30 January 2015

There's friendship and there's dependency

My friend Dammika Amarakoon has a theory about friends and friendship. "Friendship is only possible among equals. All other relationships to a greater or lesser degree describe slavery, they speak of ties based on want, on the one person’s inadequacy or inability and another persons capacity and ability." I suppose when one takes the entirety of a relationship, this is true. This reminded me of something someone had said about friendship: "A man can have one friend in a lifetime. If he has two he is privileged."

Is it that we don’t run into equals often enough? Is it that we don’t have the time? I don’t know. I believe however that in those relationships to which we carelessly attach the tag "friendship", there are moments when this "equality" occurs. It all depends on the subject. But then again, does the fact that one can discuss the political situation with a like-minded individual in a given moment, qualify the encounter and the individuals concerned to use the friendship descriptive? Dhammika would disagree.

Is there something intrinsically important in friendship? Do all "equals" share everything with one another, all the stories, all the heartache, the fears and joys in addition to that which flows from their intellectual predilection? Dhammika would argue that such sharing is only possible, in a real sense, when the precondition of equality is satisfied. Perhaps.

Now I have had friends. Years ago, when I heard that I had been selected to enter the University of Peradeniya, I shared some concerns with my friend Sampath Agalawatte. "All my friends are in Colombo. Most of them are or will be attending universities in and around Colombo. I don’t know anyone in Kandy. I am a bit worried," I said.

Sampath made an observation by way of response: "Wherever you go you will always make a few enemies. They will hate your guts. But then again, you will always have lots of friends." True. This is what happened. Both at Peradeniya and in all the strange and familiar places I have been to since. True even today, where I work and wherever my work and my life interests take me.

Sitting outside my house, drinking beer, discussing everything from friendship, friends, old times to politics, political philosophy and the more salient aspects of life, I could not help thinking that Dhammika had a point. Friends have come and gone, but such friends are a dime a dozen, so to speak. That which changes with distance and circumstances does not lend itself to classification under the subject "friendship".

I remember how I somehow found the email address of a classmate. I had not talked to Eraj Basnayake in over ten years. I emailed him and then we talked over the phone. Eraj also had an observation: "When time passes, things change. Even friendships. But then there are friends whom you meet after a long absence and it is as though time had stopped." Yes, there are encounters about which one can truly say: "nothing has changed". We talk again as though continuing a conversation. There is a sharing, a remembering and a genuine embrace. The issue of "equality" never figures in these conversation. I haven’t spoken to Eraj in almost a decade now. I am convinced that if we met or talked, we will continue from where we stopped.

Perhaps at a "higher level", i.e. among a superior breed of conversationalists, the question of equality would be the meat of interesting philosophical debate. What do the rest of us do?

I met an old friend a week ago. I hadn’t seen her in almost fifteen years. Time had naturally carved its unmistakable signature on our faces, our bodies and naturally on our sensibilities. But Shiromi’s smile had not changed one bit. Her eyes spoke the friendship that silence had failed to erase. Equality? I don’t know if she and I could talk about anything and everything. I am sure one of us or probably both would get bored pretty quickly if we tried out that exer cise. But there are regions we can walk together, places we could re-visit, things that will not grow old. Is this friendship of a lesser order? I don’t know.

I am moved by little things. A familiar face creates a question mark in my heart that sends a pulse to my mind. I am fond of old stories. I know friendships can change with time. But I am convinced people change more slowly and that however values, ideologies and locations may distance people, there is always a little something that allows space for an embrace. Sure this is hardly proof of " of the kind Dhammika talks of. It is sweet, still. And in this world of diminishing returns, departures, loss and humiliation, in this world that awaits the philosopher king and friendship that are equal, in this endless interim, I would say, "call it whatever you may want, it is still desirable". Dhammika will not disagree, I am sure, because although he dwells in absolutes, he has the eyes to recognise the utility (poor word, I know) of lower-order things.

The perfect friendship: that would be special, lovely and indescribably pure. But then again, the existence or possibility of perfection presupposes the reality of imperfection. This side of the perfect world, it cannot be all sorrow. I once wrote to my friend Tony del Plato, saying that I hoped the weather of that particularly cold winter was not hurting his spirits. Tony, an anarchist, a farmer, a cook and one of the nine owners of the famous Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, responded thus: "There is virtue in accepting certain things for what they are. When it is summer I enjoy the sun. In the winter the snow is beautiful. I am content."

Seeing the beauty of the imperfection does not necessarily mean that one allows oneself to be wrapped in the blanket called illusion. One can be aware of the limitations, one’s own included, and still hold someone’s hand without keeping back an iota of warmth or love. I am sure the world becomes a less bitter place for it.

We cannot all be princes and princesses. There will always be royalty (in the broader sense), regality in personality, relationship, work ethic and in terms of contribution to making the world a better place. There will always be petitioners. Mendicants. Vermin. Showing compassion is not co-terminous with superiority. Step back from self, move away from the demand for the perfect solution, walk the vast plains that lie between "all" and "nothing", without losing sight of these ideals, and life becomes a little bit more beautiful, a little bit more tolerant, I believe. This side of equality, too, life can be sweet. Friendships too.