Friendship Sans Symmetry- The Unlawfulness of Feminine Intimacy
When one begins to think of how to think about friendship, it is Aristotle (384–322 BC), the towering and omnipresent Greek philosopher, who comes to our mind. For Aristotle, friendship was one of reciprocity and utility that formed the cornerstone of citizenship. Shared between men, whether based on pleasure, utilitarianism, or virtue, Aristotelian friendship required reciprocity – a mutual acknowledgement of the worthiness of the other (Sherman 589). This understanding of quid-pro-quo as a foundational category of camaraderie continues to enjoy unparalleled influence on Western philosophical canon, particularly in politics and ethics. This incredible symmetry and reciprocity proposed by Aristotle as the true virtue of friendship fails to recognise and render intelligible, those relationships that thrive in the shadows, are asymmetrical, and often festering wounds, whose puss though deadly, is yet life-making.
Feminine relationships are often suspect – friendships that have no utilitarian value, thrive on interconnectedness, which is at once intransigent, as it is, yielding. Growing up in trans and homophobic patriarchal families, modelled on the father/mother, authority/nurturer dyad, children repudiate the mother; as adults, the man replaces her with the wife; for the woman, she is lost, forever. Always seeking to retrieve her, in space and time, the feminine urge to express this loss is almost always articulated in relations with other women (Flax). The infancy (vulnerable/vulnus/wound) that we reenact when we find ourselves defenceless often signals a leaning over to or a return to the maternal: asymmetric care that recognises the infant’s vulnerability to, but incapability of wounding. Thus in Aristotle’s logic, for a man, whose rightful place in the public demands that he be for himself, in contrast to the maternal instinct to exist for the other, requires a repudiation of the feminine, also a repudiation of the vulnerable– of interconnectedness, asymmetry and care.
What compelled me to write on feminine friendship, when I was asked by the editors of Qurbatein to write on (un)desirable histories? It was because feminine intimacy, whether shared by men or women, saturated by desire, longing, eroticism, and nurture continues to remain outlawed, as much as the mother continues to be cast outside the symbolic. Friendship is a virtue of men; reason and autonomy sustains the holy bonds of friendship. Women and children, who will never/have not yet achieved the radical separateness from the domestic and the feminine are incapable of this public act of friendship, marked by civic and political exigency. Let me make this point further by bringing to your notice Prasun Chatterjee’s directorial debut Dostojee (2021), which stands out for its restraint in a world where films on love, communalism, loss, and grief are saturated with excess and hyperbole. Its predictable narrative— a coming-of-age film of two boys who hold fast to their friendship despite family disapproval in an environment of communal polarisation notwithstanding, it weaves a tale of love, loss, and grief that feels strangely familiar, almost familial; Of friendships forged in the face of disapproval and lost to life’s banality.
Dostojee brings to its audience the idyllic world of two pre-teenaged boys— Safiqul, the son of a Muslim weaver, and Palash, the son of a Brahmin priest— whose houses are separated by a makeshift screen woven out of jute sticks. While the members of both families steer clear of each other, the boys’ friendship is grudgingly accepted. Set in a border village in the Murshidabad district of Bengal, it paints the life of a poor agrarian community. Safiqul’s father, a handloom weaver, struggles to make ends meet, while Palash’s father, a priest, finds himself out of work. True to the sexual division of labour, the boys go to school, attend tutorials, and frolic in the village, and the women (including the sisters) take on the drudgery of unpaid family and care labour: spinning yarn, weaving, cooking, cleaning, and fetching water. In the whole film, not once do we witness the women (except the youngest sister) at rest or stepping outside the boundary walls of the homestead.
The film is set against the backdrop of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent communalization of Indian society. The district of Murshidabad, once a centre of trade and commerce, is now considered one of the most backward districts in the country. With an overwhelmingly Muslim population, the blocks on the borderlands of Murshidabad are a watery zone, lying in the basin of Ganga-Padma: vulnerable to flooding and erosion, home to mass-scale human displacement, and given its geographical location, an important transit point in the cross-border flow of goods and people. As the film narrates the boys’ adventures, it offers us a glimpse into the everyday lives of people living on borderlands— the (imagined or real) fear of the Hindus in a Muslim majority district, increasing communal polarization, the proliferation of mosques and the penetration of militant North Indian brand of Hinduism into the deltaic plains of goddess-worshipping Bengal. The film’s intertextuality is brilliantly highlighted by its references to Manto’s Toba Tek Singh (1955) embodied by the village madman unable to comprehend the new borders coming up every day in their small hamlet.
The boys do not question this violence; they accept it as part of their world. Their clear-sighted vision of their anticipated future reflects the choices available to borderland populations of either community. Safiqul, a poor Muslim boy, wants to grow up as a cow smuggler to afford a house by a concrete road. Palash, a poor Brahmin boy, aspires to move north into a Hindu-majority district to allay his mother’s fear. While the former knows he can only be part of the underbelly of society, a cross-border smuggler, the other aspires to mobility that poor but upper-caste men can dream of. Despite all attempts by their respective families, the two remain oblivious to the disapproval around them, or maybe it is this disapproval that glues them together. Whether quarrelling over kites or cementing their love for each other by carving out their names on a tree trunk, and posing in a studio as Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay (1975) – they make no attempts to disentangle love, friendship, and eros.
As anticipated, the friendship is interrupted by an event– death, not by communal violence but by drowning. The death of the friend is no coincidence; it is in mourning of the friend that one creates, the autonomous self. But more on that later, for now, let us return to the film: With Palash’s death, the film centres on Safiqul and the former’s mother and their attempt to comprehend this event. Their encounters are saturated with allegations and guilt as they face each other over a glass jar where the two boys trapped a caterpillar, hoping to make a butterfly. Most of what follows is a tribute to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) which depicts a rural Brahmin family struggling with changing times, migrating out of their village with the death of their child. In a gender role reversal, the aftermath of the death of Palash is witnessed by his silent sister, who opens a window for the audience to witness the despair and grief of the mother who struggles to come to terms with life’s brutality. Will the family migrate out of the village that no longer has anything to offer? Or has the death of the male progeny robbed the family of all aspirations of mobility? The film offers no answers.
While watching the film, I could not help but think of another friendship, equally poignant and intense, interrupted similarly by death. Simone de Beauvoir and Elisabeth Lacoin, better known as Zaza, immortalized in ‘Inseparable’ (Les Inséparables) (2021) published thirty years after the former’s death. Les Inséparables, too, is a tale of asymmetrical friendship: one of nurture, of love, and of indifference. Both women, rebelling against God, marriage, and their respective domineering, abusive, and cold mothers, sought succour in the other. For Beauvoir, friendship could be asymmetrical, almost always deeply entangled with love and desire, and the panacea to the radical separateness one felt with the self. Thus, she breaks with Aristolian reciprocity when she writes, ‘I didn’t require Zaza to have any such definite feelings about me; it was enough to be her friend’ (Beauvoir 99). Zaza dies, just before the friends were to turn twenty-two. Of sickness, it is reported, or maybe because of the the crushing weight of the conflictual world she inhabited: of duty and rebellion, a daughter’s zealous love and a woman’s desire for freedom- as much aspiring to her mother’s life, and at once, trying to break away.
As in the film, as well as in life, both Zaza and Palash, give in, bit by bit, to gender and community norms– Zaza to her mother’s ambition of a marriage alliance in high society, and Palash to his mother’s fears of communal violence in Muslim majority village– we witness the death of the feminine. One is left wondering if their death preempted an end to a friendship that should never have been. The impossibility of friendship between Saiful and Palash, Simone and Zaza, as they hurl towards their destinies overdetermined by their birth, was already built into the narrative. The film gives us no closure— only a peek into memories of impossible friendships, which with passing time, exist in the mouldy cellars of our consciousness: of friends with whom we momentarily made our own bioscope. And whose death prepares us for the social and the political, the speakable and the knowable, as much as they haunt us, as we inhabit, in shades of rebellion and conformity, a world not of our making. In the Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Beauvoir writes about her recurring dreams of Zaza, concluding that she “gazes reproachfully at me. We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time, I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death” ( Beauvoir 356).
Feminine intimacy– one that makes no demand of reciprocity, and makes two inseparable, and yet, binds none with any promise, a love that claws towards fulfilment yet knows its own futility– is a world that needs to be repressed. Only when we turn our backs on feminine asymmetrical love, can we enter the masculine-heterosexual symbolic, that promises us fulfilment and paradise in the name of the Law – of Family, Nation, and God.
Beauvoir, Simone. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Harper Collins. (1958). 2005
Beauvoir, Simone. The Inseperable. Translated by Sandra Smith, Paris, Ecco. 2021.
Dostojee, Directed by Prasun Chatterjee. Kathak Talkies. 2021.
Flax, Jane. “The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and within Feminism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1978, pp. 171–89.
Manto, Saadat H. “Toba Tek Singh.” Phundne edited by Saadat Manto, Lahore, Maktabah-e-Jadid., 1955.
Pather Panchali, Directed by Satyajit Ray. Aurora Film Corporation. 1955.
Sherman, Nancy. “Aristotle on Friendship and the Shared Life.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 47, no. 4, 1987, pp. 589–613.
Panchali Ray is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies and Associate Dean at Krea University. Her book ‘Politics of Precarity: Gendered Subjects and the HealthCare Industry in Contemporary Kolkata’ (OUP, 2019) focused on the stigma faced by nurses and nursing aides and the persistence of gender and caste in the profession. Subsequently, she worked on nationalism, gender and politics and edited a volume ‘Women Speak Nation: Gender, Culture, and Politics’ (Routledge, 2020). She is currently researching rivers, borders, migration, citizenship and care regimes in Bengal, India.