Khyati, Vidya, Menaka and Dipti in Kasauli on the right. A boat ride to Triveni Sangam on the left. Photo: Vidya Balachander
It was our first week at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Depending on whom you asked, Xavier’s was described as a haven of hedonism, or an institution that incubated deeply intellectual minds. Either way, for a group of middle-class kids awkwardly trying to bloom into our own, the imposing hallways and cavernous classrooms, the effortless late ‘90s coolth that rippled forth from the foyer, and the general air of cheerful abandon was both intoxicating and intimidating. It was against this backdrop, in a slightly panicky effort to find my ‘tribe’, that I met my closest girlfriends in 2002.
We didn’t know we were forging a sisterhood that would sustain. We have since moved continents, gone weeks at times without contact, and welcomed partners, pets, kids and their friends into the fold as a happy byproduct of this kernel of love.
Our friendship has made room for phases of intimacy and distance. It has accommodated the quirks of our very different personalities: Khyati, the wise counsel who is always looking out for others, Menaka the frank journalist with a large heart, Dipti the introspective writer who lives life on her own terms, Deepika the go-getter who often whips us into timeliness, and I—an incorrigible friend-collector who must be nudged to not offer my heart to every new person. As we scattered geographically and could no longer take one another’s physical presence for granted, we made more of an effort to travel together.
Last January, I visited Prayagraj and Lucknow with Deepika and Menaka to savour all we could of the region’s winter specialities. The CAA-NRC protests were reaching fever pitch in many parts of the North, and even as I boarded the plane to meet my friends in Delhi, I wondered if our timing and destination were appropriate given the circumstances.
In the days that followed, I became aware of a curious shift in our spirits. As solo female travellers, the burden of our well-being is often (unfairly) thrust upon our shoulders. We are forced to become hyper-aware of our surroundings, wary of every sideways glance or sudden movement. When I travel alone, I wind myself up into an efficient yet wired ball of energy. I take few chances, make several lists for emergencies, and don’t allow myself to lower my guard anywhere. But when I joined forces with my friends, my paranoia transformed into something far more wholesome: a profound sense of safety in the company of women whom I have known for half my adult life.
Our days were languid yet productive. In Prayagraj, the Magh Mela—a religious fair at the Triveni Sangam or confluence of the Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati—was on. Devotees boarded boats to the Sangam, where they descended rickety ladders to take a dip where the lighter Ganga met the darker Yamuna. We asked our boatman how the water was shallow enough for people to bathe safely. “Ganga maiya snaan karne ka rasta bana deti hai,” he said—the Ganga creates a way for devotees to exercise their faith.
While our own relationship with spirituality was tetchy, we felt no such hesitation when it came to food. Willing our appetites to keep pace with our curiosity, we tore our way through a list of chaat we had never tried. Tamatar chaat, with tomatoes cooked down until mushy, paired with potatoes, spicy hari chutney and sweet-sour imli chutney, embellished with grated radish and crushed puris. And churmura or puffed rice, roasted over hot sand with peanuts and black chana until everything acquired a creamy, toothsome bite. We also gorged on fragrant, red-hued Allahabadi guavas. When it was time to travel to Lucknow, we spontaneously hired a taxi—with stops to take photos in bright mustard fields—and though my parents thought it was risky given the unrest in the state, we reached just fine.
In 2017, I travelled to Sri Lanka’s North Central Province with a dear friend and heritage conservator, Mandira. In Anuradhapura, we visited the Jetavanaramaya, a dagoba with the fading outlines of Buddhist art that I appreciated far more with Mandira’s insights. Back at the hotel, after a long walk by the bund, we sipped arrack sours. My husband is a travel professional, but planning this trip by ourselves was an opportunity to experience this part of the world on our terms, and it had given us a deeper sense of confidence about our place in it.
When I spend time with my girlfriends, my husband yields top priority to them. He knows they have sustained me through crises and celebrations, the heartache of leaving India and the joy of expanding my worldview. He also recognises that there is a vernacular we share —a way of seeing and being seen, the striving to accept our brilliance just as emphatically invisible struggles in navigating the world as women—that ties us.
This March, after over a year of not being able to meet, we took a trip to Kasauli. The logistics took months to plan, including booking a roomy bungalow for six adults and three children. With some of us joining from Mumbai, Delhi and Dubai, it often seemed impossible.
But when we met at Chandigarh airport, the difficulties melted away. Over the next two days, we laughed raucously at old in-jokes, played Monopoly Deal and took an ill-advised trip to Shimla that resulted in motion sickness for many. On our penultimate evening, as we sang, danced, and enjoyed barbecue by the fireside, I could feel the visceral warmth of friendship seeping into my COVID-weary bones. I found myself reflecting on the two decades that had brought us here. It was clear as day: it all circles back to the friends I made in that first, unsure week of college. Unfailingly, it comes back to the girls.