In India, everyone says boys and girls can never be friends. A writer asked the men and women in her life how they defied the dictum—and how they didn’t.

Platonic by Prachi Pinglay-Plumber; Illustration by Jerusha Isaac for

After many days of trying and planning, I was finally having lunch with a dear friend at Bengaluru’s pleasant Indiranagar Club. His wife, also a close friend, had been instrumental in making this reunion happen. It was a breezy afternoon, and for the first time in ages, we ate and talked and laughed together.

Being a mother to a toddler had become my prime identity and preoccupation over the preceding years, and I couldn’t meet friends to catch up anymore without making an exhausting effort. I was jabbering about this to Sujit when he remarked, casually but sweetly, “You know, I never imagined you’d be such an involved and preoccupied mother. I thought you would be a lot more chilled out.”

It wasn’t a critical remark at all. He meant well. But I didn’t know how to respond. I muttered something about not having adequate support systems and left it at that. Then, over the next three to four months, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still don’t know why that conversation went the way it did, but my inability to explain how tough motherhood had been to my closest friend left me restless. For 20 years, Sujit and I had prided ourselves on understanding the most important things about each other: our fears, dreams, aspirations, struggles. But now there was distance.

It dawned on me that most of my male friends had grown distant from me over the previous decade. We had all crossed into our forties, were married and caring for families, and paying off loans. Our conversations had become superficial and erratic. Our rare meetings were multi-generational group outings, with no space for a real conversation. The most intimate conversations were updates on parents’ health, or work pressures.

This was particularly striking to me because, through my teens and twenties, I’d thought of myself as a guy’s girl. I matched my male buddies drink for drink, arcane sports data point for point. I could once have reeled off a domestic cricket team’s playing XI; now I barely knew who was captain when India played.

This checking out ran parallel to the loss of my male friends. It also coincided with the time I was discovering a different kind of friendship with women. These had a bedrock of understanding, solidarity, emotional support, and fun. The one thing common to all the women I loved was our shared lived experience in this world—the way it is, the way its men are, and the way women navigate this.

Soon I was consumed by my question. In 1989, the Hindi blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya made the declaration, ‘Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahin hote’ famous—a boy and girl can never be friends. I wanted to know if it was really impossible for men and women to form an intimate, lifelong bond outside the hierarchical structures of family, romance or the moral foundation of shared purpose and duty. If it wasn’t, I wanted to know if it was just life getting in the way, or something more, and whether the break could be mended.

I interviewed over two dozen people I know well, many from a background similar to my own: urban, educated, economically privileged. Some were married and had children. Some were queer, and had experienced life and intimacy in a way I hadn’t. I spoke to my students, who are a generation younger than me. I even tried to interview my mother.

For Indians who grew up in families that made clear distinctions between blood ties and friendships, it is easy to believe that there’s no room for platonic love in a culture that privileges endogamous relationships. (Remember the common parental reprimand when you stayed out with your crew: “Is this a hotel or a home? Come anytime, go anytime.”) From the Hitopadesa to the Baburnama, texts give us historical glimpses into how caste, class and power decided how we made friends outside of family. Yet, friendship is supposed to be more modern than other kinds of Indian relationships, and perhaps by extension, foreign, even Western.

I wanted to know if it was really impossible for men and women to form a lifelong bond outside the hierarchical structures of family, romance or the moral foundation of shared purpose.

Mythological or historical references to friendship are typically studied for underlying political or social motives, related to power. And without the man-woman frame, or the basis of obligation and custom, friendship—as a unique bond between human beings—is rarely studied at all.

In their 2017 paper on friendship in Indian history, Daud Ali and Emma J. Flatt explain the plausible reasons for the lack of scholarly attention to friendship in South Asia. There is, they argue, “the common assumption that emotions, sentiments and intimate human relations were not worthy of historical study because of their banal and self-evident nature and their universal sameness, presuppositions grounded in either humanistic or biological essentialism.”

And yet there are so many different words for friends in this part of the world. “The variety of words in modern Hindi alone which can be translated as ‘friend’ (yaar, dost, seheli, saathi, sahayak, jaani, sanghrakshak, mitr, hamdard, bandhu, hamdam, habib, sayogi, ukht, akka, wali, bhai, jigari, rafiq, sajjan, sakhi, aziz, nadim, hamsafar, to name only the most common) is vast,” Ali wrote. “These words, which derive from both Sanskritic and Persianate roots, suggest that conceptions of friendship were diverse and far-ranging in ‘traditional’ Indian society.”


n my early childhood, friends did not come easily. I grew up in Dombivli, a suburb of Thane, with working parents, doting grandparents and an uneventful routine at the local English-medium school. When I was about 10 years old, our standalone house was sold and became an apartment complex, which is where I discovered that I was a social person. From having a couple of friends, I came to possess an ever-expanding social circle.

Living in neighbourhoods segregated by caste and religion sets the norm for friendship to be with those who are like you. Initially settled by the Agri fishing community, urbanised Dombivli in the 1990s was populated by upper-caste Maharashtrians with white-collar jobs, as well as a sizeable population of southern Indian migrants from the same demographic. Almost all my childhood friends came from the same kind of families as mine. I only created a minor ripple in these serene waters by hanging out with a lot of boys as well as girls. However, my parents believed in freedom, and committed to giving me mine—sometimes grudgingly but unfailingly.

When it was time for college, movies, hormones and peer pressure were ready to mess with my mind. We’d never been encouraged to date, and some of our more twisted school traditions included making ‘rakhi brothers’ of boys you got along with, to categorise the bond as a fraternal one. I did not fit in. I loved seeing Bhagyashree and Salman Khan swear friendship to each other in Maine Pyar Kiya, though in retrospect, I admit that I may have bought postcards of stills from the movie for the dresses she wore, and not as a real fan.

Later, I was eager to celebrate the friendship between Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In both these blockbusters, separated by nearly a decade, friendship between the male and female leads turns to love. But this time, I was wise to the undercurrents of Anjali undergoing a gender metamorphosis to win Rahul’s heart. My adolescence coincided with a decade in which man-woman relationships were at the centre of several Hindi movie hits. But no movie would take love for love and friendship for friendship; and every single one emphasised that family comes first. Friendship was nothing more than preparation for romance, and romance always upheld the choices and demands of your parents.

My friends and I were taught that we came secondary to traditional relationships. Still, as time went by, we became family, too. I lived with my friends, I studied with them, and looked for jobs with them. When I fell in love and married, my friends were firmly by my side.

Yet, the cycle of giving primacy to parents, spouses, siblings and children continued with us, too. As each of these demanded more from us, we quietly slid into farther orbits. And among them all, the relationships between heterosexual men and women were the hardest to keep.


he big theme in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is which girls can be your friends, and which ones you can date. From the time I’d turned 15 or 16, my circle of friends included many men, for whom I was a buddy, more ‘one of the guys’ than a cool girl. It was really about choosing one set of stereotypes over another, but at the time it was fun, because men have more fun than women within the framework of our social norms.

They were my buddies when I wanted to chill with late-night coffees. I was their confidante and took pride in knowing their secrets, especially the romantic ones. They were my cheerleaders at parties when I drank to keep up with them. But they were also my knights in shining armour in pretty traditional ways. When I got a job, some accompanied me on reporting assignments, for my safety. Through it all, I ensured that our bonds remained unsexualised, platonic.

I met Deepthy when we were both reporters on the law beat, hanging out by court buildings waiting for verdicts, victims and lawyers to turn up. In between, we got long lunches, went shopping, and talked—and talked, and talked—as we walked around Kala Ghoda in Mumbai. We were nothing like each other, so I thought she would be a good person to ask about her male friendships. She’d been a teen like me, making a conscious choice to resist girly things, and talk to guys about sports and current affairs instead.

“That is also a form of patriarchy, right?” she said. “We did not denounce it, we worked around it, we negotiated it and that is why we made good male friends. We were making a lot of effort to work the system and yet be ourselves.”

In the 1990s, before we learned that gender was a spectrum, “tomboy” may have been construed as an insult, but it was also a certificate of passage for some of us. Because it was stifling to be a traditional Indian girl, we made every effort to imbibe and absorb the behaviour of Indian boys. “The boys did not treat me like a girl at all, be it their language, be it what they talked about or how they behaved,” Dilnaz, another guy’s girl, remembered. “But they are still there, doing the same stuff, and I have moved on.”

Perhaps it was because we were all running a kind of con, but Deepthy and Dilnaz, like me, found their heterosexual friendships rupturing as they grew older, too. “Of all those friends, I have stayed friends with one or two,” Dilnaz said, “Men are not given the opportunity to understand emotions and articulate. Everything is brushed under the carpet.”


hen Harish Sadani, a co-founder of Men Against Violence and Abuse, became an anti-patriarchy activist, his women friends supported him, and the men distanced themselves. I asked if he had any hopeful stories about heterosexual friendships to share, but he said it wasn’t easy. “Not being able to make deep friendships like women is patriarchal,” he said, “and also really damaging for men’s emotional wellbeing.” Deep-rooted gender roles made emotional honesty difficult for men, “because they have to constantly live up to the idea of not just earning but earning more than others; doing better than before.”

Something else he said stayed with me because that is what a lot of my male friends were doing without articulating, or perhaps even realising it. “Men are not used to discussing emotions at all. Even among male friends, they are not comfortable with sharing feelings and problems that are related to life, work, finance and health. They are constantly encouraged to man up, and not be a sissy and not cry and so on.”

“Men have to constantly live up to the idea of not just earning but earning more than others; doing better than before.”

Harish Sadani

My friend Anindita, a journalist and novelist, wondered if the slipping away of men-women friendships in the mid-30s had something to do with the male middle-age crisis. “Along with the purchase of an Enfield or a tattoo, comes the idea of wanting to be associated with youth. In the way our societies and workplaces are structured, middle-aged men often find themselves juxtaposed with very young women,” she wrote to me in a lovely email. In Anindita’s novel The Illuminated, the recently-widowed protagonist rekindles a friendship with her deceased husband’s best friend that is really just that: a friendship. “I think it is demeaning and dehumanising to women and to women characters in fiction and cinema to deny them the status of a friend,” she wrote.

Hindi cinema messed up my ideas about how women should behave in heterosexual friendships, and with and around men in general. But this same cinema has been life-affirming for a certain kind of friendship: the ride-or-die BFF love between men. From Sholay’s Jai-Veeru to the trio in 3 Idiots, bromance—sometimes seen as queer, sometimes not—is not simply a b-track. It depicts love and loyalty in a way that the shifting grounds of hetero coupling simply doesn’t. When push comes to shove, my male friends show up for each other. They may not reveal their vulnerabilities, but their solid bonds are on full display in times of health and financial crises. “I’ll be there for you man. We’ll sort this”: they mean it when they say this to each other, and even to me.

The anthropologist Bhoomika Joshi, a doctoral researcher at Yale University, has been looking at the social life of intimacy, especially among men. “The notion of male friends as ones who are ‘ready to die for each other’ and made eternal through their friendship popularises a gendered conception of friendship in which one can trust to find goodness, even if its arrival is prolonged,” she writes. “During my time spent with male drivers in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand however, I discovered that their friendships are so fraught with the imminence of betrayal that while it may outwardly appear as men competing against each other, it is equally a matter of men discovering that friendship is hard to come by.”


 go back a long way with Sidey, which is what everyone calls Siddharth: this is Year 20 of our lovely friendship. We got to know each other as co-workers in Delhi, and over time I’ve become friends with his friends. He lives in Australia now, so we don’t meet often, even though I’ve moved to his own hometown, Bengaluru. I’ve dreamed of seeing him have a big gay wedding full of Indian sho-sha, but when I told him this, he laughed and said I had lost it.

Last year, when we met for the first time after the pandemic, I told him about this friendship thing on my mind. On a long phone call we had later, Sidey said that queer people tended to experience friendship differently. “Queer friendships are about a community that comes together because of how difficult everyday life is,” he pointed out. “There is a sense of purpose, there is a cause to fight for. That forms the basis for most friendships.” There was a very fundamental struggle for dignity and acceptance outside the norms, to get societies and systems to recognise core relationships in formal ways. All this infused energy into community and relationships.

I asked him what he thought of the stereotype, less prevalent now than it was in the heyday of Sex and the City, that straight women and gay men naturally gravitated towards each other, and had abiding and deep friendships. “There is no sexual tension, so it’s a big relief for women to be themselves and be open,” Sidey said. Shashank, who is also queer, had found that women were more sensitive to the realities of gay men, and seemed to lend a more empathetic ear. I wondered if queer women felt the same way about straight women; in none of my interviews did women bring up any complexities about being friends with women whose sexuality differed from their own.

To Sidey, I tried to explain what I considered important about friendships with a parallel. Friends can bring us heartbreak and complications, just like our more customary relations. But he didn’t think it was so simple. The nature of friendship is so different that none of the factors that influence relationships in heteronormative society quite compare, Sidey felt.

“Unsurprisingly, so much thinking and writing about friendship comes from queer thought, particularly through the queering of kinship,” Bhoomika Joshi, the anthropologist, wrote in an email. “That queerness disrupts genealogical notions of family, kinship and identity, compels the re-imagination of these relations and makes available the idiom of friendship as the practice of queerness.”


ne of the most vivid memories I have is of frying pakodas in the kitchen for the same set of friends with whom I had partied for years. At the time I lived in a small, cosy Mumbai rental, a home where the gang often gathered after work to turn on the TV, pour our drinks and order in. The only difference now was that I was married. I had started to play the host.

Most women I interviewed pointed to marriage as the exact break in their relationships with male friends. My Twitter friend Sukhada is a champion of quote-tweeting, poem-sharing and everyday feminism. She’s also been rich in friendships with men, many of whom she’d appreciated for being less judgemental than the women around her. But she took a pragmatic view of my query. I was the emotional support for many of my male friends, Sukhada said, but that role was no longer acceptable with spouses in the picture.

Intimacy bred awkwardness. It was alright to have some sort of shared external bond, what Sukhada described as “tennis friend, office friend, investment friend.” But really knowing someone, perhaps better than a spouse who had entered a relatively new relationship with the other person, “causes a lot of insecurity.”

I recognised this sentiment in Anindita’s email to me. She’d wondered if her male friends’ “girlfriends or wives had ‘forbidden’ three-hour lunches with other women.” The “terrible thing,” she continued, “was that I realised I had been that girlfriend and wife too, and it made me think of why we are psycho-socially conditioned to be so uncomfortable with male-female friendships. In my case, I had never witnessed these friendships in my parents’ generation; they only socialised as couples or as whole families.”

In spite of the pakodas, I was reluctant to accept that marriages or romantic relationships played such a major role in modern friendships. But Arun, one of my closest friends, gave me a succinct explanation of the problem. “You may not have anything in mind, but you can’t create problems for your friend, right?” Arun is married, as are some of the women he considers close friends. “I didn’t know how my friendships with some of my other women friends would go once they were married,” he said. “It was as if we’d have to first see if we all got along.” Only when he was confident that “the husbands” were truly comfortable with him and his family did Arun breathe easy about his equation with his women friends.

I heard a variation on the same thing from other men: once your women friends are coupled up, you don’t meddle. But expecting families to become friends with each other seems a bit much to me. Women have historically taken on this burden too, of course, ensuring that they keep each other company as the wives of men who are friends. It’s rarer, I’ve found, for things to work the other way around.

Dr. Syeda Ruksheda, a noted psychiatrist in Mumbai, described this phenomenon as “chemistry between friends.” I asked her several questions that drew on her work with young adults and women. She also talked to me about her own friendships. “I have only one set of couple friends where we are completely fine with each other and any of us can call any of the other and the spouse will truly not mind,” she said. “We, as a society, do not accept the chemistry, which is obviously there between any two friends. Since we do not recognise it, we don’t find ways to deal with it.”

Deal with it. But then there’s always more to deal with or tide over, like the brazen and unabashed declaration of right-wing politics in personal places. I am part of an interfaith household. Hindu right-wing assertion and its pushback is not simply a dinner table conversation or a debate over drinks for me.

Over the last few years, my worries for the future have multiplied, and from a mellow, left-of-centre type, I became increasingly outspoken about my political concerns with friends and acquaintances. For many Indians, the backlash I faced on WhatsApp for voicing my concerns and restlessness will be familiar, and I won’t describe it in detail. I could not remain comfortable being friendly with those who supported violence, discrimination and polarisation.

All the friends and family I lost over social media battles happened to be men. This is not to set women above political concerns. It just happened to be that in my case, our differences stood out less starkly. Some of my beloved women friends have staunchly different views from mine on electoral politics and capitalism. Fortunately for me, despite weeks and sometimes months of uncertainty over where we stood with each other, these women have been there for me, my family, and my child. I cannot predict a permanent override of all our differences, but it does seem, for now, that we care enough about each other not to let those come in the way.

“I don’t know if it’s just the political divide or the baby, or the compulsion of a supposed best companionship with the husband,” the historian Shraddha Kumbhojkar said, “but they all invariably work towards this haemorrhaging of friends in general and male friends in particular.” Shraddha is 51 years old, and has lost female friends over the years. “They all think that you are happily married and that it is only proper that you are settled and occupied with everyday life”—as we say in Marathi, ‘samsaarat ramli aahe.’


very single one of the women I spoke to brought up gender discrimination in workplaces—subtle or rampant—to talk about what separated them from their male friends. If you have a friendship that survives the challenges of marriage and traditional relationships, the workplace, it appears, will do its best to divide you. I have never imagined a conversation about working hours with male friends without also thinking of the invariable comeback: “That’s just how it is, babes.”

Over and over, though, the sticking point turned out to be motherhood. A dear friend of mine was denied a raise when her organisation found she was pregnant and was to go on maternity leave. It was simply assumed that she would no longer be able to work like before. Childbirth and restricted travel made things difficult for me with male superiors, too, and after a few months of trying to find a compromise, I had to quit my job at a news magazine.

When I was pregnant, men made routine inquiries, and some prayed for me. I especially valued the concern of the one male friend, Harsha, who checked on my health, my workload, and regularly passed on helpful advice from his wife. It felt precious because it was so rare. It was a relief to be able to jump from fretting about blood pressure to work, then to movies, and to the fact that I had no cravings at all, and simply be understood. As I recall it, we laughed about most things we talked about. But I also recall that he cared enough to listen.

We were the same age, lived in the same country, and shared parts of the same history, but it was I who had become unrecognisable.

Once my child was born, I didn’t have much bandwidth to process other relationships. The friendships that endured during this period were with my women friends, many of whom had already had children and knew the drill. With them, I could endlessly discuss the minor medical developments and anxieties of being a mother. That, I realised, was the difference between Sujit and I. My closest friend had never really told me much about what becoming a parent had been like for him—and his reaction, when I brought my own experience up, caught me at my most vulnerable. We were the same age, lived in the same country, and shared parts of the same history, but it was I who had become unrecognisable.

All in all, agreed in tot,” the historian Shraddha Kumbhojkar said, “But don’t know the way out, or even if we need one.”

When I began this essay I thought my central question was the one from Maine Pyar Kiya: can a boy and a girl never be friends? But I have found myself confronting the question of whether there’s a solution to this gap in our friendships, and whether it’s needed at all.

Shraddha was not the only person who asked me why this was such a big deal. A recurring comment in my interviews was: “It’s all true but why are you thinking so much about it?” I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. But the best part of these conversations, even the ones with friends who didn’t join me in my quest for resolutions, was that they all ran over schedule and spilled out of their confines. They were all followed up with texts and emojis and the continuation of conversations we had long suspended. There were sighs and complaints: but there were also plans, kind of, to be better friends.

There are a couple of friends who are my heart and soul with whom I did not dare to bring up this essay. It was also a difficult topic to broach with my mother. Once, when my father and I were having a long conversation about life and relationships over a drink, my mother interjected: “Talk all you want; I’ve never even had the time to think if my marriage was happy or not. This is all post-retirement thinking.” I heard the same thing as an explanation from many of my male friends when I asked them what had changed for us. Harish Sadani was right: the patriarchy worked on us in different ways.

As the different stages of grief go, I am experiencing the first in connection with my lost friendships: denial. Perhaps I am really trying to come to terms with the anxiety of possible hurt, and the stages of grief to follow, in which I will have to accept that I have lost a closeness I value so much.

So, I messaged Sujit and told him that our Indiranagar Club lunch had triggered a mammoth exercise. I acknowledged that our friendship may have suffered. He instantly acknowledged the premise of this essay in turn, and even went on to assume blame and responsibility for our distance.

The next time we met, he spoke seriously, for a long time, weighing his words. One thing he said that stayed with me was that when two good friends—a woman and a man—understand each other and “align with each other,” it causes discomfort. “One has to be careful and mindful of that.”

That afternoon, for the first time, he told me about his own struggles. He had started his own business and done well, but the pressure to make his mark constantly weighed on him. Trying to keep up with personal and social expectations was draining. He said he was barely close to anyone anymore. “I speak to one friend, and that too, I know he makes the effort. I mostly don’t talk about my life to people.”

Sujit was late for a work meeting that day. We reassured each other that the friendship wasn’t dead. Something in our conversation calmed me and, I think, him too. “Vaade aksar toot jate hain, koshish hi kaamyaab hoti hai,” Kader Khan wrote for Amitabh Bachchan's character in Sharaabi—promises break, and only effort succeeds. Perhaps that is the only way to find calm: to keep trying, for those we love. To persist.

Prachi Pinglay-Plumber is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. She is consulting editor at Citizen Matters, Mumbai and teaches Radio Journalism at Dayanand Sagar University.

Corrections & Clarifications: Kader Khan's dialogue from Sharaabi had been incorrectly credited to Gulzar in an earlier version of this essay. We regret the error.