Stories that never leave

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Old friends have a much deeper bedrock of memories and shared imprints that families — even doves in love — just don't have to draw from to fuel the relationship after long separations.

My oldest friend, Mahajabeen, lives in New Zealand — a place so remote you either run to it or from it. Maj is a mycologist, which I think means she spends time in woods, collecting mushrooms and presents papers on things like the Amanita muscaria from time to time. We met in Madras when we were seven, and the thing that impressed me most was that in her house there were photographs of god, and he was alive and wore suits, which was far more chic than any of the gods I’d ever been exposed to.

Source: Wikipedia

The Amanita Musicaria is the iconic toadstool. The large, white-gilled, white-spotted, usually red mushroom, is one of the most recognisable and widely encountered in popular culture.

If you have a childhood friend that writes papers on these things, you are likely a well-informed adult.

Later, I found out that the Aga Khan is not exactly “god” to the Ismailis, more of a spiritual leader, but it didn’t take away the shine for me. She also threw legendary birthday parties and could faint on demand. I knew from the beginning that being friends with Maj was going to open up new vistas for me.

When you’ve known someone for 33 years there’s an element of shamelessness that enters the relationship. There is nothing you can’t say to each other because you have already stayed up so many nights, trotting out treatises on unworthy boys and recorded them on cassette tapes should proof of embarrassment be needed later in life. You have worn balloon skirts and big belts and moulted through seasons and seasons of unreasonable hair. You’ve lied for each other, and shared beds, clothes, toys. You’ve even bum-skated together, which essentially means you’ve given up the right to judge one another.

When I went to visit Maj at her liberal upstate NY college, she took me to the student club’s ménage-à-trois party, where I remember a tiny Chinese boy sliding ice cubes down people’s shirts and pants, and I said, “That’s interesting.” When she came to visit me at my ultra-conservative North Carolina college, my then boyfriend told her how he’d once had ringworm, and she said, “That’s interesting.” We are obliged to find each other’s lives interesting, to support whatever decision the other makes. So when I hear about celebrity couples falling to the wayside or suburban marriages ricocheting here and there, I feel only a piddly tug at my heartstrings. Marriage isn’t a patch on surviving girlhood together.

^ The unrupturability of the bonds formed by girls who share childhood and adolescence is the highlight of the 1995 film Now and Then, and a number of other bildungsromans. | A movie still

Now that I’m 40 I think a lot about what it means to be a girl, mainly because childhood feels like such a faraway country and it seems miraculous to have made it from there to here with only minor injuries. With Maj though, there’s a curious sensation of inhabiting different time zones and countries at once. Every layer of life is superimposed upon the other — transparency upon transparency, until there’s a collision of selves and multiplicity. If we had continued to live in the same town as some of my other childhood friends do, or anchored ourselves in places where a two-hour flight could find us in a bar together with a bottle of pinot gris, perhaps the effect wouldn’t be so disorienting.

Relationships nourished by regular meetings tend to be moored more securely to the present because it gets tedious to keep jawing on about remember when. But when you meet only thrice in fifteen years, the past has an undeniable seat at the table, and it’s like watching ghosts appear — that god-awful 13-year-old you thought you’d suffocated with a pillow, that mealy-mouthed matchstick wearing leopard print and legwarmers, dancing to “Eye of the Tiger” in front of a mirror. Gawd, really? She’s back?

Girlhood friendships that survive adulthood have only the vagaries of hormones, the sloppy humanity and cruelties of childhood to bind us. Little is more adhesive.

So when I visited Maj in Auckland recently, I expected some amount of falling through the looking glass. What I hadn’t expected was the effect of meeting the Queen of Now, Maj’s three-year-old daughter, Alia, who would much rather talk about kangaroo poop than a place that was once called Madras. “Why you here? Why you staying in my house?” was what she kept asking. But really, she was trying to understand, who are you? The idea that her mother had been a girl before she became her mother was more incomprehensible to her than kangaroo poop being grass before it became poop.


For a week, we skirted around these sinkholes of the past. We took road trips to soak in hot sulphur baths and nearly got swept off cliffs watching gannets nest. Sometimes Alia would stay at home with her father, allowing Maj and I to speed-walk through museums before doing what we really wanted to do, which was to sit in a shadowy restaurant and figure out what it means that we are turning into our mothers. Friendship, like happiness, is notoriously difficult to write about. Elena Ferrante holds the current gold standard with her Neapolitan quartet, even though growing up in Naples feels far edgier than Madras could ever be. Unlike romance, which comes with an inbuilt selection of possibly shitty or great outcomes, girlhood friendships that survive adulthood have only the vagaries of hormones, the sloppy humanity and cruelties of childhood to bind us.

You’ve lied for each other, and shared beds, clothes, toys. You’ve even bum-skated together, which essentially means you’ve given up the right to judge one another.

Would we be friends if we’d met at this juncture in our lives? I think, probably not. But because of this deep imprinting that happened when we were inhabiting time in a way Alia is now, it means we can forever meet in future time and speak in code. Either one of us could say “Tibetan shack and phosphorescence,” “coming to school to warm the benches” (said in the voice of Mrs George), “wirginity for wegetarianism” — and totally get it. It’s bedrock so deep and, to pervert Emily Dickinson, a kind of family aslant. For while you may tell your family one set of things, what you tell your friends are an entirely different set of things, which are somehow closer to the truth. In a way, being with this person is like reading the book of your life — all the diaries and letters you’ve destroyed, only to realise that escape with this person is never possible.

When it was time for me to leave New Zealand, Alia was teary-eyed. “Why you have to go? But why?” she kept asking, because I was part of the story now. The idea that I had my own dogs, house and family somewhere else was outrageous. “But you stay here,” she kept insisting. And in a way, I suppose, part of me does.

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