Monday, May 15, 2017

Between the Lines: A few thoughts on long-distance friendships

Handwritten greetings.  There is something about putting pen to paper.  Something in that ink – yes, I still use fountain pens – makes thoughts flow, I suppose!  Sending greeting cards along with a one-page letter via postal mail is a habit that I have had for the past 18 years.  My Chinna Thatha, who passed away rather suddenly in 2005, used to send me handwritten cards when I was young.  I even remember how he used to sign off – “Out of natural love and affection, R Varadarajan.”  I somehow found the word “natural” enormously touching.  I wonder if it is the rather special feeling that his cards gave me that made me pick up this habit.  18 years ago.  That was when I completed high school.  That was when I left the shores of Chennai and migrated with my parents to the US.  And that was when I bid goodbye to my group of friends at the Anna International Airport.  These friends form a very important part of my identity.  The space that I give myself on this blog is incredibly Lilliputian for me to start writing about each of them.  But there is one facet that I think I can do justice to – the long distance aspect of friendships.

Save a short period when one of these friends and I were roommates, I have not lived in the same city as any of them in these past 18 years.  All of them except one (who lives in Dubai) live in the US, none within a decent drivable distance.  Of course, thanks to technological advances, communication itself has become easier.  But the truth is, we live in a fast paced world.  As familial responsibilities and professional ambitions vie for time, space, not to mention energy, there are periods of silence.  Amid these stretches of time, handwritten wishes for birthdays are a mere tool that breaks the silence ephemerally.  It is a fleeting voice of emotion, an expression of a genuine sentiment.  But there are lot more spaces between the lines, so to say.  And, owing to extended periods with minimal communication, it is not a question of reading between the lines.  It is a question of filling in the blanks. 

Where there is trust, the process of filling in your own blanks works in the most fulfilling kind of way.  With this set of friends, the blanks have been akin to those pregnant pauses between two notes of scintillating, evocative music.  But outside of this group, I must say that I have had instances where the gaps have been filled with so much resentment and bitterness that the residual sadness has been analogous to the seemingly interminable pauses during a funeral dirge.   And, I would be utterly dishonest if I were to not take a fair share for the blame for relationships that went awry.

A couple of months back, I sent a card to a friend from my high school gang for his birthday.  In my usual one-page letter, I recounted how much a recent meeting, after three years, meant to me.  It was the first time after my Aunt’s passing away that I had met him.  He had, in an unfortunate coincidence, lost his Uncle in the intervening period.  When we had met, we spoke of our respective grieving experiences until the wee hours of the morning.  And in my card, I wrote that that meant much to me.  So, you would think that he would respond at least with a Whatsapp message that he received the card.  Well, you’d be wrong. (His wife, thankfully, acknowledged the card!)  But the funny thing is that I did not feel an iota of anger.  And trust me, I was not known for subtlety and understatement in the early years of our friendship.  Somehow, I just knew instinctively that the letter made him smile.  He might have shown it to his parents who are visiting him.  Or maybe he thought it was too sentimental and didn’t know how to respond!  I have no idea.  But there was something very satisfying about the fact that I could, in my mind’s eye, see him open the card and pause to reflect on its contents.  The 'blank' felt anything but that.  And I must thank my friend for having invested so much in our friendship that even in the absence of a response, I walked away with a special feeling.

Outside of this group, I have also had relationships where a failure to invest in quality time in one another during times of need and a lack of judgment around when the silences were too prolonged, proved to be a fatal one-two punch to the core of the friendship.  The mistakes that I made were twofold.  I assumed that the foundation of the relationship was unshakable.  As a result, I found it difficult to accept a changed dynamic that stemmed out of a strong reaction to perceived apathy on my part.  And worse, I did not make enough of an effort to communicate, not just talk, with the people concerned.  After a while, the blanks ceased to exist.  Not for a good reason – the ‘sentence’ just ended abruptly.  Every healthy relationship has as a core, a few hallmarks, a few traits that lend a unique kind of beauty to it.  When that core foundation of trust is shaken, the friends cease to be secure pillars of support to one another.  The pillars just collapse in a heap.  And the resultant rubble is a painful sight.  Which pillar collapsed quicker is an utterly needless question.  And so, pointing fingers can be an indulgent but ultimately futile exercise.

One of the reasons why Anu Hasan’s “Sunny Side Up” meant a lot to me was because she wrote honestly about failed friendships where each person had given the other a long enough rope and yet both parties felt like they were at the end of their tether.  Reflecting on my own successful and doomed friendships, I thought about the importance of exercising judgment and cutting some slack when it mattered the most.  But the book also gave me a sense of comfort and even closure, that as long as I am conscientious, I have to sometimes accept that certain relationships weren’t meant to last a lifetime.  That I am better off focusing on the lessons learned.  That if I keep watering the roots of my relationships with consistent sprinkles of trust, honesty, humor and empathy, the friendships will continue to be the deep-rooted and protective.  Then the birthday cards and one-page letters simply punctuate the silences in an immensely gratifying manner.  Even a friend’s failure to respond to a greeting just serves to then fill a blank with an amusing thought that culminates in the most comforting of punctuation marks - an exclamation point! 



Anu Warrier said...

One of your best essays, Ram. I loved the analogy of music/dirge. That's so very apt.

I'll add, sometimes you become friends with someone without ever having met them,and that someone adds something so wonderful to your life that you wonder how you got along without them in it. There's amazement at finding an amorphous someone who just 'gets' you. One may never meet, but friendship it is, nevertheless.

Thanks for making my morning brighter.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you, Anu, for your lovely comment.
I totally agree with you on the "amazement" factor!
Thank *you* for making my Monday brighter!

Zola said...

Ram Murali : Heartily echo Anu's sentiments.

I started reading the article and when you started talking about hand written greeting cards I started nodding vacuously - thoughts such as how strange that a hand written card still means so much in this e-world but a hand written letter evokes contempt and may even result in fissures being created in a relationship.

Then when I started reading the paras that followed I was woken up from vacuous stupor where you delve into the dynamics of relationships.

Again be warned that this wont be the only time that I read this article this week.

I'm still recovering from the first "onslaught" and need few more readings to grapple with the points you've made.

At a very basic level it appears we have time and energy to maintain only so many relationships at a point in time.

For instance I met my "first wife" in Viveka college and we spent a helluva lot of time together.

Then after C.A I went to work in Baroda and Bangalore I completely lost touch with him.

When I returned to work in Madras eight years later we picked up the threads as if nothing had happened in the interim. Strange.

For now the ending exclamation mark remains :)

Ram Murali said...

Thanks a ton, Ravishanker.

"When I returned to work in Madras eight years later we picked up the threads as if nothing had happened in the interim. Strange."
--> I don't think it's strange @ all. Friendships have given me many such pleasant surprises!

Unknown said...

Ram I can really think of several friendships that I have been able to maintain long distance and like Ravi Shankar said just pick up the thread as if time had not passed. I really think that there should be a common bond and a natural affinity that will help keep the friendship even if one has not seen the other person in years.
Also there are some friendships that just break up-I always feel bad and try not to let that happen as I feel I have invested a lot of time and emotions into a friendship. But I suppose some friendships also have EOL.

Ram Murali said...

Thanks, Ma, for the thoughtful comment.