It is my great fortune that I do not recall any time in my life when I did not have friends. Indeed, I have had more friends than I perhaps deserved, and most of them contributed to my life more than I could ever do to theirs.
I had a friend before I knew what friendship meant. It could only be friendship that made me and Bihari Lal seek one another’s company on the worn-out mat at the municipal primary school and jointly struggle with memorising of tables or whisper joy into each other’s ears when we found the teacher snoring or failing to reach the boy he wished to whip.
Later on, we ran together to the tuck shop convinced that the four-anna coin each of us had held the key to all the pleasures of the world. And still later on, friendship enabled me the pleasure of being denounced by puritans at the high school for sharing snacks with Jaspal from a common palm leaf. Thanks to bonds of friendship one enjoyed the freedom to break the barriers of belief, caste, and social distinction.
Friendship provided fertile soil for nourishing shared dreams. When a group of young men decided to volunteer as teachers at an evening school for the benefit of poor boys who could not go to normal schools, the owner of the place we wished to take on rent inquired as to what kept us together. When told that our bond of friendship had never been ruptured, the wise man wondered at our ignorance in laying store by a relationship that had not been tested by disagreement or quarrel.
For me, this was no revelation for I had offended one of my closest friends with a remark that was as stupid as it was offensive and he refused to admit of my existence for many years. And then, suddenly, after we had settled down into staid routines, we found ourselves talking to each other again without bothering about regrets or forgiveness on any side, and both realised that we had remained friends even during the long period of estrangement, for at some point in time we had touched each other’s hearts.
The Persian couplet that defines a friend as the one who holds your hand in times of distress and adversity offers a narrow perspective on friendship because this relationship means much more than expression of solidarity. Yet, friendships forged in adversity are often without blemish and endure for long. The memories of support by friends in periods of hardships are a treasure of love that one learns to guard jealously.
There have been friends who never disagreed with me but I learnt to value more those who told me where I was wrong, who taught me the correct pronunciation of a word I had wrongly pronounced in their presence and without pointing out my error, or who guided me to a correct appreciation of a verse by Ghalib without making me feel embarrassed.
Friendship is often challenged by a clash of interest. When I was going around as a film critic, a famous film-maker told me our professional interests made friendly ties between us impossible. For some time, I thought he had a point. But our friendship survived beyond the end of his career as a film-maker and my shift from cinema to other loves because we shared a bigger vision of life than matters related to film-making.
Friendship feeds on conversation. I was a bit surprised when I heard that Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz could sit together for hours without speaking to one another. Then, one day, I realised that I had been sitting with a dear friend for over an hour and we had been communicating with one another only through silence. As one recalls the moments of shared joy and even heated arguments over matters of life, silence not only deepens the ties of friendship, it also opens the way for dialogue on new aspects of life.
One is sometimes asked as to what have been the best fruits of friendship in one’s life. The answers almost always reveal an essential feature of one’s own character. In my case, the best friends I had were those who helped me liberate myself of traditional meanings of life and enabled me to appreciate, as best as my limited mind permitted, the ways in which one could rise above one’s self and seek satisfaction in the happiness of fellow beings.
One mistake that one should learn to avoid early in life is to take friendship for granted. Friendships can dry up if not regularly watered with sincerity. There is nothing more painful, especially in old age, than seeing the hand of death reducing your circle of friends at a time when the ability to make new friends is gone.
Also read: Friendship fatigue
Perhaps the best friendships are those that are rarely acknowledged as such. They are meetings of minds for short periods when two or more persons come together for the furtherance of a shared objective. There is an unobtrusive flow of ideas from one person to another and the sheer exultation of doing something mutually recognised as good brings out the joy of justifying one’s existence.
An understanding between two idle persons can never be called friendship, as the most sublime friendship is that which inspires a common struggle for public good. I am happy that my life has been enriched by friends by whose side I could taste the elixir of esprit de corps in search of human happiness.