Sunday, 7 August 2011

Friendship Day

The first week of August was always a busy one for thirteen-year-old schoolgirls. Each brought her own supply of coloured wool and thread, and through tiffin break, through math class, through the few lax minutes before the Bangla teacher showed up, she would work. The desk lid or a cooperative friend holding one end of three strings, she braids the other in a neverceasing pattern, with the practiced air of a woman who entertains while she knits. Imagine a whole class doing this. Forty-two young people. Now imagine, a week later (a rainy Monday in early August, srabon, coinciding with or just after the deathday of the Kobiguru) all forty-two of those girls proudly sporting on both arms, from elbow to wrist, the fruits of their collective labour.

Friendship Day, we called it. And friendship bands were what we made. I don't know who or what started the tradition, but it is something all of us have fallen in line with, if only for a year. I remember my year. It was Class 6 or earlier because Moni was still visiting us and we hadn't moved to the new house. Our art projects were always innovative, and one day Moni suggested we make friendship bands. She bought boxes of anchor thread and showed me how to combine two colours, double the length of thread, put one loop over your extended big toe, and begin to twist. You twisted till the whole length of thread looked like a tightly wound spring, then you doubled it again, at which it would coil into itself and look like what is called 'gold braid' on uniforms, though it wasn't braid at all. I was pleased, both with the process, and with the pile of very unique looking friendship bands I soon had. I liked them so much I didn't really want to give them away. It was maybe the first time I'd done that sort of thing.

In school, it was simple quid pro quo. Anybody you gave a friendship band to would give you one; anybody who gave you one you would have to give one to, no matter how strange or not-a-friend that girl was. Who knows what motivated girls to give away what they had made to other girls whom they didn't even much care about. But you had to, you were bound to, respect that arbitrary choice. So some of my beautiful bands ended up with people I didn't want to give them to, and I worried privately about whether they would really appreciate the craftsmanship. The genius of the whole system, though, was that at the end of the day, you would end up with exactly the same number of friendship bands as you'd initially made, from a wide spectrum of classmates-friends-acquaintances. They'd be knotted hastily around your wrist, your forearm, sometimes around fingers, and some girls had the remarkable ability to remember which came from whom. Purple-and-black from so-and-so, red-and-green-Chrismassy from the-other, lemon-yellow-sky-blue-white from what's-her-name. At home, the knots would be hard to unravel, and sometimes you'd have to get a pair of scissors and cut through the most obstinate ones. I regretted having to do that. I'd put the jumble of brilliant silk, wool, thread on my bed and patiently work through them, tying them into long chains that would either decorate my bag zippers until they became filthy and grey, or the desk in my room, hung like technicolour cobwebs from corner to corner.

We were too young to know about the commercialisation of friendship. No one in their right mind bought Hallmark cards. One or two of the maroos would inevitably give out store-bought rakhi-hybrid bands made of silk and sparkly beads, but we would look on these specimens with gracious pity and give them one of ours in return anyway. The thought behind the tradition wasn't very profound either. As I've said, we gave away friendship bands to girls we didn't really know, or like, to weird girls who had once maybe shared a bite of tiffin with you, or sat behind you in Third Language Hindi. It was just something you did. We didn't overrate the abstraction of friendship, or try to understand its complexities. Instead, we admired each others' forearms in Assembly behind the backs of the Prefects. Peacock would be a wet blanket about the no-accessories-that-aren't-a-part-of-school-uniform rule, but most of the teachers turned a blind eye. Because, it was just so pretty. The messy riot of colours on our arms were a subtle, brilliant rebellion against the stark white nurse uniforms. And no teacher, except perhaps T. Basu and those of her ilk, would seriously ask you to remove yours. There was usually a telltale row of coloured bands decorating their arms between wristwatch and blouse sleeve too. A conspiracy it was. A day of bending the rules for the sake of something pretty and useless. Friendship was a bright, thoughtless thing.

Friendship Day is something we are supposed to have grown out of. Now that we know about Hallmark and Archies and the big bad capitalist machine. And to an extent, we have. It is because I am more aware of how loaded the word 'friendship' is that I feel awkward when people send me the inevitable Happy-Friendship-Day texts and tag me in pictures of heart-bearing animals on Facebook. They haven't outgrown school, we think, and shake our heads. But the truth is, they have. And I have. Outgrown. We were, all of us, sitting around the table in the Wendy House once, friends and acquaintances and the weird girls from Hindi class alike, and someone must have slipped us a piece of Alice's cake because we sprouted up like beanstalks, smashing the roof and walls like towering infernos. Today we are gigantically awkward and stupid things, and the ones who remember Friendship Day are the ones with their feet still among the wreckage of the tea party. The rest of us loom outside, wondering how we'd ever been little enough to fit in there to begin with. A little sad, a little glad. A little wiser, but maybe in a way that wasn't necessary at all.