Between the Pages of a Friendship
- Ananya Bhattacharyya
- January 8, 2024
A 25-year bond is cemented by a shared love of books.
During a recent trip to India, I met my friend Saloni at a small bookstore — Bahrisons Booksellers — on Kolkata’s Park Street. Before she arrived, I browsed the shelves of meticulously curated titles ranging from beautifully designed Penguin Classics to contemporary books by Indian and foreign authors.
A famous shop in Delhi’s Khan Market that bills itself as possessing “a humble collection of literature and learning,” Bahrisons opened its Kolkata branch in 2023. It was heartening to see that bookstores still thrive because it means at least a small number of people still read and, what’s more, invest money in their passion.
When Saloni got there, we sat at the cafe downstairs catching up. I marveled at the proof of our globalized world as I debated what to order, staring at a menu offering cortados, caramelized almond lattes, and Himalayan green teas. Our friendship is now 25 years old, even though I live in the DC Metro area, and she lives in Jamshedpur in eastern India.
We’d met as young people in a working women’s hostel in Mumbai in the late 1990s. She was a journalist, and I had transitioned from jobs in film and television production to something journalism-adjacent: assistant editor at a weekly newspaper. We bonded over various things, including our love of books. We quickly realized that not only did we like reading them, we also wanted to write them. Looking back, I think we each gave the other permission to dream this audacious dream by dreaming it ourselves.
In Mumbai, I read sporadically and indiscriminately, my reading dictated by whatever book I could lay my hands on given that I was perpetually broke. From time to time, I’d walk to a hole-in-the-wall library nearby, where I could borrow books for a low fee. One we both read at this time was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and we both loved it. I remember sitting in the hostel lobby with Saloni late at night talking about how the novel had affected us. If a young Indian woman brought up by a single mother — and lacking the privilege many successful male Indian authors had — could write like that, who’s to say we couldn’t write a fraction as well if we tried?
My life in Mumbai came to an end when I married a man living in the U.S. After coming here, I got my MFA in creative writing from George Mason. But Saloni’s and my lives continued to weave in and out of the other’s. Saloni, who married soon after me, got divorced. And two years after becoming a mother, I separated from my husband. Shortly before my marriage hit rock bottom, Saloni moved to the U.S. to get her MFA from New York University. She was one of a handful of people I counted on for life support as my marriage disintegrated.
The post-marriage phase in our lives was obviously challenging. Two people whose view of the world had been shaped by books were now tossed into the thick of life, and we needed skills other than those formed by literature to remain afloat. Luckily, we seemed to have picked up at least a few.
After getting her degree, Saloni returned to India, and we lost touch for several years. I was bringing up a child and working, and she was working and writing. But during the pandemic, we began to text and video-call each other. The isolation imposed upon the world made us strengthen what had been a truly meaningful connection.
We realized, thanks to the sudden popularity of Zoom, that it was possible to use technology to bridge our physical distance. We talked about the ups and downs of life and the importance of looking after your mental health, but we also recommended books to one another and read pages of each other’s writing. While visiting her brother in America, she came and stayed with me for a few days.
And now, a few days after we met at the bookstore, I traveled with Saloni to Jamshedpur. I’d read her novel-in-progress, which was inspired by the sensibilities of the city, and I now felt better able to see how it had shaped her and her writing. We drove through rural India, witnessing the country’s recent development as well as scattered Santhal tribal huts.
At Saloni’s house, we talked about writing. She explained her theory that literature is divided into two types: books that use stylistic devices to hook readers, and books that engage readers with the realness of their storytelling. The works of J.M. Coetzee, E.M. Forster, and Perumal Murugan all belong to the latter camp, she said. We read the first paragraphs from several books on her shelf and marveled at the prose. We also talked about slow-burn mysteries and Nordic noir, genres we’re both addicted to.
A lot has changed in our lives, but in many ways, things are also the same. While neither of us has published a novel so far, we haven’t given up on that dream. And as we live life and work to pay the bills, we continue to give each other permission to dream.
Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based editor and writer. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Lit Hub, Baltimore Sun, Al Jazeera America, Reuters, Vice, Washingtonian, and other publications.