Many women believe that men don't bond; they just spend time with each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Men have always bonded, ever since their hunter-gatherer days, when they realised that there was safety in togetherness and that hunting in packs was easier and yielded more consistent results. Put differently, men bonded with each other for survival — their own as well as that of the family and tribe. Women, on the other hand, did not really, strictly speaking, need other women for their survival, as they could play the nurturing role and care for their families even without too much support from other women. However, being emotionally finely tuned and sensitive, they realised that there was much to gain from bonding with other women — sharing responsibilities, wisdom and so forth. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex situation, it would not be imprudent to say that men bonded because they had to and women did so because they wanted to.
Over the millennia, the bonding process of the human male has changed substantially, with one fundamental exception: Men continue to bond over something. A shared interest, a shared activity, a shared past, a shared something or the other. Women need a shared interest or activity, if at all, just to get them together, but subsequent interactions are not necessarily based on this interest or activity. Men, on the other hand, need an activity or interest to bond over: a round of golf, a game of cricket, a pub-crawl, a drink at a bar, watching a Formula 1 race and so on. You'll rarely catch men bonding over a long telephone call, a walk, shopping for clothes, over a cup of coffee at each others' homes and so on. It's almost as if the activity is needed to legitimise the bond.
Still waters, as the saying goes, run deep, as do men's bonds with each other. Men do love their male friends with an intensity that is rarely displayed, save for an occasional hearty backslap or a surprisingly thoughtful birthday gift. When male friends meet, the intensity of the handshake or backslap determines how happy they are to see each other, although in contemporary times, verbal expressions are not uncommon. Traditionally, in Indian cinema and literature, the depth of the bond between men friends has always been depicted around the phenomenon of sacrifice. The protagonist's best friend is often seen sacrificing something — usually the love of his life, and sometimes his life itself — to prove the depth of his love for his friend, although it is far less frequent for women friends to be portrayed doing this for each other (women are depicted as sacrificing only for their men). However, in real life, sacrifice is rarely a central motif in the male bond.
Contemporary urban male friends invariably have deeper relationships with friends they have known over decades, typically those from school or college. The principal reason for this is that they have grown together with such friends and have little reason to pretend or project an image to them, and therefore do not fear being judged by them. It is not uncommon to see bachelor ‘best' friends spending a lot of time with each other in ‘chilling' activities, getting drunk and in general, collecting memories for the future. Invariably when old school or college friends meet, once they get past the stage of nostalgic reminiscence, they find themselves being able to start from where they left off, reflective of the depth of the male bond. Often, such old friendships last lifetimes, giving all the protagonists great comfort, joy and companionship. And through this period, not one sacrifice is asked for or provided.
Lasting the distance
Deep friendships between men can weather many storms, sometimes even more than those between women. For one thing, the expectations men have of each other are much less demanding and the slack they are prepared to cut for each other is much more. But this does not make the bond tenuous in the least. Men are, in fact, far more tolerant of their friends' irrationalities than they are of those of their wife and children and I have known this phenomenon to cause serious marital disharmony. Also, they seem to tolerate each others' boundary violations better, sometimes to incomprehensible extents. One reason for this is that men are able to relate to each others' foibles with greater empathy and when they forgive or tolerate a friend's imperfections, they are actually vicariously forgiving and tolerating their own. However, they may not give their women friends the same leeway.
There is no basis to the popular belief that when a man loves another man, a homoerotic element must be present, unless one or both men are gay. In fact, it is the absence of a sexual substrate that actually gives the male bond all the characteristics described earlier. The quality of male friendships is slowly showing subtle changes, at least in metropolitan India. Even if they're still activity-centred, they are becoming more communicative, expressive and articulate. To me, this says that the urban Indian man seems to finally feel more and more legitimate about the male bond. And that can't be a bad thing at all!
The writer is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org