Friends — the new family?

Alka Puri
When I think of this topic, what come to my mind are 2 serials – Friends of course, and Modern Family.
I am not a die-hard fan of either. But I enjoy watching both. And when I tried to think why, it was easy to find a similarity there. Both are great at creating a sync with the audience’s lives.
Yes, it may be a middle-aged Indian like me watching them in a completely different cultural context – but there is a deep connect. Both remind me of things I have done, shared, felt – with my friends and my family.
The assorted mix that Friends brought in – funny, goofy, narcissistic, mad, a bit dumb, all kinds of friends that remind us of those who have been in our lives, as well as bits of ourselves. And the stuff they were up to – finding work, love, growing up, going together through life in its phase of uncertainty and transition, being there for each other always. That to me was/ is the fun in watching Friends. I am sure if the 6 of them met later, they would have felt the same about each other, and enjoyed equally well.
Modern Family is pretty much the same. Three families that are so different – yet, like humankind everywhere, they sulk, argue, laugh, enjoy, manage their differences, and are always there for each other. Trying to manage the complexities of their lives together. There could be another 10 years of it, and the theme will be perhaps similar across the families.
And I think that’s the operative word. Being there for each other.
Friends, and families, work well when they are ‘together’ with us. Always there when we need them. Not perfect, not ideal, but there. Fulfilling the most critical need of all human beings – the sense of belonging.

Ask any sociologist and she/he will tell you that one of the chief functions of a family in a society is to provide growth and stability to society. Each family is like one strand of the root. The intertwined roots of the familial tree enable society to draw sustenance from the environment to grow the stems, leaves and make the flowers bloom. Extending the metaphor further, the root system of the extended family determines the values, customs and character of its members. Society and its culture is nothing but the forest of such trees. Tribes, Castes, the concept of ‘Ummah’ (community) in Islam and the Marxist individual-state relationship are based in some way or the other on this concept of unifying interdependence.
But Manmohan Desai was not a sociologist. So, he made Amar Akbar Anthony. And Ramesh Sippy made Sholay. These and other similar movies, exemplify stories, where external pressures or happenstances have disengaged a particular individual from the family. Alternate social relationships, namely friendships, may then step in as support mechanisms. So, even the overtly disparate characters of Amar, Akbar and Anthony form mutual bonds while Jai and Veeru are even ready to die for each other. In these movies, friendship was the core pillar of the narrative, and substituted family bonds. Are we seeing these movies come alive, around us, in our day-to-day lives?
First the storm of rapid urbanization and then of globalization wreaked havoc in the forest of family ties. The seeds blown away by these winds landed in faraway lands and sprouted as nuclear families. Bereft of emotional, physical and communal support in unfamiliar territory, they looked for support from others in similar situation, namely friends, who themselves may be similarly placed. Quite often such help was forthcoming. But there also was problem. While in cohesive societal structures this support came by easily, in contemporary urban societies a certain degree of effort and social skill was required to seek this comfort. Not everyone was cut out for it.
Fortunately, the explosion of social media helped mitigate the problem of finding and maintaining a network of friends. Suddenly there was a platform available where you could talk and share with friends what you would otherwise restrict to closer circles. In certain situations, these friendships come in very handy.
But the question here is – can these friendships substitute the role which the family had hitherto played. In my view, that’s unlikely. These associations are like a garden which provide beauty and pleasure to social life. But, exceptions aside, when tested in really adverse situations, the ‘friends-are-the-new-family’ model is likely to fall short. Most people understand this and therefore do not put pressure on their friendships lest they lose their positive spin-offs too. Sure, in a medical emergency friends will come and stand by you. But if the illness requires a longer external support, people tend to go back to their blood relatives. This is even more true if someone is facing a financial adversity. Since money issues between friends are well known to sour relationships, these are skirted. Make no mistake. Friendship bonds can be close and strong. However they serve mostly to complement core family bonds and not replace them.
It would therefore, be in the broad interest of society to keep familial structures intact, while enriching day to day life with friendships. This would give it stability as well as enrichment. The best of both worlds.

Home is where my family is, but I’m hardly home. As I juggle between work and that #ToughToKeepUpWith social life, I’ve come to realize that my family is no longer on my priority list. Sure, guilt does get the better of me at times; making me try to make up whenever I can. I buy my mom perfumes. Or load Cricket apps on my dad’s phone. But how long can I possibly run away from this sad but irreversible reality? My friends still expect me to give them time on weekends. My job still demands me to stay at work 5 days a week. So family time? There’s no such thing as family time. Because there’s simply no time for it. Leaving me with friends, a boyfriend, his friends and my colleagues, who now play the role of family.
At work, I have friends who dedicatedly remind me to have lunch — just like mom. At gigs, I have friends who protectively hover around me — just like dad. I learn cooking from a few friends. I get life lessons from a few others. I holiday with friends. I have serious conversations with friends. They are in every way possible, filling up that void of family time, minus the nagging and attachment. But while this new family gets all of my time and attention, I can’t ignore the fact that I have an actual, blood-connected family, now can I? Which got me turning towards social media. Of course I’ve been using it all along, but I figured I can put it to better use. Wondering how? I’m now doing what I once thought was the worst idea — staying in touch with family on Facebook and WhatsApp.
I still can’t forget that morning my grandmother sent me a friend request from her newly purchased iPad. I cringed, laughed and decided to completely ignore it. The same happened when my mom and dad discovered WhatsApp. But suddenly, I realized that staying in touch with them through these annoying, digital platforms was actually a great idea. Instead of my mom seeing my face properly on just a Sunday morning, she can now see it as much as she wants by zooming into my profile picture. Instead of my sister waiting for me to get home to argue, she simply sends me abbreviated insults, which is much less worse than hearing them in person. I chat with my mom. Send her ❤ ❤ <3. Thank her for packing delicious lunches and update her with pictures. I WhatsApp my dad. Send him ‘I love you’. He usually never replies. But that “blue double tick” is enough to put a smile on my face, knowing that he’s on the other side of the phone.
There’s no doubt that my friends have become my family. But turns out, I owe it to social media for turning my family into my closest friends.

Recently, my parents decided to conduct a mini workshop of sorts for my brother and I, to identify and explore the key values that make up our identities. We had to go through a list of these values and circle the top ten that spoke to us the most. I’d never really thought of ‘friendship’ as a value but I circled it as soon as I saw it and later when we had to list them in order of importance, I placed it at number 8. Now, that’s not very high on a scale of 1 to 10 but to be in my top 10, out of all the values in the world, probably means something.
As a ‘third culture kid’ who has spent more than half her life moving and calling different places “home”, I realised it wasn’t actually my family that made me feel settled in these new and foreign places but my ability to adapt and the friends I made. Of course, my family will always be a top priority and perhaps I take them for granted sometimes but I have always been very lucky to find myself surrounded by truly interesting and diverse people who very quickly become close friends.
I’ve realised that I don’t like to have one big friend group but rather multiple friends and groups that different aspects of myself can feel comfortable with. Though I’m not a big fan of mixing them and like to keep them as separate as possible (make of that what you will, I’m still trying to figure that out). I am however fiercely loyal to each one of them and tend to expect the same treatment back.
As life gets busier with my friends and I slowly starting to figure ourselves out, keeping in touch gets harder and harder. Of course, in the age of Facebook and Whatsapp it is much easier than before and knowing that wherever in the world someone may be, I can reach out to them and get a response back comforts me. This may be within the same hour or in the following week but I’ve learnt that friendship is about quality over quantity. We can no longer spend all the time in the world with each other. Even if some of us are unemployed, I know we’re all still busy with the mental churn of being pretty lost at this age.
My friendships with my best friends have evolved to such an extent that even if we don’t talk for a few weeks, we can pick up right where we left off, with no judgment. And that the few days that we may get to see each other in a year (if we’re lucky) will be blissful and beautiful.
I don’t think anybody can have too many friends but I will say that I’m a little tired of making new ones. I have found the people I can count on the most — some of them are in the same city as I am, some are half way around the world.
Right now, the closest friendship I have is with my phone and the one I am working on the most is with myself.

Krishna Paul
‘How is he today?’ she asked.
‘The same, Didi,’ I replied. ‘The doctors are trying their best.’
‘All right,’ said Didi. ‘I’ll keep my fingers crossed. And call again tomorrow. In the meantime, take care of yourself.’
The next day Didi called again. And the next day. I had to force her not to take the next flight out to see my father. Although he would have loved to see her, see the woman who had grown from a young girl to a mother of a young man under his anxious watch. But by now he was too ill, and, to make a long story short, he eventually left for a better place. Didi was heartbroken, and for days afterwards, whenever she called, I could sense her effort to control her sobs, especially when she spoke with my mother.
Didi means elder sister, as every North Indian knows. And as every North Indian knows, Didi is the monicker for every woman who’s older but not too old, not old enough to be one’s aunt or mother. Otherwise, we call them Aunty or Ma or Dadi – grandma. But my Didi, this Didi, is not just a slightly older woman in my life, one I’m too shy to call by name. This Didi has been my guide, my friend, my confidante. She has also been a constant companion to my parents, their emotional rock, a surrogate daughter, a niece, the one they never had. Didi has no blood ties with me or ‘my family’, but all of us know that means nothing, that blood or water, the nature of the fluid has no connection with the nature of the relationship. We share a bond, one that we don’t have with anyone else.
Is Didi my friend or my family? To answer this question, I’d have to look at what’s a family. I’ve grown up hearing about my parents’ cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles, an assortment of individuals with whom I have nothing in common except a genetic strain that might manifest itself in the way I like salted onions with my parathas, for instance. But what are salted onions compared to a person who holds my hand when I want it held, who rushes to my rescue when I’m standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down upon distress and destruction? What are salted onions compared to the friend who flies down from Delhi just for a day to check up on my husband, then lying comatose in the ICU of a Mumbai hospital?
If I’ve often heard people say that ‘my sister/cousin/mother is my best friend’, then for me the phrase ‘my best friend is my everything’ is the solemn truth!


2 thoughts on “Friends — the new family?”

  1. Friends become family specially for those of us whole away from India or who have siblings in other parts of the world. I think a good friend one can talk to about anything – anything at all is better than any counsellor if needed. Family comes with complications as they are always there for you but as in the case of my mother you don’t want to burden her at this age with any issues. Also friends are contemporaries and in your age group so relate better.


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