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Published on: 06/17/92 7:52 AM

Feature: Passionate Friendships

A passion called friendship

Of late, ‘passionate friendships’ have been much in the news thanks to Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, a  couple who have had reams of newsprint devoted to their mutual devotion.

I read it all, the unending speculation about the exact nature of their relationship, the curious probing into the intimate lives of two people who are no longer with us.

And I recall the words of Lillian Hellman on her special relationship with fellow author, Dashiel Hammett. “I know as little about romance as I knew when I was 18. But I do know the pleasure of continuing interest and excitement, of wanting to know what someone else thinks, will do, will not do; the short cord that the years make into a rope…” This could well have been the case with Nehru and Lady Mountbatten,  too.

Because I believe passionately in passionate friendships. I know all about it, I’ve been there, done that. It is the best deal ever made between a man and woman, believe me.

A passionate friendship

What is a passionate friendship, you may well ask. The way I see it, it is a special relationship between a man and a woman who find each other mentally and physically attractive but for a variety of reasons, prefer to be no more than platonic friends.

The mutual advantages far outweigh any disadvantages. The female half of this partnership gets a guide, philosopher, confidante, rolled into one. If her friend is someone on a corporate ladder, well, then, she gets her mentor too.

The advice is direct, hard-hitting, and wholly free from the restraints that a romantic relationship automatically brings in its wake. His interest in her is genuine, it’s real, he loves her, warts and all. She does not have to deal with lateral levels (the obvious and the hidden-meaning levels) as she does in her friendship with most women.

This is a friendship which has genuineness as its touchstone. Neither partner ever asks, ‘what’s in it for me.’ They know that what they have cannot be measured on any scale and, more important, need not be measured, either.

The male half of the duo gets invaluable, sensitive advice on how to deal with life’s verisimilitudes, in areas where his friend has an in-built advantage over him. A wife has some stake in  her husband’s life and career, her advice therefore cannot be totally objective.

This is not the case with a good female friend. She can help, with no strings attached. She can put an astute finger on where he is going wrong in his relationships with other women. The ever present male ego can actually be dropped in her presence, he can be as he is, just another vulnerable human being who unfortunately is caught in the age-old gender (‘Men don’t cry’) trap.

No subterfuges

There are no subterfuges in this relationship. He sees  her at a bad time in her life, with her hair lifeless and straggly, her face full of pimples, her career on the road to nowhere –  and he loves her

She sees him with his mask off, his petty traits exposed, his figure going to seed from too much drink, superceded at his workplace – and it makes no difference. She loves him  still.

The two of them can pull each other out of their respective ruts and carry on with the business of living. The two of them can dare to be with each other what they dare not be with their spouses or lovers.

It is a passionate relationship. This is an enduring passion that goes far and outweighs the ephemeral romantic passion. This relationship is one  jump ahead of a marriage. In a marriage, stability follows euphoria. In a passionate friendship, the two have bypassed the physical plane and gone on to settle for a more stable, solid equation.

Men and women being what they are, it must be admitted that in some cases, this decision is a deliberate  rather than involuntary  one. Chemistry sometimes does raise its headat some stage or the other and has to be slotted, categorised and dispensed with, for the sake of the relationship. Sometimes, the other half is happily married.

Sometimes the attraction is one-sided. But always, the knowledge is implicit that, ultimately, the equation they will work out between them is the best deal all around. The view is best seen from Mt. Platonia.

Norman Mailer has this to say on passionate friendships: ‘When good friendships turn belatedly into Sexual Street, it really doesn’t work. Too many mutual habits built on friendship, have now become a safeguard against sex and get in the way of such a change in the relationship.’

Then again, in today’s hyperactive, liberated age, romantic liaisons crumble like stale cookies or turn as hard as a half- baked one. Passionate friendships, on the other hand, go on and on, rejuvenating themselves, feeding upon themselves, growing stronger over the years. There is life after sex and these two know it.

There are no petty lies, no carping, no sexual jealousies that tear one apart.  All the passion goes into preserving the rare quality of the relationship, a discreet code of honour exists that defines such a liaison.

The relationship needs no constant stroking. The rules are not written down, the demands are nil, trust and faith take precedence. This partnership needs no constant stream of letters, no regular meetings, no spoken declarations of commitment. It thrives on a complete and fulfilled sense
of complacency.

The rest is a bonus. Nothing else. The sense of safety in such relationships can never quite be explained fully. It is a security blanket to shield you from life’s coldest blizzards, it is a gaily striped umbrella to shield you from the sun’s harshest rays.

Not always  smooth 

It is not always a smooth relationship. It has its ups and downs, and pretty tempestuous ones at that. The disagreements can be vehement, the disapproval can be vociferous, words can inflict wounds. At times, the need does not match the demand, the attention can be a mite diluted with preoccupation.

While the ‘making-up’ after such rifts can never be as exciting as between two people in love, old wounds are never opened, old recriminations are never flung at each other. The
embarrassing past never once becomes a duelling weapon for either side.

In the most liberated of societies, the man-woman equation is not easily understood. Luckily, times have made it possible, if not entirely acceptable, for such friendships to exist. However, speculation, peer disapproval, society’s collectively raised brow, will always be a seminal part of a passionate friendship.

The couple will find themselves forced to explain such a relationship to their parents, spouses, offspring, lovers. The going is never easy, can never be easy. And a link so well-forged does not delink that easy, either.

The sage who said, “Whosoever finds a true friend finds a treasure,” got his facts a bit muddled. It should, in my opinion, read, “Whosoever finds a true friend of the opposite sex, finds a treasure.”

So, while I cannot speak for Pt Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten in particular, I am more than willing to give them the benefit of doubt. What they shared was special. Not everyone is lucky enough to have such an enriching relationship in their lives. Those who do, must count themselves lucky, in a way very few are lucky.

This appeared in FEMINA of 17 June 1992.

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Sheila Kumar • June 17, 1992

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