A week before Valentine’s Day I broke someone’s heart. Like most of us, I know an informal collection of kids pretty much since their birth. Recently, a close friend called and asked me to speak to her son. After week before Valentine’s Day I broke someone’s heart. After years of disdaining the opposite sex, the boy had discovered girls at age 13. The mom—my friend—was hyperventilating. She thought that girl-craziness ought to come later, not at tender 13. “Vishal (not his real name) thinks you are cool,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Talk to him.”
V-day poser: When did you discover the oppsite sex? Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Since one of my stated life goals is to be a “cool mom”, I was delirious with joy. My own daughter rained on my party by saying that “Moms who try to be cool are weird and pathetic and shouldn’t try so hard”. My nephew said cool moms are an oxymoron. But that is a side story; a sad affair which I will put aside and concentrate on the task at hand. In 10 words or less, which is the length of a teenager’s attention span, I had to convince Vishal to postpone his attention to girls to after the exams, and if possible (according to his parents) after graduating from high school.
I grew up around boys. My kid brother was hugely popular and every evening about a dozen of his friends gathered in front of our home to play cricket and argue endlessly about whether to let me be the umpire or not. Hobnobbing with these boys, I believe, has shaped me into the woman I am. Boys—and men—process things in a refreshingly different way than we women do. They don’t go off in tangents, are able to speak their mind more directly, and don’t try so hard to please everyone around them.
Let me put it this way: Talking to my woman friends is like doing a dance, both scintillating and soothing. Talking to guys is like fencing—direct, and you know exactly where you stand if you can handle their verbal thrusts. If I want honesty, I usually go to my guy friends. If I want comfort, I call the gals. These are huge generalizations, I know. Women can be brutally honest and men, frustratingly obtuse. But by and large...you know what I am saying. Bottom line: I think friendships between men and women are hugely satisfying and healthy, particularly in India, where society’s natural inclination is to segregate the sexes—in buses, in queues, and at family functions.
One evening, I sidled up to my 12-year-old as she sat doing homework. I would rehearse with her before delivering the real lecture to Vishal later that evening.
“What do you think of boys?” I asked.
She looked up warily. “Nothing,” she replied.
I decided to take the plunge without much preamble. “I think you should have friends who are boys and then boyfriends. That is the natural order of things. Only wait till you are 18. After that, after you know your mind, I’ll accept whoever you pick as your partner, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation...”
I didn’t actually say all these things; I merely thought them. My kid had walked away after the first sentence.
Until I got married, friendships with guys were easy and uncomplicated. In college, most of us quickly figure out who we are attracted to but have no hope of catching; who we are attracted to but don’t want to catch for various family-will-be-appalled reasons; who is attracted to us even though we are not drawn to them; and the occasional instance where both parties are attracted to each other but do nothing, or go the whole way.
After marriage, friendships with the opposite sex depend on the kind of person your spouse is. If he/she is open and not insecure about past friendships, you can retain them. Sometimes, an unspoken deal is drawn in which both spouses agree not to keep in touch with their ex-es. Sometimes the reverse, if only to prove that they are fully over it. But for married people—even those who are happily married with kids in tow—friendships with the opposite sex are complicated because even if your spouse is okay with it, the other spouse has to be as well.
With Vishal, I decided to take the opposite tack. Instead of saying no to the whole girl-thing like his parents wanted me to, I would say yes. In spades. And see what he made of it.
Vishal, I told him. You need girlfriends. You should have friends who are girls. You know why? Later in life, when you are pissed off with your wife, you need help in trying to figure out why she is the way she is. And all your guy friends won’t be much help in figuring out the female mind. You need to have a few woman friends you can call. Might as well start now.
Vishal’s jaw dropped into his ice cream sundae. “So you are saying I should have a girlfriend?” he asked.
“Not just one; several,” I said emphatically.
“Thanks, aunty,” he beamed and slurped up his sundae.
As I watched him, I had this niggling feeling that something hadn’t gone right. The whole operation had been too easy.
Later that night, my doubt was confirmed. I got an SMS from my friend. “Thanks for nothing,” it said bitterly. “Vishal just bought his ‘girlfriend’ a teddy bear for Valentine’s Day.”
Shoba Narayan revels in offering sage advice to young minds but frequently finds herself speaking to a wall instead. Write to her at email@example.com