Friends and friendship define who we are and who we become. Is it changing in today's virtual world of social networks, asks

When Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, there were several interpretations offered for this morbid act of self destruction. Gauguin was living with Van Gogh in his home at that time in the small town of Arles. Gauguin influenced Van Gogh to paint from thought instead of using live subjects placed right in his line of vision. Gauguin played a key role in moulding and shaping some of Van Gogh's style during his productive years at Arles.

History is rife with examples of such men and women of great talent whose paths are crossed by mentors and guides. Sometimes the association serves as a catalyst to hasten progress in their chosen field of excellence. Many leaders and achievers acknowledge the role of great influencers who have played no small part in their quest for achievement, providing just the right impetus.

The friendship of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison is a case in point. Thomas Edison met Ford at a dinner banquet of Generic Electric where Ford was a young engineer. Thomas Edison was greatly impressed with Ford's car designs and his support and encouragement went a long way in the making of Ford's historic success in the auto industry.

Lifelong friendship

Ford and Edison remained inseparable friends. After Ford became a wealthy industrialist, he convinced Edison to participate in a lot of technical and scientific projects. As friends, they also spent vacations and camping trips together. Ford even moved into a seven bedroom home next door to Edison. Their estates were separated by a wooden fence but the gate always stood open and became known as the “friendship gate”. Edison, who was quite a bit older than Ford, became confined to a wheel chair later in life. Ford, who was active and in good health, purchased a wheel chair for himself and together they both would race around the grounds in their wheel chairs.

Ford celebrated the 50th anniversary of the light bulb by establishing the Edison Institute. Later at the Banquet hall celebration, Edison played a tribute to Ford, saying, “I can only say that, in the fullest meaning of the term, he is my friend.”

Great business minds such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have come together, driven by mutual commitment to the common goal of philanthropy. Gates was persuaded by his mother to be present for a meeting in 1991 which Warren Buffet also attended. Gates, though initially reluctant, hit it off immediately with Buffet. At Buffett's behest, Gates read the World Development Report, published by the World Bank that analysed poverty levels around the world. This sparked his intense interest in philanthropy and together Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have spearheaded the effort of spreading the notion of Corporate Philanthropy across the world.

Some of the greatest mentors in eastern cultures have been teachers. The teacher-pupil relationship can be very special and significant enough to be life changing. Many a time great teachers are always on the look out for a protégé as in the case of the famous Sufi poet Jalalludin Rumi. Rumi was born into wealth, power and high society. Shams was a powerful spiritual wanderer looking for a grand master student. Their association changed Rumi's life forever. Rumi went from a somewhat scholarly personality to an impassioned seeker of truth and divine love. Shams' sudden disappearance caused Rumi great grief and during the next couple of decades he became known as a great mystical poet. His message of universality resonates to this day.

Different flavours

Friendships between people takes on a different hue in Eastern cultures. The ease of familiarity with a best buddy translates to a different dynamic of speech and behaviour, one which may seem strange and unfamiliar to the Western world. Men can be seen on the streets of India walking about with their arms around each others' shoulders. There is more intimacy, both physical and verbal, between friends without sexuality being a factor. What is socially acceptable behaviour in the East is perplexing and maybe even suspicious to Western people. A recent book by Joseph Lelyveld, on the life of Mahatma Gandhi has sparked controversy on the nature of friendship between Gandhi and his German architect and bodybuilder friend, Hermann Kallenbach. This friendship and letters exchanged between Gandhi and Kallenbach really needs to be explored in the context of Eastern behavioral patterns as well as looked at temporally, in the context of the generation and timeframe in which this occurred.

Today, friendship is the top relationship people talk about. As family sizes have shrunk and many key relationships are not of your own choosing, friendship becomes the most convenient “try out for size” relationship. You can change friends, promote and demote friends, find long-lost friends, pick up the threads from a dormant friendship or kick friends out of your life. The pleasure you derive from a budding friendship or the pain you endure from a deteriorating friendship is more manageable and less life-changing.

New-age friendships are no longer as earth-shatteringly deep as the legendary friendships of two crooks in the blockbuster movie “Sholay”. Even the light-hearted banter and camaraderie of the TV show “Friends” may be a bit passé. Recently, at the “Facebook orchestrated” high school reunion for my class of 83, an old pal gave me a rundown of the rules of engagement. “Just meet at the old school and have a good time. Asking the girls about their lives and significant others is out of bounds. Too many people are going thru too many personal transitions.”

Again, as friendships become remote clicks of a button through social networks and the sharing of photos and videos on cyberspace becomes the de facto standard of participation in friends' lives, it remains to be seen if great mentors are produced in this way.