By Saba Sharma
One morning at 3.34 am, I received a text from my friend, telling me life would have been easier for him had he listened to the “collective wisdom of those who had known me before,” and stayed away. Even as I struggled to make sense of this, I thought it was rather elegantly phrased. I imagined a group of my friends sitting gravely around a table (sort of like the Wizengamot in Harry Potter), nodding sadly as they all agreed yes, yes, it was safer to just keep one-arm distance.
We were brought closer, as people sometimes are, by grief and loss, in this case his. A missed phone call from him at 5am on my phone, when I woke up, and I knew something terrible must have happened. When I called back, he was trying to process the shock that results from the death of someone close, while also on his way to the airport; a grim modern pilgrimage. Over the next few months, he processed everything from the emotional to the pragmatic, and I tried, without being too sanctimonious, to be a good friend. We started to make jokes again, he found relief in talking about the mundane, but of course, grief bubbles like an undercurrent, always waiting to pull you down. He returned to the university that we were both at, and tried to get on with work, while I tried to imagine what it must feel like to attempt normalcy in these circumstances. I couldn’t, and so I did what I thought was best — kept up a steady stream of conversation consisting of idle observations, bad jokes, article suggestions, and mutual laments about what a pain it is to write. To be a friend, I thought, is to be present.
The night before he sent me that 3.34 am text, we had an uncomfortable conversation, one that I was later informed was inevitable. In my zeal to be the supportive, ‘good’ friend, I had apparently conveyed the wrong intention — that I was interested in something more than friendship. As he realised this wasn’t so, he first became sad, suggesting we stop meeting, and then angry, accusing me of manipulation and inappropriate behaviour. The first angry text was followed by several others, each angrier and more possessed than the last, spilling over into emails that arrived often enough for me to start dreading my inbox. Over the next few days, I lost my focus, missed a deadline, and wrote a long email to someone asking what friendship really was. Because I perhaps vaguely felt responsible for causing it, I did not engage, thinking it best to let him vent his anger, until I got scared enough by the content of the messages to send a single line asking that they stop. Many more messages and emails later, I contacted a professor at the university, and asked for help. She used the word ‘harassment’, and gently explained the procedure to lodge a formal complaint. The use of the word made me feel relieved, free of the things I attempted to understand as my own doing, but also heavy, because our friendship now became shelved as an official category, on which someone could take action.
I never did end up complaining formally — the threat of the complaint was enough, after a few more angry rants, to bring a close to both the harassment and our friendship. Despite repeated warnings from friends not to do so, I started to wonder whether I had done something to bring this on myself. So I went over all the texts, the emails, wherever and in whatever form they existed, from the ordinary to the intense. I was surprised at my own capacity to revisit every documented interaction with one human being. At times I was bored, exasperated at reading the ‘ok’s and ‘hmm’s, but I was dutiful — I went through it all like a meticulous detective looking for evidence of guilt. Which tongue-in-cheek joke equalled leading on? How many ‘haha’s are too many? And were they right all along, in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, that men and women could never just be friends, that dosti must necessarily equal pyaar?
Despite my best intentions, liberal upbringing, and Fabindia pajamas, when push came to shove, I had internalised all the dire warnings women are given about men, and yet somehow not paid them heed — don’t laugh too much (but not too little haan?), be caring and nurturing (but just enough), and men are like that only yaar, you have to be careful what you say (but uff, don’t be a prude, this is the 21st century). Years ago, when I was interning at a newspaper office, a fellow intern (and friend) became obsessive to the point of stalking, and the meanest thing my 19-year-old self managed to say to him was “I find your persistence extremely uncomfortable”. A few months later we laughed it off, I found ways to avoid him, and it never occurred to me to take it up with anyone at the office.
As I gained distance from the texts and emails, and found ways to narrate the incident to other people, similar stories were repeated back to me, of persistence, fear, and ultimately, a niggling sense of self-doubt that asks, is it me? I thought again about the council of advisors, my Wizengamot, pronouncing me unfit for society. I wondered if they had existed at all, or whether it was something made up in a moment of anger, to make me doubt my own behaviour. I went back and forth on questions that I knew weren’t going to be answered. Where does grief end and anger begin, to what degree can the former justify the latter? How much leeway is enough (or too much) when someone suffers, doesn’t suffering also need an outlet? Did I do right by a friendship by refusing to make a big deal of the most harrowing few days in recent memory, or did I just let Kajol, looking longingly at Shah Rukh, tell me that it is always our own fault, whether we get the guy or we don’t, whether we want him or not?
Saba Sharma is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.