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Platonic Pyaar in the Time of Corona

Two days ago, and of course, during a pandemic, yet another friend of mine got married. Continents apart, I watched the wedding unfold, hunched over my laptop, a glass of wine in my hand. I not-so-secretly judged the haldi-full but severely mask-less faces, but I also secretly envied the overwhelming sense of busy-ness and togetherness that a wedding, fleetingly, entails.
I never thought I would envy the company of a crowd, really, but over the past eight months, the pin-drop silence in my one-bedroom in wintry Chicago has become too unbearable even for someone who genuinely loves living alone. No amount of blasting Kumar Sanu’s hits on my new speakers can paper over this kind of a painfully unremarkable solitude. My own home – the only silent spectator to my unfolding and involuntary cocooning – seems bored of my morose presence.
Don’t get me wrong. My life has been anything but uneventful. In the midst of this swirling shitshow since March 2020 – and, to some extent, because of it – a lot has happened: I (finally) defended my doctoral dissertation; a close friendship soured beyond redemption; a toxic ex-boyfriend resurfaced, was tolerated for a while and then blocked (again); I learned how to make Dutch Baby pancakes; I began hosting a podcast; and I even managed to have a huge crush on someone I met in the digital world. Still, I am an impressionable woman and I love to wistfully stroll on the slippery slope of self-pity: people had found someone willing to marry them in the midst of a pandemic, and here I was, drinking cheap Malbec all by myself and, even worse, feeling sorry for myself.
How is it that despite so much happening, that despite considerable personal growth, that despite a degree I had spent no less than six years chasing, I feel so hollow inside? How is it that, at the end of the day, it all feels pointless – even if I know it isn’t – in the face of heteronormative seductions? I am beyond the stage in my life where I chide myself for being a “bad feminist” – it seems like yet another insidious way in which women judge each other – but I felt real shame at being so pitifully susceptible to the dubious allure of socially-sanctioned desires, even knowing the reality that lies on the other side of that shiny line. A compulsive texter, I immediately messaged a friend, “I don’t even want to get married, but I would like that to at least be an option?!” As always, she left me on read. My self-pity deepened: my friends don’t even reply to me, and people are finding life partners? Okay then.
When I woke up the next morning in the haze of a hangover, and checked my phone, I had three voice notes. From her. I played them with the kind of zeal I reserved for 90s Bollywood songs. As her husky, sexy voice filled my ears, I realized that I had actually found love in the time of Corona – one that is often harder, or as hard, to come by, as romantic love. I had found platonic pyaar. At an age when I am told it is hard to make new friends, I have not just made a new friend, but a close one. And, here is the kicker: I have never met her or hung out with her in person. Like the several people in my life who have found a romantic partner in their Instagram DMs, I found the newest member of my ‘inner circle’ in my Instagram DMs. Indeed, she slid into my DMs with an almost Maine Pyaar Kiya-esque enthusiasm for friendship (that she has watched this film around twenty times, is no coincidence). I fell in love; and, as I write this, I am still in love with my friend. And, like with any paisa vasool desi love story, Bollywood had a huge role to play in this one.
It was sometime towards the end of 2019 that I first heard of SD through some mutual friends who encouraged me to reach out to her. SD was an incoming PhD student at a local university and I, a seasoned PhD student at the other end of the hill, would surely have some sage advice to offer. I didn’t have any, and I never reached out. But every romance has a ‘meet cute’ moment and ours was when we ran into each other at a Stand With Kashmir protest (the good diasporic anti-nationals that we are), and she promptly followed me on Instagram later that day. I followed her back. A few weeks later, I attended a concert by a singer I have written off as “mumblebore”: Prateek Kuhad. I sang Kumar Sanu songs under my breath in silent protest of the nasal, mumbling nonsense that I snobbishly refer to as “youth music”. But when I looked up, I saw SD, standing on her toes, coo-ing, swooning, swaying to Kuhad’s crooning. When we ran into each other at a bar outside the concert hall, of course I made it a point to make fun of her. I said Kumar Sanu was a far better singer. She thought I was being sarcastic.
Despite our suspicion of each other’s musical tastes – the kind of thing which becomes a shallow deal-breaker in the dating world at times – we made vague “let’s hang out sometime” plans over Instagram, both of us at a stage in our lives when making new friends was more daunting than being on an online dating app. But then the pandemic began, and alongside the growing sense of dread and doom, grew the wonderful world of Instagram challenges. Someone posted a 30-day song challenge. An enthu-cutlet par excellence, I took to it with a seriousness I often wish I reserved for my academic research. Each day, I would share a Bollywood song as per the whims of the “prompt”. SD, too, started the song challenge and soon we were exchanging long notes about each song. The 30-day song challenge ended, but we wanted to keep it going and, so, decided to give each other a prompt every day and share songs in response to the prompts. We did this for 4 months, digitally singing to each other.
Every day, a playlist. Every day, a bucket of Bollywood nostalgia (and, well, discussions on the ethics of liking songs with problematic lyrics). Every day, a lot of laughter. Every day, lots of messages and voice notes. Every day, a gnawing realization that I had never felt this comfortable with any straight man. Ever. Soon, we began to talk about our pasts and presents. The Ghosts of Boyfriends Past and Crushes Present haunted our conversations and we discovered each other over long, simmering conversations. It felt like I was falling in love, except that it was easy: the way love is (supposed to be).
Even today, our guards are always down; our disagreements are always interesting; our commitment to banter is meritorious, I think; and our love for a random “I love you!” in the middle of a long and difficult week is a hug in the form of a phrase. There is all the pleasure and none of the pressure that comes with the word love. When I see SD’s name flash on my screen – a message or, more often, a voice note – I smile instinctively. Is there a more robust sign of being in love? We both have many/other close friends, other platonic pyaars, who we have spent much more time with, who have seen us through the ages, who know us differently than we know one another. But SD and I found each other when the world felt apocalyptic, when hope felt hopeless, and when the idea of a future evaded the world. We found each other in the present. They say love happens when you are least expecting it.
I often think about how SD and I have this ease in being in each other’s lives despite never really having spent “real” time with each other. We often squeal in unison, “we have never hung out in person but it feels like we have known each other forever!” SD does not privilege the real over the virtual. Neither do I. It does not feel necessary – particularly in a socially distant, technologically-mediated world. In a sense, throughout my adult life, I have been in very serious and very long (often long-distanced) platonic friendships but the constant need of physical, sexual, and several reassurances that heterosexual love almost inevitably requires (on both sides) makes it a difficult burden to bear. I think about this especially since many a heterosexual romance in my life has fizzled out either because of these nagging doubts about the veracity of a connection over screens and endless distances, or over whether “we” will make it if our musical tastes don’t align; if we don’t meet at least once a week; if we don’t text often enough; if we don’t, if we don’t, if we don’t…until the “if we don’t” becomes an “I can’t anymore”.
Since SD and I have never hung out in real life, we have never bonded over boozy brunches. We have never gone shopping together. We have never gotten a quick drink, attended a lecture, or gone out dancing. We have never even watched a Bollywood film together (although I do know that if we were to watch a film together, she would insist on us watching Mr. India). We have never spent hours talking on the phone. We don’t text all day, and sometimes we don’t text for days together. And, yet, not for a moment have I wondered if we have been “doing friendship wrong” or have wondered about the authenticity of our platonic pyaar. I cannot claim that I have always felt as secure in all my friendships, but I have always felt more secure in friendships, than in sexual relationships.
Perhaps sexual love comes with too much of a script. Or, perhaps, sexual love comes with this in-built, competitive compulsiveness to ‘find The One’ – making it very hard to accept intimacies as and when they come to us. Whenever we fall in sexual love, our platonic relationships become supporting actors while sexual occupies center-stage – under the spotlight, forever needing validation. In sexual relationships, we tend to feel anxious when things don’t progress as they are supposed to, almost always looking at other people’s relationships as points of reference. It always seems like there is so much at stake (most crucially, our self-worth) and there is so much to gain (although what that is remains a bit unclear to me).
What is clear to me is that platonic pyaar has much to teach us here: to value the lack of a roadmap; to let go of milestones, of this obsessive need to keep evaluating the relationship; to stop comparing our relationship to some imagined ideal; to suspend this idea of The One; to let the relationship take its own course across oceans, seas, or rivers; or, to go nowhere in particular. Platonic pyaar is freeing precisely because it has no strict script. It is improvisational. And no one is watching. Perhaps it is time we were taught to love platonic pyaar.
The fact that SD and my platonic pyaar did not feature in the “list of events” I compiled at the beginning of this essay, is not all that surprising even to me: when the menacing waves of heteronormative intimacies come crashing down on us, it is sometimes hard to remember that we have learned to swim. At a time when relationships have borne the brunt of distance, doubt, and even death, pushing back against a world that values heteronormative relationships, marriages, or even sexual romance as the only worthwhile intimacy, feels liberating. If not now, then when?
Do I sound a bit silly about finding a new friend? Of course! But why ever not? Why can I not celebrating falling in (a very emotionally abundant) platonic pyaar in the way that I have celebrated falling for (yet another emotionally unavailable) man? Why must I feel the need to celebrate my professional achievements in response to people getting married? Why must I feel any less giddy about finding a friend online, my new-age pen pal? Why should I – or anyone else – wonder if there is “something more” to this friendship? The friendship is the something more.
Sneha Annavarapu, all of 29 years of age, teaches (regularly), writes (occasionally), sings in the shower (compulsively) and Instagrams (joyfully).
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