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Home >Opinion >Columns >Why your life wasn’t like that of the friends in ‘Friends’

In 1989 premiered an American television show about a group young friends going about their lives in Manhattan—eating, drinking, loving, plotting, watching plays and films. Everything was easy for them. They did not have to take care of ageing parents, or even send money orders. They had probably never cracked a major objective-type entrance exam, and their jobs were unremarkable but seemed to pay them good salaries, which they appeared to burn through without putting anything substantial in fixed deposits. The show was called Seinfeld. I did not hear of it then. A few years later, another show premiered. It was about a group young friends going about their lives in Manhattan; eating, drinking, loving, plotting, watching plays and films....

I took its premise very seriously. I was certain this was how young people in New York lived. I even thought, because of the way its screen title was designed, ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ was an informative abbreviation whose full form posh people might know.

As you may have guessed, I was reminded of the show because of its ‘Reunion’ on Thursday. Millions of fans across the world had waited for it for years. Like a song, Friends reminded people of a time in place; their time in place. Friends itself is about a time in place.

Seinfeld did not have a moment of grief. Friends, on the other hand, aspired to ‘move’ its audience now and then. The two were very different sort of comedies, written by very different sort of people. But if Seinfeld and Friends had a fragrance, we know they would smell the same. And that smell comes from the two things that are common to them, which greatly contributed to their global success. Their time and place; the coziness of young friends, and the coziness of being young friends who lived in the heart of New York.

The joy of friendship in the busy downtown of a great affluent city is the very theoretical representation of perfect youth. It is glorious, joyous and probably does not exist.

At least it didn’t in India; I even tried to find it in Mumbai, which is India’s version of New York. I lived alone in a chawl but I knew hip people who spoke of jazz and all, and who said things like, “Bombay is a cosmopolitan city."

The first problem I encountered in my quest for Friends-like people was I didn’t know what was ‘downtown’ in Mumbai. People told me it was ‘South Mumbai’, but that was a place where many of the elderly lived, and the trendy young who lived there had to live with the elderly to afford living there.

Bandra, a suburb, was where the Friends-like youth lived. They were the cosmopolitans, unlike the labourers from Bihar, who were ‘migrants’. But Bandra’s Friends then were not truly independent. At the start of the ‘Reunion’, one of the creators of Friends said the show was about “that time in your life when friends are your family". But the Indian upper-class youth were nothing without their families, which heavily subsidized their ‘independence’. In return, their families told them what to do at every step. As a result, and for other reasons, the ‘Friends’ of Bandra were neither free nor happy. They wanted to be elsewhere; they did not know where, but were headed there. They were always fleeing their circumstances.

You may say that I would not have found these ‘Friends’ even in Manhattan; that sort of joy is a work of sitcom fiction and not anthropology. I would believe you.

The central characters in Friends and Seinfeld, as I remember them, exist in a joyful present; they are not fleeing their life or street or downtown or their nation. They are an unchanging cabal, and their lovers, if they happen to be outside their close circles, are ephemeral and unimportant. In real life, it is the opposite. People give up friends, the downtown, a small contained home, simplicity and fun in exchange for the idea of family. A dull person once tried to educate me: “It is called adulting." People find a label that Microsoft Word does not recognize and think they have identified some remarkable concept of life.

When Friends was a rage, my peers in Mumbai led a life where friends occupied most of their leisure time, but were still peripheral. Actually, many of them did not even like their friends. They just needed to be with people like them, who dressed like them, spoke like them. People who had very high standards for human relationships and conversations had very few friends. The unforgiving, too, had very few friends.

The coziness of true friends was in reality not a common condition of youth in a big city; rather, it was the privilege of a lucky few. But in the end, even they fled their friends, the downtown, that compact life, and their freedom. The lives of Friends and Seinfeld, which merely need a stroke of luck to attain, do not last long.

What do people want? It is never what they say they want; instead, it is what they do. People want to own the individuals who matter to them, and you cannot own friends. That is why the joyous life in a city’s downtown is merely a transit for most people. Influenced by the idea of ‘balance’, they forgo a life without meaning in search of purpose and balance, which is a bit of this, a bit of that. But in the end, they are probably lonely.

Loneliness is a vague term given to a group of very distinct forms of isolation. We need a different sort of companionship for different times, and we cannot have it all. But in all its forms, loneliness is never a scarcity of people; it is a scarcity of people you want to be with.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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