Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two women who met in junior college in India, and who knew each other for only 10 months before one of them moved to Canada. They say they were just "study buddies" when they parted ways—their friendship grew through emails, online chats, and Skype sessions across the miles. They discuss what it takes to keep in touch with a friend on the other side of the world, their joyful reunion on a Canadian vacation, and the worst fight they ever had—over a Harry Potter spoiler. (Spoiler ahead, dear reader.)
Kshitija Desai, 34, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Mumbai, India Reema Jayakar, 34, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical neuropsychology who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: How and when did you two meet?
Kshitija Desai: We met in junior-college French class during our very first session. She came to ask if she could sit with me.
Reema Jayakar: This was grade 11 in Mumbai. It was the year 2000. In India, you finish high school in grade 10, and then for grades 11 and 12 you go to junior college. So you've left all your high-school friends and you don't know anyone at this new place.
Beck: And you were in the same place for only a short while, right? How long exactly?
Reema: Ten months maybe? I knew when I started junior college that my family might be moving to Canada, but there are so many steps to immigration that we hadn't publicly announced it. I don't think I told Kshitija until a couple months before I was leaving. At the time, we were friends, but I don't know that I would characterize our relationship as emotionally close. I had lots of other friends that I was worried about leaving and, to be honest, I didn't feel that strongly about saying goodbye to her.
Kshitija: Yeah, I agree. We did spend time together, but it was mostly study buddies. It did come as a shock when she told me that she was leaving. It was like, Well, we've only barely begun. It was very hazy whether we would keep in touch. At that point, Reema had a very strong personality. If she didn't like something, she wouldn't mince words. I think now she's a bit more measured in her responses.
Reema: I've learned to be nicer, because I don't want to hurt people. I know I was more temperamental as a teenager.
Kshitija: There were more arguments that I didn't win than I did. I was a little bit afraid of her. I can say that because she knows. But we outgrew that stage of our friendship.
Beck: After Reema moved, what made you feel like, This is someone I really want to keep in touch with?
Kshitija: Initially she was just writing to this small group of friends. I was one of those. She was telling us about how she was settling in, general updates. Eventually we would share what was going on in our lives—academic, romantic, professional eventually.
Reema: We connected over chats on MSN Messenger or Yahoo Chat. The more I got to know her, the more I wanted to stay in touch.
Kshitija: When I look back on it, it surprises me how much we got across. When you read words, it doesn't always come across the same as in person. But we did manage to communicate a fair bit through email, and eventually we evolved to voice chat, and then video.
Reema: In the first three years that I was in Canada, I was living with my aunt and her family. We all shared two computers, so it was really hard to set up a time to be like, I want to be on MSN Messenger for two hours chatting with my friends in India. I remember staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. just to talk to Kshitija or one of my other friends.
Kshitija: And mind you, it was in the middle of my day, so I would have to justify to my parents why I was on the computer talking to my friends and not spending my time studying.
Reema: Eventually she told me that she wanted to visit me in Canada. And I said, "Oh, yeah, yeah." A lot of people say that, but who's going to make the trip halfway across the world, especially when you're young and you don't have any money? I couldn't believe when the plans got set in motion for her to actually visit for three weeks.
Beck: Kshitija, when did you decide "Let me bite the bullet and go visit her"?
Kshitija: Between 2005 and 2007, I was working freelance, and I didn't know it, but I was basically funding my trip to Canada. Toward the end of 2006, when we started discussing the trip, it just so happened that at the time, Reema was working at a travel agency.
Reema: I was working at a travel agency that specialized in bringing people from India and the Middle East to Canada and the U.S. I was able to help Kshitija plan her trip on a budget. She stayed with me and my parents for about three weeks and then she traveled, and I joined her for one of those weeks of travel.
Beck: Okay, tell me everything about this trip. You hadn't seen each other in five or six years, and the last time you saw each other you were casual friends. So what was it like to see each other in person again?
Reema: For me, the stakes were pretty low because this was home turf. If her trip didn't go as planned, I had very little to lose. So it was a much braver decision for her. But I was excited because by that time, I did feel like this was someone I gelled with. And now we would have a chance to be independent adults with money, and do all the things that two girlfriends can't really do when you are only 15 or 16.
Kshitija: It was the best trip I've ever been on. And I've been places, but the time with Reema and her family—I really, really cherish it. I was expecting a warm welcome, but it was a super warm welcome. Her parents treated me so nicely. It was basically like my own house for three weeks. And I was heartbroken to leave.
Reema: For me, what was really significant was, up until that point, I was happy with my life in Vancouver, but I never really paid attention to all the beautiful nature. I wasn't really an outdoorsy person. But every day, Kshitija would come home from her explorations and we would go through all her pictures. I was still working, so I wouldn’t go with her everywhere. She helped me connect to this new place that I had immigrated to and really fall in love with the natural beauty in the Pacific Northwest. I would look at her pictures and see that place for the first time through her eyes. When I saw how in love she was with Vancouver, it made me realize how lucky I was to be there. Even today, I still have this reaction of, "Wow, this is so beautiful!" And before she visited me, I never had that reaction to almost anything.
Kshitija: Vancouver was amazing. I've been places as a tourist, and all you get to do is sightseeing. But I really got to explore in a way that a person living there might. It was priceless for me to go wherever I wanted, at my pace. Not like I had to check these things off a list.
Reema: By then, we were also Harry Potter fans, and that was the year that the sixth book was out. Kshitija had read it, but I had only read the first five books. I started rereading them. Kshitija had book one with her. When we left my parents' house and spent one week in the Canadian Rockies, we were literally on trains and buses sharing that one book, reading together. Then one of the evenings that we were in a hotel, I was napping or something. Kshitija went out to explore on her own and she came back with the sixth Harry Potter book in hand, to give to me as a gift.
There's also a backstory to this story—Kshitija somehow let slip what happens at the end of book six.
Beck: Oh my God!
Reema: I was livid.
Kshitija: I was scared of what I had done. I was petrified.
Reema: Julie, have you read the books?
Beck: Oh, I have. I appreciate you trying not to spoil a 14-year-old book for me, but I do know what happens.
Reema: At the end of book six, Dumbledore dies. She tells me that and I exploded. All the skills I had gained in holding back my temper just went out the window and we had this huge meltdown in the hotel room. I was screaming, Kshitija was crying. We probably spent the whole night fighting. It was the worst day of our trip, over Harry Potter.
Kshitija: The book that I bought for her, the sixth book, was more like disaster management. I wanted to make sure that she got to read what actually happened as soon as possible, rather than worrying about it. I didn't even mean it as an actual spoiler. She was just clarifying her memory and saying, "Dumbledore hasn't died. Dumbledore hasn't died yet." And I was like, "Not yet." I said it without saying it. I ruined that moment. But we did read the book together.
Beck: Now I have to ask, obviously: Which Harry Potter house are you guys in?
Kshitija: I'm a Hufflepuff. I value loyalty tremendously and that's what they're known for.
Reema: I feel like I'm more like the person who says, "We sort too soon, and the Sorting Hat isn't always right." I think people can change and evolve over time.
Beck: How did your friendship progress after the trip? Reema mentioned in her email to me that at a certain point, you guys made a commitment to talk every day. What were the logistics of that like?
Reema: Soon after that, Kshitija moved to Essex to do her master’s. When she was in Essex, we didn’t have smartphones, but I'm pretty sure we Skyped or talked every day. It was all the things that friends do. Like, "Here's this outfit, make sure it looks okay for me." Or, "Oh my God, I had a really bad day." By that point, we kind of left email behind. That was the time when we became emotionally close and started sharing everything about ourselves with each other.
Kshitija: My Canada trip was in 2007, and it was the end of 2008 when I started my master’s. I felt like I was ready for it. But you never really are—to be away from your family, doing everything on your own. The first month was emotionally very hard for me. You need somebody, that little voice in your ear, that keeps telling you, "You can do this, just keep going.” Reema was the voice in my ear. Sometimes it would be as simple as I'm doing my work and she's doing her work, and we're just video calling for no reason.
And then eventually she moved to Atlanta, and she does not deal with change very well. So I tried to be there for her.
Reema: When I moved to Atlanta, Kshitija was getting ready to leave London to get married. I was so sad. I'd already missed another wedding of a close friend of mine in India, and I was about to miss Kshitija's. And I cannot believe how she kept me a part of everything to do with her wedding. From showing me outfits to Skyping with me late the night before the wedding to having her family send me photos and updates while it was going on. I wasn't at the wedding, but it felt like I was.
Beck: A challenge that I have found with long-distance friendship is that because you're not in the same place, you're not making memories together, but rather living separate lives and updating each other about them. Has that been true for you?
Reema: Not for us. We’re both very good at articulating our internal experiences and our emotional universes. Somehow, we never tire of hearing about the other person's response to things. Of course, Kshitjia wasn't there when I was flirting with some cute guy or when this big thing happened in my family, but she knows how to emotionally react to it in a way that makes me feel like she was actually there. There are probably only a handful of people in my life who know how to do that across the miles.
Kshitija: Yeah, I agree 100 percent. It would have been awesome to have had more time in the same place, but for all we know, we might not have gotten as much time to spend with each other as we do online. Because we can multitask and talk to each other while we're doing other things.
Reema: What fascinates me is Kshitija and I are not introverted homebodies or anything. She has a lot of friends in Mumbai and when I moved to Canada, I already had a best friend in India, who I'm still best friends with. Then I made new friends. And somehow that never made me think, Why do I need to get close to this other person? What we had to offer each other still added so much to our lives, despite having the other wonderful best friends that we've known for longer.
Kshitija: My family situation is such that my best friend from school is my close sister-in-law. She is married to my husband's brother; we live in the same house. I have her, but I have Reema, too. They play different roles in my life, but they are both very important to me.
Reema: Mindy Kaling says that a best friend is not a person. It's a tier. I love that. Having multiple people doesn't diminish one relationship relative to the other. In fact, I think it enhances them.
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