... will it be friendship at first sight? After a few chance tête-à-tête, when they have found out that they shared likes and dislikes, will there be friendship in the air? Will a quiet dinner, where they exchange intimate details of their successes and failures, mark the beginning of "a beautiful friendship" that matches the one between Rick and Louis?
Not a chance, says Harry, adding that the ever-present sexual tension between a man and a woman precludes the possibility of a platonic relationship between them. Sally is more circumspect, and doesn't think it is impossible. In the end Harry is vindicated. He and Sally discover that they are great together in bed, and get married, intending to live happily ever after as husband and wife. That, in essence, is a synopsis of When Harry Met Sally..., a popular Hollywood comedy from the eighties. In the side box, I reproduce a conversation between Harry and Sally on the subject.
Is a heterosexual friendship, as Harry says, doomed to failure, because of this sex thing between them? Psychologists and sociologists seem to disagree. Camille Chatterjee, writing in Psychology Today, reports that in a survey of 1450 members of match.com, 83% of the respondents believed that men and women could be "platonic friends". The survey also said that women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to keep sex out of friendship. No wonder that Harry's views on the subject are so different from those of Sally!
I have cherished and continue to cherish friendships with women of different ages. Admittedly, several faded away after one or both of us got married. Does this imply that the sex thing interrupted these friendships? I think not. My wife is my best friend, but let's say she is a die-hard fan of indy movies, but hates the Bollywood romances that I invariably love. She should not mind if I went to movies exclusively with my friend, Kalpana, who shares my passion for such movies. She might even prefer that, as it spares her hours of agony in the movie hall. And, if I may add, it doesn't diminish our marriage in anyway. After all, I enjoy the long hikes with my wife in Yosemite as much as I enjoy the Bollywood melodramas, if not more! Jealousy, it is said, prevents strong ties between men and women, barring the conjugal one, but I don't think it is impossible for reasonable adults to exorcise jealousy from marriage.
Perhaps sex is a biological imperative in any relationship between a man and a woman. I cannot honestly say that the possibility of sex with some of my friends didn't cross my mind. The thoughts did occur occasionally, but were quickly dismissed. I don't believe that a few neurons instinctively firing at times means anything. I had no intention of fulfilling these fleeting desires. I wouldn't dream of risking what I had for what little more that I could have had. A random poem on Friends into lovers that I came across on the web declares,
The fear of hurting and hearing the,
"I didn't expect this from you!!!"
is nothing compared to the loss
of missing out on a lover
who you kept just a friend.
Really? That's a sweeping generalization that only a fellow who is still wet behind his ears would make!
Having said that, I believe it's quite possible that some friends will venture beyond the thin line that separates friendship from sex. Does it mean that their friendship is doomed? I don't think so. Affirming this, Ms. Chatterjee quotes from a study by Walid Afifi of Penn State University of more than 300 college students that "67 percent reported having had sex with a friend. Interestingly, 56 percent of those subjects did not transition the friendship into a romantic relationship, suggesting that they preferred friendship over sex."
Does age add any new wrinkle to the relationship between a man and woman? The same society that is skeptical about the claims of heterosexual friendship takes an about turn, when it considers intergenerational relationship. What is natural between a couple of twenty-somethings becomes unnatural between a fifty-something and a twenty-something. What is doubted as implausible becomes the only acceptable norm.
"Cradle robbery" or "gold digging" as it is derisively called sometimes, sexual relationship between a young woman and a much older man, as well as that between a young man and an older woman, is frowned upon in most cultures. To wit, the recent controversy in India over the screening of the film, Nishabd, which deals with the love between a teenager and a man 40 years older than her. Here's how a politician fishes in the troubled waters:
"The release of ‘Nishabd’ on the soil of Prayag [holy confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna] can't be tolerated. Through this film, Amitabh Bachchan is propagating western culture in our youth, which is disgusting. We will not let the movie hit the halls. Indeed, Amitabh Bachchan should take a voluntarily retirement from film industry," said Mukund Tiwari, a local legislator.
Sure, Mr. Tiwari, it's the same western culture that corrupted King Dasaratha into marrying Kaikeyi, who was decades younger than him! Politician's peccadilloes apart, Nishabd is not the first film to portray love between older and younger persons. American Beauty, Last Tango in Paris, Lolita, and, in Tamil, Apoorva Raagangal, are a few other movies that I recall as dealing with this subject. Famous real life couples with significant age disparity are Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi, Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel, and Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Brandon, to mention a few.
Does this mean that every Radha is in love with her nephew, Krishna, and every teenager should expect a pass from her friend's photographer dad, as she steps out of water? I hope not. In a previous post, Eyes Wide Shut, I have argued that not every thought, desire, or dream translates into action, or even intent. Reason intervenes, pros and cons are weighed, and consequences are evaluated, before action results. Evolutionary biologist, Helena Cronin, cautions against determinism of any kind, biological or otherwise, when predicting human behavior:
"These are statistical generalizations," says Helena Cronin, co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. "Not all women are X, not all men are Y. We're talking about dispositions and potentials - not there's a gene inside that you will robot-like perform its will... For humans, what natural selection did was build very large brains with a lot of potentialities and dispositions. We are very sensitive to the environment - far from being rigid, we're the opposite. If I find myself in this position, I do this, in that position I do another thing. There is no particular reason why genes should be more deterministic than environmental factors."
It would be a pity if friendship between a man and a woman were biologically or socially condemned to self-destruct. There will be so much less to live for.