The Vanishing Circle

We may be monetarily richer, but are we poorer in friends?

The homemade chicken curry, the daal and the vegetable pullao would travel by subway and by car, each lovingly coddled in aluminum foil. Made by different hands in different kitchens, they would be united on a table for rag-tag self-made families of immigrants stitched from diverse parts of India. These friends may not have known each other even a month ago, yet in an alien land they became connected, instant family.


Yes, there was a time when newcomers to America would gather in each other’s homes, bringing their specialty, be it saag or gulab jamuns. While the children played or watched TV, the men would gather over beer discussing cricket, politics and green cards, while the women traded secret recipes for the no-sweat method of making favorite dishes, tips about where to buy good sneakers for the children, or vented about problems at the workplace.

Every family seemed to have a close-knit inner circle of friends; people who could watch your kids or pick them up from school. If you were unwell, a friend could be counted on to bring you some homemade lunch. Had a problem with your car? A friend was always available to pick you up for a party at a common friend’s home. Graduations and birthdays were celebrated together and a visiting aunt or parent would be invited to several homes for some warm Indian hospitality. The furniture may have been hand-me-downs or bare bones, but the enthusiasm and warmth was palpable.

Yet somewhere along the way, that circle of friends seems to have vanished, disappeared into thin air. Sure, these friends still meet socially a few times a year, but that closeness is gone. In some cases, these old friendships have been totally annulled, traded for social friendships, cocktail chatter or maybe a round of golf.


A recent report in the New York Times reporting the findings of sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona, found that “on average, most adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives – serious health problems, for example, or issues like who will care for their children should they die. And about one-quarter have no close confidants at all.”

So, what’s happening with the larger American population may be playing out in the growing Indian community as well as it is mainstreamed. New immigrants in ethnic enclaves tend to have a stronger support system, but once they fly the coop into the prestigious suburbs, a chasm separates them from old friends.

Three decades ago when Indu Jaiswal, a dietician in Long Island, gave birth to twin boys, she and her husband, recent immigrants, had no family to turn to. They were living in Queens at that time and had two Indian families in their neighborhood.

“These were people I had not known in India and they just happened to be neighbors,” recalls Jaiswal. “When I was ready to come home from the hospital, they drove me home. They cooked for me for a week and took care of the babies, almost as if I was their daughter. They were more than my parents. I feel like crying when I think of all that they did for me.”

She adds, “I’m sure in today’s world that kind of help would not be possible; people are far too busy. The social structure seems to have changed and everyone wants to make more money and live on an upscale level. So between working and home, they don’t have time for an outside person.”
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the noted novelist who lives in Houston, Texas, also remembers a different time. “When I was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 80s, we Indian students  – about 15 of us – were all on tough budgets, but once a month we would get together in someone’s apartment and cook things together; some items were disasters! We would sit on the carpet to eat, because there weren’t enough chairs. It was so much fun!

“Also, if we needed help with moving to a different apartment, everyone would help. It was the same way after I got married.”


She says that her sister-in-law who came to the United States even earlier remembers scrolling through the phone book for Indian names and calling them: “They would be so friendly and invite her over and give many helpful hints about survival. At that time there was no distinction of communities or languages. We were all Indians together.”

Comparing then and now, she says, “Now with affluence, things have become so formal. Here in Houston most Indian parties are catered now. And of course everyone hires movers. That’s partly because we’re too old to do otherwise!”
She points out that friends are mostly from within one’s own community. As friends move away, lured by better jobs to new places, it becomes increasingly hard to make new and close friendships at a later age and with the added pressures of career and children. 

Kanta Khipple of Chicago also remembers a more golden time when friendships were enduring ones. She came to the United States in her 30s as a student to Ann Arbor, Mich., and reared her children in a university environment. Khipple, who was working on a masters in public administration, was always on a budget but found caring friends who helped to make life easier.

Friends would pass on children’s clothes or bed sheets and nobody thought badly about it. “Those were close relationships,” she recalls. “Professors would invite us home for meals on Diwali and Thanksgiving. We’d get together for picnics and outings. It was a very caring environment.”

Khipple, who is a co-founder of Apna Ghar, a shelter for battered women, says she has maintained some of these friends over the years, but now because of age and physical distances, some are drifting away. She adds, “It’s difficult to make those kind of friendships, because once you’ve lived in America so long, individualism has crept in those friendships and American values and no time to talk to anyone. This is happening quite often.” 

Today our social circles and acquaintances are so many that it leaves little time to nurture more intimate friendships. Does anyone picnic anymore? Or go apple picking to an orchard in the summer with family in tow? These were activities that new immigrants, cash-strapped and with young children to entertain, indulged in.

Now the intimate gatherings are few and far-between. People talk about their achievements, their new acquisitions, not about their problems. Relatives pass away in India and friends who would have dropped in with comfort and condolences on hearing the news, now just make a phone call or sometimes, not even that.

Jaiswal, who is chairperson of the Indian American Culture Group, finds people often don’t even have time for their own families as they juggle the demands of work. When her organization got space from Nassau County to start a Senior Center, she says, some people told her they had no time to drop off their parents at the center. She says this would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. She finds the whole attitude toward reaching out and helping at a social or community level has changed. No one has time to volunteer to do mailings and instead suggest she hire a secretary to do these volunteer chores.

And of course, with the advent of catering, the potluck dinners are a dying breed. “There was a time when we had no choice,” says Jaiswal. “If I had hundred people over, I would cook for a hundred people. Now the option of catering the food is available, and that’s another reason why people have stopped having those intimate kind of parties.” 

Today’s fast paced society leaves hardly any time to get to know thy neighbor, much less love them as thyself. You may exchange pleasantries and then retreat into your private world. After a hectic workday, people return home tired and frazzled to chores and dinner. 

You may see an Indian family at the grocery store and avert your eyes. If you encounter someone repeatedly, you may trade a hello, but would never dream of inviting them over. You don’t connect, unlike in the old days, when to meet another Indian was to have found a piece of heaven.

 “When I was ready to come home from the hospital they drove me home. They cooked for me for a week and took care of the babies,almost as if I was their daughter. They were more than my parents. I feel like crying when I think of all that they did for me.” Indu Jaiswal

“As communities became larger, the networks change,” says Margaret Abraham, professor of sociology at Hofstra University in New York: “When you are a small community, you have a small set of people to depend on and the bonds at some level are much deeper, even if they are just between neighbors. You feel relatively isolated and so are much closer to your neighbor and look for mutual help. Earlier, immigrants shared common experiences of difficulties they had overcome. But now there’s so much access that you don’t feel the same kind of empathy or need.”

With the Indian American population touching 2.5 million there is not the same intensity or pressure to bond with other Indians. People can go to Indian stores or chat with other Indians via email at the drop of a hat. The same needs are just not there.

Relationships are dynamic and change over a period of time depending on the structure of our society, says Abraham. In the 1980s, people would drop in to the homes of India-bound friends to send letters or gifts to their family. A box of mithai brought by a friend from India was a delight. Now we have a surfeit of sweets in our own Indian markets and are quite blasé about them. 

“So even the little gestures of caring are being eradicated and those small rituals of our social bonding are being lost,” says Abraham. “All those mechanisms, which are part of relationships are changed. I don’t think the circles are disappearing, but they are reconfigured in a way that the amount of time we spend on relationships is much less and a certain amount of the personal has been depersonalized.” 

In her own life she says she has “circles of significance” – people who are very significant in her life, While you may want to do things for multiple people and have the desire and intent, the reality is that it’s just not possible. She says: “It’s not the old days when you could just drop things and take off for a week to visit a sick friend. Now it’s more a call, an email to show the caring. India has changed too. You could go to people’s houses any time, but now that’s not done.  I think it’s all about romanticizing a time.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for the change is technology, which has not only bound us to our desks, but also has set us free. The hours that one can work have multiplied and the line between home and the office has blurred. You can be home and not yet home, if you’re working out of a home office. For many of us, our work defines us. The old neighborly rituals are lost as each family bunkers down at home with computer, DVD and Ipods.

“The workload is also taking its toll on the second generation. Everybody is working 18 hours a day, whether you’re a lawyer, engineer, doctor, accountant or finance person,” says Indu Jaiswal. “Anybody who’s working in the corporate world is working at least 12 to 14 hours a day. Whatever time they have they go out for a drink or for a movie. They don’t have the time to form circles or meaningful friendships.”

Technology is also facilitating news ways for friends to maintain their connections. They may not rush out for visits, bearing Tupperware containers of food, but they keep tabs on each other with emails or SMS.

Now telephone conversations to India are so cheap – or even free through programs like Skype – that now India is closer than your neighbor’s home. You may not want to intrude on your busy, time-deprived neighbor, but can chat for an hour on those incredibly cheap phone cards to your sister in Delhi, who may have more time with the support networks around her.

When Abraham came to the United States in 1984, it cost her $13 to call India for three minutes. Today it’s practically free.  Email has also opened up connections, and she points out that her mother, who is 72 years old, emails her daughters and grandchildren from India every day and keeps current with their day-to-day lives.

Similarly, many friendships have become email or phone based as people don’t have the time to meet or the distances are too vast. If a family member or friend is sick, group emails about the progress are a way to keep up efficiently.
Communities are not only defining themselves by their ethnicity, but class and materialism are also playing an increasing role. Indeed, one important change that has occurred in Indian circles is the widening social divide. Abraham says that in the last decade, huge class differences have emerged within the Indian community and these manifest themselves in their relationships. The interactions with those who are born here and abroad are also very different and there’s a kind of separation of spaces.

One observer of the social scene, who asked not to be named, says the criteria for friendship seems to have changed – it is about having a big house and a big car, and if they are missing, they don’t want to know you. People, he says, tend to be lost in their own world and reaching out and helping others is not a priority.

Yes, the circle of friendship is certainly getting reconfigured and it may now embrace larger social groups and organizations. The second generation, for instance, form meaningful bonds in their connections within youth groups like South Asian Youth Association or advocacy organizations like Sakhi. Earlier, such groups did not exist, but now there are multiple niches where people can find support and lose their sense of isolation.


Close friendships are substituted to some degree by organizations and other support groups, says Abraham: “Our notions of intimacy and long enduring friendships and expectations have changed in the way we relate to others, because today we have multiple ways of contact that we didn’t have earlier.” 

Young parents form playgroups for their children and often share support and experiences as they watch their children’s baseball games together or take them for outings.

Sunil Mahtani of Raleigh, N.C., says solid friendships often form around same age children and the friends meet regularly and support other in times of sickness or other problems. He’s also seen techie groups where the common profession brings people together.

According to Jaiswal, religion is also fast becoming the catalyst for bringing people together and  meaningful connections form in the gurudwaras and temples. “The way the circles are being rejuvenated is through small puja groups that people form. About 20 families get together once a month in each other’s house to hold a puja or read from the Gita or the Ramayana together after which they share a meal. Since they meet regularly, they know what is happening in each other’s lives.”

While life in America may be frenetic, it is slowing down for the baby boomers and the empty-nesters and she finds that with the children grown and gone, couples are back where they started – two people on their own. Many of them are getting together with other like-minded couples and are often discovering that they are coming together again with long lost friends.

However, for most people the circle of friends seem to be more work or child related, or based on common organizations than on the chance encounter of new immigrants, new neighbors or simply the commonality of ethnicity. “I don’t think the circles are disappearing ,but because of technology, time, work pressures and the changing relationship to society, they get restructured in such a way that they seem partly invisible,” says Margaret Abraham. “This is actually reflective of the larger society and it is also symptomatic of an Indian community that was much smaller becoming much larger.”
While the circle of close friendships may not be as intimate or deep as one would like, it is not entirely vanishing, it’s just getting reconfigured. But then that is the nature of immigrant life.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *