West indian literature

The friendships of literature reside in us like memories and make us better human beings


“Words are as easy as the wind, true friends are hard to find,” Shakespeare says. In literature, we continue to see friends everywhere, and loyal friends are not so hard to find. But except for a few well-known ones, the others remain in the haze of our memory, reluctant to come to the fore. I remember a story about Mirza Ghalib. He had a very close friend with whom he shared many things, except mangoes. The friend didn’t like mangoes. One day he was sitting in the veranda of Ghalib’s house, and Ghalib was there too. A driver drove his donkey-drawn cart across the lane. Mango peels were there; the donkey took a snort but left them. The friend said, “Look, even the donkey [gadhā bhÄ«] don’t eat mangoes! Ghalib said, “Exactly, a donkey doesn’t eat it.” This story, in addition to being a fine example of Ghalib’s biting wit, says one more thing: it is only with close friends that one can take such liberties. The funny thing is, I couldn’t remember the friend’s name. I had to search online for a long time before I could find him – Hakim Razi ud-Din Khan. There are many such people lurking in the pages of literature.

The eternal and greatest contradictions of human civilization are war and friendship, but both have contributed to its progress. If it was war that drove human beings to invent new things, it was friendship that made them seek new pastures. Science and technology thrive on war and friendship. At least until now, every civilizational advance has these two unmistakable markers. No wonder, then, that our literature and our history celebrate both. War is thunder and lightning and easily identifiable. Friendship, on the other hand, is underground and silent, and therefore easy to miss. This is why we constantly talk about the wars of yesteryear, but hardly of old friendships.

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Bonds that matter Gandhi with Sonia Schlesin & Herman Kallenbach in South Africa Photo: Getty Images

But friends are everywhere, just like God is for the believer. There is a Tamil usage that aptly describes this belief—thondra thunaivan— the one who never appears before you but who is always with you. In Hindi too, there are several words for friendship. Ali and Fratt, in their essay on the history of friendship in India, say: “…(T)friendship has a rich vocabulary in Indian languages. The variety of words in modern Hindi alone, which can be translated as “friend” (yaar, dost, saheli, saathi, sahayak, bandhu, jaani, ukht, mitr, hamdard, hamdam, habib, sahyogi, akka, sanghrakshak, wali, bhai, jigari, rafiq, sajjan, sakhi, aziz, nadim, hamsafar, to name only the most common) is vast. These words, which derive from both Sanskritic and Persian roots, suggest that concepts of friendship were diverse and extensive in “traditional” Indian society.

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The Rig Veda says that Agni, the god of fire, is a friend who never hesitates to do what is in our best interest. Soma, the god of drink, is a vigilant protector who ensures that we are never harmed. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks the Lord to forgive him as a friend would easily forgive his friend –Sakheva Sakhyuh.

The variety of words in Hindi alone, which can be translated as ‘friend’ (yaar, dost, saheli, saathi, sahayak, bandhu, mitr, ukht, hamdard, to name only the most common), is vast.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, Trijata, a dreadful (ghora darsna) rakshasi, befriends the beautiful Sita and consoles her twice when Sita is distraught. The Ramayana story has many of these friendships. The Rama of Kamban says, “My father gave me the forest and now he shines because he has gained some sons.” Rama considers his friends – Guha, Sugriva and Vibhishana – as sons of Dasaratha. Likewise, the Mahabharata has innumerable stories of friendships, the most glorious being that between Karna and Duryodhana. The Panchatantra fables are collected in five parts, the first two parts of which deal with friendship” “mitra bheda (Losing Friends)” and “mitra labha (Friends winners).

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A painting depicting a scene from the Ramayana
A painting depicting a scene from the Ramayana Photo: Getty Images

Tamil literature, too, makes many references to friendship. The famous Tiruppavai by the poet Andal is a celebration of camaraderie. She says, “kudiyirundu kulirnderol empavai“, which roughly translates to “Get together and relax”. Sangam literature is full of poets who do not hesitate to chastise their king-friends who have gone rogue, or to praise those who have acted honorably. My favorites are the stories of two poets and their unusual friendships.

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The first is a nicely embellished account of the friendship between Kopperuncholan and Pisiranthaiyar. Kopperuncholan, a ruler during the second century CE, was a patron of many poets. But the one whose poetry he loved the most was that of Pisiranthaiyar. The king had known him only through his poems, as the poet lived in a remote town in the kingdom of Pandya. The poet too knew of the king’s abundant love for good poetry. They kept exchanging notes, each promising to meet one day. Unfortunately, Kopperuncholan came into conflict with his sons eager to take control of the kingdom. Not wanting to face them on the battlefield, the king decided to commit suicide by fasting. He sat facing north and began to starve. Secretly, he was sure that his friend would visit him and, driven by grief, would end his life. When Pisiranthaiyar heard of Kopperuncholan’s fast, he rushed to the Chola kingdom to be at his friend’s side, but arrived too late. Then, just as Kopperuncholan had planned, Pisiranthaiyar ended his life in grief.

Statue of Tamil poet Avvaiyar
Statue of Tamil poet Avvaiyar

The second story is about the friendship between the poet Avvaiyar, a venerable old lady, and Adiyaman, a minor king who was in constant feud with neighboring kingdoms. The story goes like this: the king gets a rare amla which is supposed to make whoever eats it nearly immortal. The king does not eat the fruit. He calls his friend Avvaiyar and gives it to her saying, “If you live long, it will greatly benefit both the Tamil language and the Tamil people.” Avvaiyar celebrates this in a poem, in which she says that Adiyaman too will live as long as Neelakantha (Lord Shiva). He didn’t, but that’s another story.

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As usual, Mohandas Gandhi had perfectly distilled the essence of friendship when he wrote about his close friend Herman Kallenbach. He said the memory of a friendship has become a treasure because it has allowed us to translate the best part of the friend into our lives. This is true even with the friendships we have heard of. They reside within you as memories and make you a better human being.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Yaarana”)

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(The opinions expressed are personal)


PA Krishnan is an author in English and Tamil


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