Recently, I made an unusual journey—a journey of love to pick up old relationships and energise them. In many ways my annual visits to Dhaka are also part of a commitment to renew childhood friendships and bond with family. However, a recent trip to India was somewhat different since I dedicated my time strengthening old connections that were disrupted by the challenges of time and tide. Interestingly, the experience prompted me to reflect on life's shifting priorities: Should one invest more time in nurturing relationships or maximising career opportunities?
Almost all wellbeing gurus and modern-day philosophers have concluded that human relationships form the most durable ingredient of happiness. They far outstrip the fleeting satisfaction that accompanies material and career achievements. Hence, people who slow down on their ambitions and prefer to focus on relationships seem to be more content with life, in general.
Conversely, high achievers rarely relax—even at social occasions, their roving eyes are seeking a worthwhile business connection. I don't grudge such people since in their quest for self-advancement they may happen to contribute to technological development and creativity. But highly-strung people often create social ructions and disturb equanimity.
Since I have consciously chosen to live my life fostering friendships, I pay close attention to the ingredients that nurture authentic relationships. It is hard to gauge what holds people together; is it blood ties, length of time spent together, or shared interests? I presume it's a mix of all three.
In our formative years, blood ties represent the basis of all relationships—the love we share with parents and close family flows naturally and hardly needs any reinforcement. But wider family relationships are frequently complicated by competitive rivalry and petty jealousies. On the other hand, true friendships grow stronger with time—even physical distance does not create cracks and fissures.
Personally, I have experienced strong connections with friends at different levels. Sometimes it has been the camaraderie we shared as muktijoddhas in 1971. Despite the lapse of more than 40 years, when we meet we relive the pangs and joys of our difficult exile that inspired selflessness and cooperation. Unsurprisingly, all the inequities of status, wealth and success seem to dissipate into nothingness. The same emotions surface when I meet school friends. Our boisterous lunch and coffee reunions are wrought with laughter and chatter. There are no agendas, no yearning to learn about the intricacies of career ladder-climbing and self-aggrandisement. We simply reassure each other of our continued love and affection and collectively travel through the memory tunnel!
The three connections that inspired my recent trip to India are, however, unique—they do not fall within the classic definition of friends or family. The first is an adopted “niece” whose deceased parents were dear friends. I am now the surrogate mother and was proudly introduced to all her friends and work colleagues as “my mashi”, not “like my mashi.” Needless to say, in some cases this initiated a questioning, second glance—the question being: “How did Ali and Ganguly become aunt and niece?” In a cultural environment where Padmaavat is creating waves of religious undercurrent, our relationship conveyed a poignant message—that of transcending national and religious boundaries through a bond engendered by love alone.
The second friend I visited was in Kolkata. Someone I knew intimately when we were carefree young girls sharing street food, small talk and Rabindra sangeet. Our paths deviated considerably since her demanding acting career absorbs large chunks of her life. However, we both considered it worthwhile to reignite the relationship. Despite her intense work pressures she invested two days of her precious time to bond and share. I came away assured that solid relationships don't become a casualty of time and status.
The final part of my sojourn was to attend a wedding in Santiniketan—the groom was my music guru's grandson. My guru was an exceptional human being who lived her life in the true tradition of Tagorean ideals. Although she has long left our world, it was important for me to participate in her grandson's marriage ceremony to honour my deep connection with her—a spiritual bond based on Rabindra sangeet and much more. With time, I have come to realise that she did not only teach me music, but also inspired me to place human connections at the centre stage of my life. This may have put me at a disadvantage in my career progression, but the pleasure I derive from the unabated love and affection of friends has far outstripped the professional hiccups. At another level, it was reassuring to see that Santiniketan still remains that peaceful abode where humility and sincerity are valued more than material success and social strata.
Do I have regrets that I have chosen human relationships as the core value of my existence? The answer is an unqualified “No”. The choice has allowed me to view my own life through the eyes of a second sympathetic self. And, I truly believe that “the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved” (Adam Smith).
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.