to some extent, because of it – a lot has happened: I (finally) defended my doctoral dissertation; a close friendship soured beyond redemption; a toxic ex-boyfriend resurfaced, was tolerated for a while and then blocked (again); I learned how to make Dutch Baby pancakes; I began hosting a podcast; and I even managed to have a huge crush on someone I met in the digital world. Still, I am an impressionable woman and I love to wistfully stroll on the slippery slope of self-pity: people had found someone willing to marry them in the midst of a pandemic, and here I was, drinking cheap Malbec all by myself and, even worse, feeling sorry for myself.
How is it that despite so much happening, that despite considerable personal growth, that despite a degree I had spent no less than six years chasing, it all feels pointless – even if I know it isn’t – in the face of heteronormative seductions? I am beyond the stage in my life where I chide myself for being a “bad feminist” – it seems like yet another insidious way in which women judge each other – but I felt real shame at being so pitifully susceptible to the dubious allure of socially-sanctioned desires.
When I woke up the next morning in the haze of a hangover, and checked my phone, I had three voice notes. From her. I played them with the kind of zeal I reserved for 90s Bollywood songs. As her husky, sexy voice filled my ears, I realized that I had actually found love in the time of Corona – one that is often harder, or as hard, to come by, as romantic love. I had found platonic pyaar. At an age when I am told it is hard to make new friends, I have not just made a new friend, but a close one. And, here is the kicker: I have never met her or hung out with her in person after we became friends. She slid into my Instagram DMs with an almost Maine Pyaar Kiya-esque enthusiasm for friendship (that she has watched this film around twenty times, is no coincidence). I fell in love, and, like with any paisa vasool desi love story, Bollywood had a huge role to play in this one.
It was sometime towards the end of 2019 that I first heard of SD through some mutual friends who felt that I, a seasoned PhD student, would surely have some sage advice to offer SD, an incoming PhD student. I didn’t have any, and I never reached out. But every romance has a ‘meet cute’ moment and ours was when we ran into each other at a Stand With Kashmir protest (the good diasporic anti-nationals that we are), and she promptly followed me on Instagram later that day. I followed her back. A few weeks later, I attended a concert by a singer I have written off as “mumblebore”: Prateek Kuhad. I sang Kumar Sanu songs under my breath in silent protest of the nasal, mumbling nonsense that I snobbishly refer to as “youth music”. But when I looked up, I saw SD, swooning and swaying to Kuhad’s crooning. When we ran into each other at a bar outside the concert hall, of course I made it a point to say that Kumar Sanu was a far better singer. She thought I was being sarcastic.
Despite our suspicion of each other’s musical tastes, we made vague “let’s hang out sometime” plans over Instagram, both of us at a stage in our lives when making new friends was more daunting than being on an online dating app. But then the pandemic began, and alongside the growing sense of dread and doom, grew the wonderful world of Instagram challenges. Someone posted a 30-day song challenge. An enthu-cutlet par excellence, I took to it with a seriousness I often wish I reserved for my academic research. Each day, I would share a Bollywood song as per the whims of the “prompt”. SD, too, started the song challenge and soon we were exchanging long notes about each song. The 30 days ended, but we wanted to keep it going and, so, decided to give each other a prompt every day and share songs in response to the prompts. We did this for 4 months, digitally singing to each other.
Every day, a playlist. Every day, a bucket of Bollywood nostalgia (and, well, discussions on the ethics of liking songs with problematic lyrics). Every day, a lot of laughter. Every day, lots of messages and voice notes. Every day, a gnawing realization that I had never felt this comfortable with any straight man. Ever. It felt like I was falling in love, except that it was easy: the way love is (supposed to be). SD and I found each other when the world felt apocalyptic, when hope felt hopeless, and when the idea of a future evaded the world. We found each other in the present. They say love happens when you are least expecting it.
Do I sound a bit silly about finding a new friend? Of course! But why ever not? Why can I not celebrate falling in (a very emotionally abundant) platonic pyaar in the way that I have celebrated falling for (yet another emotionally unavailable) man? Why must I feel the need to celebrate my professional achievements in response to people getting married? Why must I feel any less giddy about finding a friend online, my new-age pen pal? Why should I – or anyone – wonder if there is “something more” to this friendship? The friendship is the something more
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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