Contributions from India

Male friendship and intimacy in the time of Covid-19

Author: Rahul Advani received his PhD in Anthropology from King’s College London in 2019. His research interests include social media, youth, friendship and class, and his research can be viewed on a website he launched at www.lifeinametro.in. You can contact Rahul Advani at rahul.advani@kcl.ac.uk.

Fieldsite: Pune. This report draws from several online interviews with lower-middle-class young men in the western Indian city of Pune where Rahul previously conducted twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2016 and 2018 for his PhD dissertation on Facebook and friendship among college-going young men.

Timepass in the city

Maharashtra, the worst-affected state in India by the coronavirus, reported its first confirmed case of the virus in Pune. Designated as a Covid-19 red zone, the city has fallen under some of the strictest regulations put forward by the state government, including the compulsory wearing of masks in public and suspension of all vehicle movement.

Millions of miles away from Pune, I could not help but wonder what the city now looked like under lockdown and how young men were coping with their sudden lack of freedom to roam about. During my doctoral fieldwork in Pune between 2016 and 2018, it was impossible to travel around the city without noticing the presence of young men hanging out in small groups on street corners and around tea stalls and empty parts of college campuses.

There was an unmistakable spontaneity in their movements; they would often drive with two or three friends packed together on a two-wheeler. Sometimes they would travel with no destination in mind, driving for hours and blasting songs from their smartphones whilst on the road. As I befriended several of these groups, I came to realise that socialising with friends in this manner, or what they called “doing timepass”, was more than just a daily occurrence for many young men in the city but a way of life.

The potency that close friendships occupy in the daily lives of lower-middle-class young men native to Pune is underscored by the space they provide for spending time away from the family home and outside of parental control. With friends, they express their inner selves through sharing secrets, cracking jokes and engaging in activities such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, cursing and trading stories about their love lives.

Rakesh, Virat and a group of friends hanging out outside their college before the lockdown (Credit: Ron Bezbaruah)

The importance that friendship carries for Indian men as a source of intimacy can be traced back to mythological tales in which friendships between men compete with conjugal obligations (Singh 2017; Vanita 2005). As I discovered during my fieldwork, my respondents often considered their close male friendships as equally intimate to their romantic relationships with young women.

While social media platforms such as Facebook increasingly occupy the time and attention of young men, many are adamant that social media cannot replace or even be confused for the close friendships they sustain through physical interaction. In comparison to the interiority their physical friendships afford, their lives on social networking platforms such as Facebook are geared towards circulating carefully crafted versions of themselves across an audience far larger than their close circle of friends. In the words of Deepak, a young man who had moved from a village in Maharashtra to work and study in Pune:

“True friends laugh, cry, sleep and enjoy together. Friendship is important for enjoyment. A true friend cares about me in everything because he loves me. Facebook is just to show the outside world what we are doing.”

Friendship under lockdown

Sitting from London, I conducted online interviews with my respondents about their experiences of life under lockdown. I was particularly interested to find out whether their attitudes towards social media had changed since the lockdown and if it was possible to sustain their intimate friendships in the confines of their homes and through their smartphones.

Despite the inability of young men to socialise with their friends with the same level of freedom as before, social media appears to have played an insignificant role in the way they maintain their friendships. Instead of turning to social media, young men have spatially re-scaled their existing friendship practices to their neighbourhoods. In the case of friends separated by distance, there has been a shift from physical to verbal exchange. As Rakesh, a recent college graduate, explained:

“Before corona, hanging out together was about going on the bike, taking tea, biryani, but now don’t go anywhere. We mostly stay at home and only meet friends within our neighbourhood. Some friends are far from me. For those friends, I contact them on WhatsApp or call them on the phone. Before I used to take the bike to go into the city to meet them. Now we are talking a lot more on the phone. We ask each other things like ‘how is the situation?’, ‘how are your parents?’. What fun can we have on the call? But it does not matter. Real friends never forget each other.”

Speaking about his best friend who lives in a different part of the city, Virat, a college senior of Rakesh’s, described experiencing feelings of longing and boredom:

“Sometimes I miss him. I miss everyone, my old friends, new ones. I am only meeting friends in my neighbourhood. I stay in touch with those outside through WhatsApp video, Zoom and Google Duo. But we are getting bored.”

Interviewing Rakesh, one of my respondents in Pune, remotely via WhatsApp

In addition to the restrictions on travelling outside one’s locality to meet friends, opportunities for meeting those nearby have been challenged by the blurring of boundaries between family life and work. Rakesh described the sudden scarcity of free time created by the constant presence of family members and the intrusion of work into the home:

“Family members are coming and disturbing, electricity is being cut, and companies are giving more work when we are at home. Everyday work takes ten to twelve hours, so it has become more difficult to hang out with friends. All our time goes into work.”

In their interactions with friends who live nearby, physical gatherings continue to occur but are now structured around specific activities that allow them to pass the time without exchanging bodily touch. Rakesh recalled how he celebrated his birthday one month after the start of the lockdown:

“Before the coronavirus, we played carrom mainly during the holidays. But now we have started playing carrom and card games like Ludo and Chase with our friends. It is a good way to meet one another, make some chit-chat, and spend time together. For my birthday, myself and fifteen friends gathered on a rooftop in our neighbourhood. We did not touch each other but we still made sure to have fun. We made biryani. We played cards.”

Similarly, for Virat, gathering together with friends meant refraining from bodily contact and taking precautionary measures to protect the health of those around them: “We maintain social distancing and use face masks to meet sometimes. Unconsciously if we do touch someone, we have sanitisers in our pockets, and we sanitise our hands.”

Rakesh and a group of friends gathering on a rooftop to celebrate his birthday during the lockdown

The politics of physical touch

Covid-19, whilst temporarily affecting young men’s friendship practices, has not changed their attitudes towards the importance of physical touch as a source of intimacy between male friends. During my doctoral fieldwork, interactions between close male friends involved varying forms of body contact, from mock aggression to more affectionate touching such as hugging and hand-holding. Through making fun of each other and engaging in physical contact, young men would bond by asserting sameness with one another and challenging hierarchical relations such as that of caste (Jeffrey 2010; Nisbett 2007; Osella and Osella 1998).

Sometimes, a particularly harsh or ‘cutting’ insult would be immediately offset by putting a friend into a headlock and ruffling their hair, almost as if to signify the insult was made in jest. At other times, young men would slap each other’s hands to signal the shared appreciation of a well-delivered joke. Speaking about his desire to resume this intensely physical style of conveying affection after the easing of the lockdown, Rakesh pointed out:

“We still gather in groups but now we interact at a distance. Instead of shaking hands or hugging, we just namaste. It feels different…hamari aadat thi (all this was our habit), it has not immediately changed, but we are starting to put a control on that. Everyone has a family where there are elder people and younger children. Corona is bad for them. We will survive because we are young, but we do not want to endanger our families. But after corona is over, we will get back to all this…punching, kicking, slapping and high fiving our friends.”

Closing thoughts

Many young men from low-income, non-English speaking backgrounds in Pune, lacking the capital and cultural resources to access exclusive consumer spaces in the city such as its gleaming shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, nightlife venues and western-style coffee shops, rely primarily on the company of friends – and little else – to find ways of having fun and passing the time.

Attitudes toward physical touch in India, which is already a contentious issue mediated by a long history of spatial distancing between caste groups and caste ideas of pollution, are likely to become even more polarised across class divisions in an age of social distancing.

One wonders what the pandemic’s long-lasting effects will be not only on friendship but also class politics. Has the lockdown damaged many young men’s intimacies at a level beyond repair? Or do these men, should they eventually revert to their previous ways of interacting with friends, stand to become further marginalised in a post-Covid India?

Will these men, largely invisible from middle-class narratives of educational mobility and aspirational forms of consumption (Fernandes 2004), now acquire a new kind of visibility? Will their physical proximity to one another and their reliance on physical contact for intimacy single them out as ‘different’ from, and unable to belong to the upwardly mobile middle class? As concerns around hygiene stand to play an increasingly important role in the spatialised politics of class hierarchies, young men’s intimacies may become yet another signifier of cultural unbelonging.

References

Fernandes, Leela. 2004. “The Politics of Forgetting: Class Politics, State Power and the Restructuring of Urban Space in India.” Urban Studies 41 (12): 2415-2430.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2010. Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nisbett, Nicholas. 2007. “Friendship, Consumption, Morality: Practicing Identity, Negotiating Hierarchy in Middle-Class Bangalore.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13 (4): 935-950.

Osella, Caroline and Filippo Osella. 1998. “Friendship and Flirting: Micro-Politics in Kerala, South India.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4 (2): 189-206.

Singh, Upinder. 2017. Political Violence in Ancient India. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vanita, Ruth. 2005. Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.