I turned 30 recently. True to the cliché, I have been spending some time (maybe too much time) thinking about the last decade. It has been an eventful one. I graduated out of law school, got my first job, moved out of home, changed jobs, lived in another country, fell in love, fell out of love, and lived through a pandemic. Through all these major transitions, I have been incredibly lucky in making a few close friends who have seen me through it all.
These friendships have been a constant in a decade of change. If, as Milan Kundera reminds us, friends are a mirror to our memory; that we remember who we are through the memories we build with our friends, then it is to these friendships I shall keep returning as the years pass by. Given that marriage has never been a priority for me, friendships have been an integral part of my support structure; my emotional safety net.
It is only natural to expect that the importance that these support structures have in my life will be supported or at the very least, reflected in the socio-political milieu. Yet unsurprisingly, friendship networks along with numerous other relationalities that belie expectations of heterosexual romantic couplehood are invisible within social institutions including the law. This is because these institutions suffer from a marital conjugality bias. For heterosexual couples who are married, a host of rights and measures pertaining to housing, health and social welfare become easily accessible. Indeed, the marital family is the bedrock of what is considered as ‘family’ in the law.
All others who do intimacy differently, whose relationalities do not fit neatly into the marriage box must play the game of proving how their relationships mirror marriage (the treatment of live-in relationships in law are a good example of that). Even the recent momentum for change within the queer movement has been for the recognition of same sex marriage; not the creation of institutions that allow diverse family structures to flourish.
This lack of diversity in how we imagine the family, is representative of the logic of scarcity that suffuses all our institutions. As Dean Spade reminds us in this fantastic essay, our institutions often embody the worst of us:
“Capitalism is fundamentally invested in notions of scarcity, encouraging people to feel that we never have enough so that we will act out of greed and hoarding instincts and focus on accumulation. Indeed, the romance myth is focused on scarcity: There is only one person out there for you! You need to find someone to marry before you get too old! The sexual exclusivity rule is focused on scarcity, too: Each person has only a certain amount of attention or attraction or love or interest and if any of it goes to someone besides his or her partner, partner must lose out. We don’t generally apply this rule to other relationships – we don’t assume that having two kids means loving the first one less or not at all, or having more than one friend means being a bad or fake or less-interested friend to our other friends. We apply this particular understanding of scarcity to romance and love, and most of us internalize that feeling of scarcity pretty deeply.”
Just as we internalize these feelings of scarcity, so do our institutions, especially the law. Which is why I think friendships have no real place within them.
But what would the world look like if that were not the case? If I did not have to be a single mother just because I did not find the love of my life to settle down with? Could I co-parent with a friend or a group of friends? Could I get tax exemptions for health insurance, home loans, children’s education with a designated friend or group of friends under the law? Would I be exempted from paying a gift tax if my friends gifted me money or property? (Gifts received from natal family members are exempted from taxation). Could I get a friend recognized as a ‘dependent’ under a host of labour laws so that they may receive benefits under them, just like a spouse would?
Friendships thus occupy a liminal space within the law. They are alegal; that is, they lack legal legibility and are beyond the dichotomy of legal and illegal. In other words, they are simply invisible within the law. They may come into the frame only when there is some sort of breakdown, either in the form of a contractual relationship or personal injury (tort). While invisibility may have its advantages, I think it also prevents us from building more robust systems that support the flourishing of diverse families and relationalities.
Slowly though, this appears to be changing. The Internet today is scattered with advice on the importance of friendships, how to make friends as an adult, and how to grow, sustain and nourish our friendship networks. A recent Bumble survey found that many more Indians seek platonic friendships today. Within the terrain of social and legal recognition, proposals have been placed before the Indian State to recognize friendships and other significant relationships outside the natal family in the form of a ‘legal representative’. Something has shifted in the mythological place romance holds in our lives. And while we may not have stopped worshipping at its altar, we are slowly coming to terms with the fact that it may not be the only worthwhile way of pursuing intimacy in the 21st century.
As a lawyer and legal academician, I am fascinated by these changes. I am curious to understand what role friendships perform in a kin-based society like India where the natal family is valued above all else. What norms and expectations of caregiving operate within friendships today, especially friendships where individuals may be economically or emotionally interdependent on each other? Finally, how do these norms and expectations interact with ideas of legality, rights, and State recognition? These are some of the questions I am grappling with.
Over the course of the next few months, I will be interviewing various people about the friendships in their lives, the nature and texture of interdependency they experience within their friendships, and what they think about the role of the law and the State when it comes to supporting these friendships.
If this theme resonates with you at all and you want to share your experiences of friendship, and if you want to be interviewed or if you just want to share your thoughts, please reach out to me at email@example.com.
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For the first interview, I spoke to Pawan Dhall, Founding Trustee of Varta Trust, Kolkata on February 11, 2023. We spoke at length about his friendships, what they mean to him, how they have evolved over time, his hopes for the future, and whether he sees the law and public policy as playing any sort of supportive role.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hi Pawan, thank you for doing this interview! I wanted to start by asking what friendships mean to you? What role have they played in your life?
They are so important! For a while now, I’ve felt that we need to move away from the centrality of romance in our lives. Romance can be a wonderful thing – it’s a source of joy, thrill and pleasure. But at the core of it, there has to be a solid friendship. When you strip away everything else, friendship is about understanding each other and that is what matters. Life would be so damn lonely without friends! In so many ways romance is or can be a lonely experience. When you become a couple, your life revolves around your partner; it leads to you writing songs, poetry, and diary entries all about your lover! But it can also lead to a kind of loneliness – especially when things don’t work out. Friends, I think, help you overcome some of that loneliness.
Who are the people who you consider as close friends or in some way blurring the lines between family and friends?
There are a close group of five or six people I regard as my queer family in that I’m very close to them. Things I cannot possibly discuss with my natal family; things to do with my work, health, relationship issues, I reach out to these friends. Of course, this group is like a sponge, it keeps contracting and expanding at different points of time. This group mostly consists of my friends from my Counsel Club days, when I was working in SAATHII, and now Varta Trust. We have been friends since decades. Even though few of them stay in Kolkata anymore, we stay in touch over WhatsApp where we regularly check in on each other.
What lies at the root of your shared connection?
As I said, a lot of our shared connection comes from the fact that we were all at one point of time involved in the work of Counsel Club, SAATHII and now Varta Trust. Not all of us are activists of course. Some may see themselves as being involved in social work but not activists necessarily. I’m the only who’s a freelancer! Everyone else is involved in some kind of job where they are answerable to a boss. But, of course, all of us do fall under the queer umbrella. That’s how our connections started and we’ve always been bound together by that common cause and shared issues. However, I have to say that despite that, our connection with each other transcends queer activism or even gender-sexuality issues. We have supported each other through some really tough times!
Could you describe some of these instances?
There are so many! One of my closest friends was also a member of Counsel Club and working with me on Pravartak back in the 1990s. He would come over to my house fairly often and we spent a lot of time working together. We got close and became romantically involved as well for some time. At the time though my parents weren’t too happy with this. He was keen that we move out and live together but I hesitated because I knew that doing so would raise eyebrows about the nature of our relationship and would make my parents uncomfortable. So, I didn’t move out and eventually for various reasons, after six years or so, our romantic relationship ended. We also stopped working together. We remained in touch of course. A big reason for that was the nature of our work. But after our break-up, we weren’t close for almost a decade. Eventually though, we started re-connecting. Especially because I realized that even though he had moved out of Kolkata, his mother was still here and needed care-taking. I thought I should pitch in, in whatever way I could. I could never completely cut off from him because he had always been so helpful all throughout. During 2021, when the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, he came to Kolkata to look after his mother. Unfortunately, he came down with COVID-19 and needed to be hospitalized. I, along with a group of friends and volunteers from an NGO, did all the running around then – organizing tests, medicines, funds and so on. A couple of months later, when I came down with COVID-19 as well, he did the same for me. He visited me at the hospital, ensured that my mother was well looked after, and coordinated with friends and family tirelessly. He came to pick me up when I was discharged. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without his help and support!
Another instance that comes to mind is the time when my father was detected with throat cancer. This was sometime in 2003. At that time, I was very busy my new job in SAATHII. My father needed to be taken to the hospital for five days a week for a month or so for chemotherapy. I couldn’t make it many times because of all the work pressure. At a time like this, another friend of mine stepped in to take my father to the hospital for his chemotherapy sessions. He was so jovial and good-natured and my parents loved him. They really bonded with him. I’ll never forget that. He showed so much generosity even when he didn’t have to. He could have said no, but he didn’t.
That’s really lovely, and tells me so much about the kind of support you’ve shown each other in times of crisis. But apart from that, as friends, do you ever discuss more planned, intentional ways off showing up for each other and supporting each other as you grow older?
Yes, we talk about it. Many of my friends in my queer family are a few years younger than me, some almost by a decade. So, they are in their late 30s and 40s. I’m saying this to emphasise that though we do discuss our future together, we all are in different places in our lives and have varied commitments. I keep reminding them that once I get older, I’ll be like my mother. She can’t see or hear very well anymore and needs full time care. They all call me a drama queen jokingly whenever I bring this up. But I know that they understand my concerns.
One concrete thing we’ve been trying to do is to think of ways in which we can all buy houses in the same locality. Either as stand-alone apartments or just perhaps spaces in retirement homes. We want it to be suitable both for our parents and ourselves. I hear that some people are already doing this in cities like Bangalore and Chennai. So that’s an option.
But of course, there are difficulties; many loose ends to tie up. For one, everyone isn’t sure where they’d like to settle eventually. They’re also in different places in their lives at the moment. So, it’s difficult to really talk about something more concrete beyond this. I’m open to moving to another city but my mother can’t move. It’ll be difficult to shift her to another city at her age (she crossed 90 in August 2022).
A friend of mine lives in the suburbs of Kolkata. He too has an ageing mother who’s a widow and dependent on nurses and attendants. I keep telling him that if he was nearby, a lot of things could become easier. We could work out many things together like care-taking, medicines, and physiotherapy.
There’ve been some efforts with other groups of people too. I’ve just started having conversations with a few friends living in different cities about the possibility of starting an old-age caregiving programme. However, it’s still early days and many uncertainties. So, a lot of plans and ideas, but nothing very concrete yet.
I see. Do you think law or social policy has some supportive role to play here?
As queer adults when we enter a relationship – whether it be romantic or platonic, there are a lot of ways to actualize and support such relationships without seeking formal legal recognition and visibility. A lot of the basic requirements of life can be handled without ever getting into the tangles of legal recognition. This is as true for same-sex marriage as it is for other relationships like friendships. Take, for instance, nominating someone for your life insurance policy or even your bank accounts. Recently, a lesbian couple in Kolkata filed an RTI application asking the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) whether a nominee could be someone who wasn’t related to the policyholder by either blood, marriage or adoption. The LIC answered yes. This means that friends too can be designated as nominees. Moreover, rights and entitlements towards friends can be designated through a will. You can also co-own property as friends. Under the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, you can designate a friend as a ‘nominated representative’. Thus, there are many ways to use the law without asking for a formalized law regulating for friendship. Why can’t we explore these options? Use them as templates for providing better support to friendships?
Of course, there will always be bureaucratic challenges. Some officials maybe rigid in their thinking and disallow individuals or couples who don’t fit into the heteronormative mould from accessing benefits. But this is where training and sensitization comes in. We don’t need to make massive changes to the law. As an activist also I feel that given that we’ve limited resources, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get caught up with the fascination for legal recognition. There are more important struggles than the need for the legal recognition of friendships.