By Drishti Rakhra
In her Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante tells me the story of what would have happened if I were brave enough to hold on to friendships that meant more than they should have. I was never brave enough, but Ferrante’s Elena Greco is braver than I can ever be.
It is irritating me that I don’t know what Ferrante looks like. Unless I know this, I can’t be sure that the series isn’t written by my very own Lila. A Lila who came to me in different forms, in girls I have managed to fall in love with, even though no one could see why I loved them.
I am convinced that Ferrante is everywhere, and she looks like everyone. She is the woman sitting in the next auto; she is the friend sitting across the table; she’s the actor on TV; she’s the professor teaching me what I know.
The more rational part of my brain (and an interview on The Paris Review, amongst many others) is telling me that Elena Ferrante is in Italy. I am forced to believe that her world is very different from mine; that she hasn’t worn the same school uniform that I wore; that she didn’t sit beside me in 8th standard.
* * *
I had a friend, seven years ago, who I will now call Bubbly, even though no one has ever called her Bubbly. I met Bubbly for the first time when we were sitting in class. She was supposed to be my senior in school, but had failed 8th standard. I am (still) sure that the only reason she failed was because both of us had to become best friends.
Bubbly had soft, shiny hair, and short nails that never grew. Her face was clear of any acne and she didn’t have any of the same problems that I had. She was beautiful in a quiet way that made the rest of us pause, and when she spoke, everyone listened to her and nothing else. We were all mesmerized, but I was the only one who made it past her walls.
The two of us sat together in the last row, heads bent together, and giggled to each other over chits that her boyfriend sent her. Everyone else in class was scared of her, and I could see that they all had respect for me, something larger than politeness, something that didn’t exist before Bubbly came into my life.
But even this respect was a grudging, here-take-and-leave kind of respect. No one liked her, except for two boys. One of them, I’m certain, was in love with her, and the other one was probably in love with me. But I loved her more than boy 1 loved her, or more than boy 2 loved me. This was common knowledge.
Yet, every time it was just the two of us, she asked me, “Will you ever stop talking to me?”
My heart broke every time she said this. So with a deliberately offended undertone, I always said the same thing, “I won’t stop talking to you unless you tell me to”.
We had no reason to be friends, except that I was quieter than her. She spoke, I listened, and we fit with an ease that was confusing sometimes. Our primary conversation starter was her boyfriend, who she broke up with even before our friendship ended.
“You’ll come for my wedding, promise?”
“Yes, where else will I be?”
“But you’ll have to wear a dress. Is that okay?”
“Yes, of course, don’t worry”.
She didn’t speak much in class, but when we were alone, she spoke and spoke till my throat started hurting. Sometimes, these conversations took place over the phone and I stopped her softly even though I didn’t want to stop hearing her voice. Go have some water, I’d tell her.
My mother wasn’t fond of her, and my other friends hated her. So by the end of the year, I had three friends — Bubbly, boy 1, and boy 2, while my mother still remained my mother because I couldn’t do anything about that.
I loved her more than everyone else’s hate combined, and I felt a sadistic pleasure in knowing that she would always be mine because no one else could see what I was seeing.
Ferrante’s characters are so foreign to me; I cannot imagine what they look like. They’re almost shapeless. I only see two young girls, one smaller than the other, standing side by side, protected by an invisible force that keeps them safe from the rest of the world. Three books later, when these women have children of their own, these characters are still young girls, who have no choice but to love each other in the only way they know.
The neighbourhood they live in is a small one, and all the families live in a poverty they despise. Their existence revolves around a ‘who’s richer than whom’ competition, while the parents don’t have enough money to send their children to school. Amongst all of this confusion, are Elena and Lila.
The first separation comes in the form of middle school before I can question why they need to be separated in the first place. Lila’s parents don’t send her to middle school, while Elena is lucky enough. Elena’s life then becomes like rajma chawal without salt, and I’m left craving the simplicity of a friendship that means nothing else. A line is drawn between them and they can’t cross over to the other side, even though they can see, with a frightening clarity, what is happening in the other’s life.
It is almost as if Ferrante has deliberately juxtaposed their lives to show us what happens when a Neapolitan girl goes to school, and what happens when she stays without formal education. But Lila is extraordinary. And as much as Elena tries to hide this from me, I eventually realize that she’s hiding a part of herself behind Lila.
* * *
I met my other Lila without realizing it. This happened when I was hunched over my maths tuition book, consumed by a need to prove to my teacher that I was working hard.
Nidhi came up two flights of stairs, smiling her open-mouthed smile that showed off her braces. She had a small smile that changed with her moods and a hairline that extended well into her forehead.
We didn’t speak, and I looked back at my book after looking at her. She sat opposite me, across the table and did whatever the teacher told her to do.
In the beginning, we spoke through a mutual friend. Nidhi spoke to her, like she couldn’t see me, and I spoke to the friend in response, like I couldn’t see her. Our conversations were suspended even before they started, and we were friends before we realized it ourselves.
When we did speak, it was because the mutual friend wasn’t there. We conversed through numbers and variables that confused us, and our confusion became a common denominator that kept us together for longer than I thought it would.
No one in our school knew that we were friends. Our classes were different, and our friendship became a secret that we kept without thinking. But in the corridors, we smiled at each other.
The conversation gradually shifted from numbers to words, and she started showing me the short stories she wrote and the books she read. I began to look at her differently, and I realised that she had an uncanny ability to be good at anything she did. So I did the only thing I was capable of doing, I worked harder. We met for tuition thrice a week and I made sure to never run out of words again.
She laughed often, and she laughed like she wasn’t capable of anything else. But when she got upset; it was like neither of us could be happy again. I learnt that chocolate made her happy, and good music made her sing. We began to take our breaks at the Sweet Chariot near tuition, and I never forgot my iPod at home.
Elena and Lila end up in very different lives, and for pages and pages, I’m left wondering where Lila is. So that ultimately when Elena mentions her, my heart hurts a little bit, and everything that Ferrante has written becomes all too real.
By the fourth book, every page is leaving me with a question I can’t answer. Ferrante is making me wonder again and again, how is Elena surviving without Lila? Not in her absence, but without her presence.
Elena begins to speak of Lila with a carelessness that can only mean growth. But this is not liberating in the way it should be, and I find myself wondering what went wrong, what was so important to them that they couldn’t be the Elena and Lila of childhood. Instead, they have become surprisingly small leftovers of the people they were.
This freedom from her friend doesn’t embrace her overnight. When this distance hits her the first time, it happens when Lila doesn’t care enough about Elena’s marks in school; the second time, it happens when Lila doesn’t comment on the book she writes; by the third time, I’m able to predict this moment, and I began reading through my fingers, till Lila’s carelessness didn’t hurt me like it once hurt Elena.
At some point in the third book, Elena says, “My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her”.
Here, I have to convince myself not to cry, because I’m suddenly afraid that Ferrante has borrowed my thoughts from me, and written them down in a language I don’t understand.
* * *
I met my other Lila over Facebook, after she commented on a fanfiction I’d written. She knew me by a different name that no one else knew, and because of her, I started responding to a name that wasn’t mine.
She was unnecessarily sweet. We bonded over being in the same city even though we were part of a Facebook group that included people from Belgium and Pakistan. She was in her final year then, studying the same subjects that I am studying now. Shana, I will call her, because secretly, that’s what I’ve been calling her all this time.
Once we were done talking about our city, we bonded over an unnaturally intense love for the heroine of a show that we were in love with. Then, we laughed over the drama of our Facebook group, and cried when one of our pen friends died. Later, when we found out that this death was only a lie to make us cry, we got angry together and that was the first time I heard her voice.
I told her my real name without fully thinking about it. I don’t remember whether I did it on Facebook or Whatsapp, but immediately after, we became Facebook friends on my real account.
“I have to tell you something, but you have to promise not to get angry with me”.
“What? You’re scaring me, tell me”.
“My real name is something else, this is just a pen name”.
By then, she’d shortened my pen name into a syllable that is sometimes easier to say than my actual name. I wondered what she’d do with it.
After giving me silence for a while, she replied, “Is it alright if I still call you by your pen name?”
“Yes, yes”, I told her. “Call me anything you want”.
From then on, our conversations began before I was fully awake, and ended long after I should have been asleep. We spoke everywhere at the same time. On Whatsapp, we laughed over the number of conversations we were having. On Facebook, we asked each other what we were doing.
I met her only once, for a few minutes, on her 21st birthday. She was on the phone with me when I found her house, wearing all black, with her long hair flowing endlessly behind her. She was smiling, and my hands were shaking. We hugged and I remember her voice when she spoke.
“I can’t believe I’m meeting you”, one of us said.
“I know, I’m so happy”, the other one said.
* * *
The Elena in the last leg of the story is tired, and I feel tired with her. I want her to say to Lila all that I haven’t been able to say. But she’s quiet, and she’s occupied with books and children, husbands and boyfriends. It becomes hard to put together the Elena of adulthood and the Elena of adolescence. It seems like Elena has forgotten how it felt when Lila first held her hand, and maybe she’s forgotten the first time they spoke.
My only refuge is in the fact that Elena Greco is currently in her sixties, looking back at her life with a memory that makes me pity my paltry one. She remembers, even if I don’t, what it felt like when people turned to her when they needed Lila, and she remembers what it felt like when Lila wrote a book and called it their book.
I don’t know how Ferrante ends her story and I find myself staying away from the final book. I know the ending of too many stories, and I don’t know what I’ll do with a definite end — one I’m sure Ferrante has waiting for me. I began reading because I fell in love with an excerpt from the second book. I didn’t realize that I was allowing myself to be pushed into a world where everything is perceived differently, but felt in the same way.
Photo courtesy Art Gallery ErgsArt – by ErgSap via Flickr CC by 1.0