We met in a rickety classroom as yet another school volunteer project overstepped its time. I stumbled in, tugging at the hem of my saree. Cast in the role of compère for the day, I was looking for some breathing space.
You had claimed a little corner of the room and had pen to paper, sketching to pass the time. You appeared almost older than the rest of us, tired of our childish pursuits, and seemed to scream, ‘come, see, there’s a world to be lived beyond our schools and communities, beyond what we know of ourselves’.
We were opposites but struck a fast friendship that would span over the next six years. A fluctuation between conversations that lasted long into the day, to quick text messages. The early days were simply about trying to understand where each of us came from. What were our personalities made of? Why would some conversations be more difficult than others? Nobody told us back then that teenagers carry some of the worst burdens — old enough to see and know, but young enough to feel dependent, and sometimes lost and helpless.
We played stereotyped roles for a while. I belonged to my strict cultural roots, in awe of your stories of flirtation and heady conquests — scribbling in my journal, writing stories for no one to see. You, the misunderstood artist, seducing and drawing, or was it drawing and seducing? You could float about free, in thought and movement, always fighting against what was expected of you. I would walk with self-consciousness prickling at my very skin, curving my spine and bringing my head low. I played right into the role of the Muslim elder daughter, balancing textbooks in one hand, prayers in another, ignoring all inner conflict that stayed on like a stubborn dust layer.
We spoke of life, of hopes and dreams in the way only teenagers can. We argued about society and religion, each bringing to the table opinions coloured by our own experiences. If I could sketch out our friendship, it would be a jumble of everything, from pen strokes etched into paper to airy paint strokes smooth against a surface. In many ways, we complemented each other. You kindly rolled your eyes at my ever-lengthening list of insecurities. I never let you know that I could hear over your glib tones that masked a soft yet dark loneliness.
Soon, you left, and our friendship shifted to changing times and longer distances. You would speak over the mumbles of friends in your dorm room or the automated ‘subway lady’ telling you to hurry up, usually while munching on some Pringles. On my end, the sounds remained the same; chirpy birds at my window or the occasional rumbling of a tuk tuk with the waves crashing on the side of Marine Drive.
We could barely keep up with our ever-changing early 20s. I had metamorphosed out of the prescribed baggy t.shirts and jeans (all things shapely were haram!) and had discovered my friends’ cupboards. The selection was overwhelming; dresses, mini skirts, sequined spaghetti strap tops! More than a decade late, I was finally catching up on the fashion of the 2000s.
You too were finally fitting in. Away from the restrictions of your home, you were painting more, studying, reading.
I met my first boyfriend. You got your first job.
I started drinking, partying. You met girls, so many girls.
Each month we were different people, enamoured by new faces, intoxicated in new places, and inspired by new politics and philosophies. We spoke so much about our own selves; we heard each other less. We canceled calls. Postponed Skype sessions. Before we knew it we were only speaking in sudden bursts of random thought or drunken nights. ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ ‘You there?’
Sometime in 2016 we gave up on our friendship.
I still hear about you through retold stories and reshared posts. Your art has changed, and I want to ask you all about it. When did the paints give way to illustrations of social commentary? In another world, you would have been trying to explain it to me, and I would’ve pretended to understand while secretly yearning for your brushstrokes on canvas, however less political. But, I hesitate and postpone, and let you stay awhile lingering in the corner of my friendships.
Although I think I am, for you, a distant memory.