When Friendship Is a Family Matter

“The bond that we have and the experiences that we’ve shared, I don’t really think ‘friends’ captures that.”

Illustration of two old men sitting on a couch, two women in saris talking, and two young girls wearing backpacks holding hands
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “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 mother-daughter pairs whose families have been friends for three generations. It started with the grandfathers, who were best friends growing up in India, and raised their children together. Two of those kids, Manjula and Sirisha, moved to the United States as adults, where their bond deepened. Now their daughters, Sri and Maneesha, are friends too—so close that they tell other people they’re cousins. In this interview, the mothers and daughters tell the story of the grandfathers’ friendship, and how it launched a lifetime of closeness for their two families.

The Friends:

Maneesha Kanukuntla, 22, a sociology major at California Polytechnic State University who lives in San Luis Obispo, California
Manjula Kanukuntla, 52, a UPS-store owner who lives in Cupertino, California
Sirisha Muppidi, 49, a clothing-boutique owner who lives in Dublin, California
Sri Muppidi, 26, a venture-capital investor who lives in San Francisco

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Your families have been friends for generations. Tell me where it all began—with your grandfathers, right?

Sri Muppidi: They grew up in a very small village in India.

Maneesha Kanukuntla: We’re not exactly sure when they met, but it was definitely early childhood. They grew up together. Our grandfathers were best friends for their entire lives.

Sri: As a result, our grandmothers also became friends.

Sirisha Muppidi: They went to the same college, and after that they both worked for the government.

They both had five kids. Every festival, we celebrated together, like family. Even though [Manjula and I] came [to the U.S.], it’s continuous—me and Manju also are like family. My sisters all are in India, but here she’s my sister. I can count on [her for] anything. Even though we are not a blood relation, it’s more than that.

Manjula Kanukuntla: The culture here and in India is different. Here, you call people by name no matter what age you are, but in India we don’t do that.

Sri: We typically call everyone aunties and uncles, even if they’re not blood relations. So I call Manju Auntie “auntie” because she’s older. Similarly, Manju Auntie and my mom used to call each other’s parents aunties and uncles.

Two men dressed in white pose unsmiling for the camera
Malareddy Kankanala (left), Sirisha’s father and Sri’s grandfather, and Kishan Bhagyanagar (right), Manjula’s father and Maneesha’s grandfather, in India in 1995 (Courtesy of Sri Muppidi)

Manjula: That’s why the bonding is more. We feel like it’s our family. My dad and my uncle did everything together—studying, watching movies. They lived in a small town, but the big movies came into the big city. So they used to drive 160 kilometers, watch the movie, do the shopping, and come back on the same day.

When they were hungry, they used to look for weddings. They would go as guests so nobody knew they were strangers. They used to do all these fun things. That mentality continued even when they were older. There was no jealousy, no competition. That’s what we learned, and that’s what we are trying to teach our kids too.

Sirisha: I was just talking to my uncle yesterday. He was saying whenever he was sick, my dad was always there. He will come right away. My dad passed away two years back, in 2019. He always told the family how much he missed my uncle.

Sri: Do you want to talk about Skylab? There was a space station that was crashing in 1979, and there was a scare that it would land in India.

Sirisha: They were assuming that [if it fell in] the Indian Ocean, it may fall on our place also. Our two families rented a hotel. We stayed together, with uncles, siblings, and my dad’s siblings. For two or three days, we were eating, partying, and everything. Now, if we think about it, we are laughing. But we didn’t know, will it fall on us? ​​Will we be there the next day or not?

Manjula: My dad and our uncle thought, if it falls on us, then we will die. They wanted to die together.

Sirisha: It was very expensive to stay in a hotel. But we thought that staying together is important; that's why they booked that hotel and we drove all that way.

Manjula: Actually, they rented a bus.

Beck: Wow. You were going to the hotel to hide from the space station?

Sri: They thought they would save themselves by moving from the village to the city, which was only, like, 200 kilometers away. It’s funny.

Two women wearing saris stand with their hands clasped
Sirisha Muppidi (left) and Manjula Kanukuntla (right) in India in 1994 (Courtesy of Sri Muppidi)

Beck: That’s wild. Manju and Sirisha, it seems like you were friends from birth. What was it like, growing up with two families intermingling?

Manjula: They are four sisters and one brother. We are four brothers and I’m the only girl. I would just go into their home [and stay] with all the girls. Then her brother used to come to our home [and stay] with the boys. That's how we used to have sleepovers.

Sirisha: One time, at my wedding, I was waiting for my sisters. They had gone to see my husband, and I was eager to see their reaction—is he good-looking or bad? But they didn’t say a word. I was mad. I was crying, and I didn’t know how to wear the sari. I was not ready. Manju came and helped me to wear the sari, and said, “No, no, he’s good-looking, don’t worry.” It pacified me.

Manjula: Indian weddings, back then, they do not let the boy and girl talk to each other. Only one time they showed Sirisha’s husband to her before the wedding, and she did not see him too clearly. After that, no communication, nothing.

So on the day, Sirisha was getting ready, and we were supposed to help her. Then we heard the news that the bridegroom came. Everybody was so excited; we all went to see him. And her sisters and cousins, nobody’s telling nothing. In her mind, two things are going on. One, she couldn’t see her husband. Two, no one is there to help her. So I saw him, and I came back and gave her the feedback and helped her with the sari and the makeup.

Two teenage girls and one teenage boy, dressed up, smile with their arms around each other
Maneesha Kanukuntla, Sri Muppidi, and Shreyan Muppidi at Sri’s high-school-graduation party in 2013 (Courtesy of Sri Muppidi)

Beck: When you moved to the United States, was it just a lucky coincidence that you ended up living in the same area?

Sri: Both our dads work in tech. The tech jobs in the ’90s were very centrally located. Auntie and Uncle lived in Arizona at first, and then my family moved to the L.A. area. Then Auntie and Uncle moved to San Diego, an hour-and-a-half drive away. In the early 2000s, both of our families shifted to the Bay Area.

Beck: When Sri and Maneesha were born, you had two generations of friendship in your families. Were you planning for your kids to be friends too?

Sri: It was more happenstance. I’m four years older than Maneesha, and Maneesha and my brother are similar ages. When Maneesha was born, I was almost the big sister. Maneesha and my brother, Shreyan, would play together, and I would play whatever role that they gave me in their little games.

I felt like I was very young for my age, because our parents didn’t let us watch anything that was inappropriate for my brother or Maneesha. So I was the 10-year-old who was watching Dora the Explorer. We had this club that we called Cool Kids Club. We would wear glasses, dress up, and do little skits for our parents. Whenever we had family get-togethers, I was the oldest child of a group of 15–20 kids. So I always had to play the role of babysitter.

Two young kids and one preteen stand in a foyer wearing sunglasses and sweatshirts
Maneesha, Shreyan, and Sri playing “Cool Kids Club” in 2003 (Courtesy of Sri Muppidi)

Maneesha: My little brother is seven years younger than I am. For a big portion of my childhood, I didn’t have siblings. The experiences I had growing up with siblings were with Sri and her brother. Even though we’re not biologically related, I always tell people they’re my cousins—because the bond that we have and the experiences that we’ve shared, I don’t really think “friends” captures that.

Sri: I call Maneesha my cousin too. As kids we would do family get-togethers on Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Manjula: Almost every year, we go on vacation in the Christmas season. I think we’ve only missed three or four in 25 years.

Beck: Sri, when Maneesha was younger, it seems like she and your brother were maybe the closest. As you guys grew up, how did your friendship evolve from being the babysitter to a real friendship?

Sri: It really strengthened when Maneesha went to college, after I graduated. I don’t have a sister, and Maneesha doesn’t either. So I viewed Maneesha as my younger sister, and hopefully vice versa. Whenever she had questions about things that she was going through or when she was home on break, we would do these catch-ups in my apartment.

Over time, it changed from this older sister or almost parentlike mentality to more of an equal friendship. That’s where we are now. I ask her for advice about skin care, and she asks me for advice about career things. We use each other to bounce off different things we’re thinking through. As we’ve gotten older, that age gap sort of smushes.

Eight people dressed warmly stand in front of a mosque
The two families on vacation together in Istanbul in 2015 (Courtesy of Sri Muppidi)

Beck: How is a friendship different when your entire families are friends and always have been, versus when you have more of an individual relationship with a person?

Maneesha: Even though we’re not biologically related, there is that familial relationship. Whenever we have intimate, small family things, they’re always there. Whenever my family needs support or is going through a hard time, her family’s there and vice versa.

Sirisha: Two months back, my sister was very sick with COVID.

Manjula: Her lungs got infected, so they said there is less of a chance for living. We were so sad. Even today, if I think about it, I feel like crying. I went to Sirisha’s home and we were staying together. We were talking about her, crying, and praying for her. Thankfully, she got better.

Sirisha: My siblings in India asked Manju to come to my place, because I need to see someone when they’re giving the news. Manju is my only family here. We are siblings. Seeing her, I felt more comfortable. Whatever the news, I can take it—that’s what I felt.

Manjula: With other friends, sometimes you have to be conscious, like, Oh, can I call now? Can I ask them to do that? I can’t call each and every person at two o’clock in the night. There will be only a few people that you can count on always, for anything. I can call Sirisha anytime. Not only calling—I can go anytime. The same with them.

Maneesha: I know that it will continue on to future generations. If I have kids, I know my kids and Sri’s kids will be friends.

Beck: Daughters, what have you learned from your moms’ friendship? And your grandfathers’? And moms, what have you learned from your daughters’ friendship, and your fathers’?

Sri: I view my mom and Manju Auntie’s friendship as that sister-sibling friendship. It’s not just in the good times, but it’s in the hardest of times that you need those types of friends the most. I think it’s hard to find friendship like that, especially in America in the digital, current age, where things are constantly moving. People get distracted, but for someone to show up and be there in person, I really admire that.

Maneesha: Both of them already had that bond coming over to America, but it just got stronger because they didn’t have other family members here. They really relied on each other. That’s something that I always keep in mind whenever I approach friendships—maintaining that closeness, regardless of whatever phases of your life that you move through. Our grandfathers, they were really close friends until one of them passed away. I’ll always think about how they were able to sustain that friendship.

Sirisha: Manju’s dad, the other day, was telling her he misses my dad. Always he remembers, and sometimes he cries. The kids, they will fill the gap whenever they meet, so they catch up on everything. They miss seeing each other also.

Manjula: They don’t talk every day, but when they do, they open up; they share everything and take advice from each other. They are very busy with college and jobs and all that, but, still, they’re finding time to meet each other. And I hope this will continue with our next generations. There should be a loyalty. It’s not only good times; even in the bad times, they have to be together.

If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique