When I visited Pakistan after six years since leaving home, my cousin Tauseeq — may his soul rest in peace — commented, strolling aimlessly, holding hands, “Yaar, I didn’t make a single friend once you left.” I felt pangs of guilt. He might not have meant it literally, I considered. Much of our childhood and youth — our anti-Zia days — we were inseparable. We had common friends. The level of intimacy we’d experienced couldn’t be replicated.
He knew I had other very close friends, too. In fact, I had several close friends even if I didn’t anoint them as ‘best friends’. There were at least two other friends whom I’d describe as my langotias. Neither could be my cousin-best friend. That settled the problem.
Later, I’d rationalise that having many close friends was an emotional need while growing up in a broken home. My friendships were deep and since I didn’t grow up with my half-siblings, my friends and often their families provided the love.
So, when I moved to the US in 1985 for ‘higher education’, it made sense that I’d prefer recreating the emotional city of friendship over education. Due to the third-rate college I was allowed admission, I found myself surrounded by students who were 90 per cent foreign. (This turned out to be a gift from nature offering a rare insight into the lives of the underprivileged representing the third world). I was also able to help two of my Pakistani friends get admission there and that paved the way for a very deep thirty plus years-long, time-tested friendship.
Except for Tauseeq, with whom I shared political and some limited literary discussions, most of my friends, close and casual, were friends of the heart. (I grant that I enjoyed discussing Pakistani TV dramas of the late 70s and early 80s and Indian and Pakistani films just as I appreciated gossiping about cricket or a friend’s friend’s sister.)
This all changed one day as I sat taking my break from work at a pizza shop on San Francisco State campus when a young man my age came and asked, “May I sit down here?”
In the next fifteen minutes our conversation changed my life. Jeff, originally from Chicago, had recently arrived from Tempe, Arizona, doing odd jobs. I was a cinema major and we both loved cinema. Exchanging phone numbers we hoped to catch a movie. Weeks passed. I misplaced his number. One day, as I looked at the movie schedule for Red Vic, a retro theatre where they played old, underground, foreign movies, I realised the theatre was going to play Kurosawa’s classic Dersu Uzala. I really wanted to go, cursing myself for having lost his number. As I rummaged through my clutter, the phone rang. One of my roommates picked it up and summoned me. Jeff wanted to know if I’d be interested in seeing Desru Uzala!
Soon, I’d meet his roommate, John, a student of music then. With them begins my friendship of the heart and mind.
Read also: Are friends really that important?
Though it may sound unfair to other very close friends, including writers, musicians, teachers, librarians, and artists, I’d make during the course of my life, I continue to accord them a special place in the pantheon of my gods. Though I am on good talking terms with several people who can hold a conversation, my closest friends are my literary friends and, for that matter, most are outsiders, exiled.
My friends are aging 50, give or take a few years. Some have found spouses, have children, some have partners, while a few are waiting. We don’t have the same time for each other as we did some fifteen years ago, attending book talks, concerts, taking strolls discussing ideas, reading in cafes, meeting after work for a bite, or just showing up unannounced to harp on love, loneliness, and lunacy.
We make sure we are there when one of us is down. Even if I am busy cooking dinner, I’d let Victor, a friend in New York recite his new poem over the phone. A few years ago, when my father in law was in search of a Heidegger book, a friend presented him the book from his own collection.
As I offer finishing touches to this article, I know a friend, the same Desru Uzala dude, will pick us up. And as he drives us home, I’ll ask after close friends, quizzing him if he’d read any good book or watched any foreign film in my absence.
I am eager to visit Anthony, a librarian friend who’d just returned from a sabbatical having spent a year in Taiwan. Another perfectionist friend, Ramon, is dying to read the stories he’s been working on. I can’t wait to hear. That’s what friendship for me is all about, caring about each other’s well-being and enriching the lives around you with music, literature, and art.