International Friendship Day is celebrated on July 30 in many places. The day was first proposed in 1958 in Paraguay by Dr Artemio Bracho of the World Friendship Crusade as “World Friendship Day”. The first attempt to commercialise friendship as a holiday goes back to 1919 when American entrepreneur Joyce Hall introduced the first Sunday in August as a new holiday. The greeting card industry, such as Hall’s Landmark Cards (later Hallmark) advertised and valiantly argued for a Friendship Day. Their efforts were in vain though and by 1940s, the greeting-card holiday had all but died out. The movement for a friendship day was revived in the 1950s and by the 1960s, it became much more widespread as it was linked to popular cultural symbols. To mark the 10th anniversary celebrations of International Friendship Day, The Beatles released their hit song “With a Little Help from My Friends” in 1967. More recently, in 1998, Winnie the Pooh was chosen as the Ambassador of Friendship at the United Nations by Nane Annan, the wife of then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Friendship is one of the deepest and most intimate relationships shared among people, so it is hardly surprising that Friendship Day is widely celebrated with gusto in South Asia.
Personally, I became drawn to the role played by Bengali women’s sociality in my quest to understand the social history of Bengal. Therefore, I study women’s friendships in 20th century Bengal to argue for an alternative understanding to the male-dominated history of the region. I centralise women’s voices and experiences of everyday life to understand their connections with other women during a tumultuous century of harmony and violence to examine the impact of women forgotten by histories. I am primarily utilising Bengali memoirs and oral history interviews conducted in Kolkata and Dhaka to write about ordinary women’s every day and personal interactions with other women.
Among Bengalis, friendship is almost ritualistic in its importance, especially in women’s lives. Historically, Bengali women’s friendships can be traced to the concept of shoipata, whereby women gave each other special nicknames that bound them together à la the fictional friendship explored in Rabindranath Tagore’s Chokher Bali. In Tagore’s story, the young widow Binodini befriends Ashalata and the two friends refer to each other as “chokher bali” or “sand in the eye”. As late as the mid-20th century, famous women like Bina Das wrote about friendships that continued such intimacy of treasured nicknames for their friendships. While writing about her friends at Bethune College in her memoir Sringkhol Jhongkar [The Rattling Chains], Bina Das mentions a friend who she says used to refer to each other as Chokher Jhol, or “Teardrop”.
The friendship between Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Waddedar, Bengal’s other revolutionary women, deserves more recognition. They went to school together and used to play badminton when Pritilata was a class ahead of Kalpana in Chittagong. Kalpana’s writings tell us that the girls took part in Girl Guides to learn the methods of the British. Even at a young age, they bonded over their awareness of the injustice of being subjects of the British Empire. Their friendship began in their school days, but that connection continued long after and was crucial in helping them become two of only four female leaders in Surjya Sen’s revolutionary group. In her reminiscences, Kalpana writes fondly of Pritilata and the time they spent trying to undermine the British. Kalpana says the two used to discuss strategies together in Pritilata’s room. The connections created by the young women have solidified in their names being forever linked as heroes of Bengal. The female revolutionaries who met and were inspired by each other show the centralities of female friendships in allowing them to carry on their passions and quest for justice.
We might also look at the monumental impact that Sufia Kamal’s friendship has had on the women of Bangladesh today. In my interviews, both Khushi Kabir and Ruby Ghuznavi have affirmed that they were inspired by the words and friendships of Khalamma, as she was fondly known. Khushi Kabir stated that Sufia Kamal was one of the only people to encourage her rehabilitation work in the villages of Bangladesh in the aftermath of 1971. She referred to Sufia Kamal as the “bodh tree” from which all movements seem to have stemmed. Ruby Ghuznavi, who re-introduced indigo and natural dyes in the fashion world, mentions that Sufia Kamal was a big supporter when others did not believe in the viability of natural dyes. Sufia Kamal’s support of women’s work and interests have allowed for massive gains for various women’s movements.
Present-day Bengali women continue to stress the significance of female sociality through everyday activities that constitute “friendship rituals”. These include behaviours like walking to school together, playing after school, sharing meals, singing together, or picking flowers early in the morning. Women’s casual interactions with others might be seen as one of the banalities of their lives, but over time, the banal becomes a process of socialisation that creates bonds.
Some friendships last a lifetime while others are ephemeral. Some end when people grow up, others when friends move away to different cities or countries. Friendships are not always easy, but as numerous women I have interviewed in Kolkata and Dhaka say, it is always worth it. No other relationship encapsulates the trust, intimacy, adventures, and love that good friends bring into our lives.
Farida Begum is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is currently writing a dissertation on Bengali women’s social interactions in the twentieth century. She is also a researcher for HerStory Foundation and the media portal taramonbd.com.