The Friend Who Showed Me the Life I Could Have Had

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Photo: Getty Images

This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.

I met her in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel on Marine Drive, on my third morning in Mumbai. I had come to write about the Parsis, India’s small but influential Zoroastrian minority, now close to extinction. But in truth I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d been to India several times before, in my 20s, when I was working on a book of short stories, but I had no idea how real reporters went about their work. It was probably the missing bulb in the economy-class lavatory, but it was my 20-something self I saw smiling goofily in the mirror. You can do this, she seemed to say. I figured I could fake my way through it at least. 

Then I met Chiara, the photographer assigned to the story. She was 32, but looked 25. Beautiful, with dark curls around her face, a scarf knotted around her neck and a backpack full of professional camera equipment, anyone could have pegged her for a journalist.

On paper I believe that women shouldn’t compete with each other. We have a hard enough time competing with men for all the familiar historical, cultural, and biological reasons. I should have been delighted to join forces with a photographer like Chiara, and perhaps make an inspiring new friend. Instead, I felt threatened, as if I’d met a rival who would unmask my inexperience just when I most desperately wanted to succeed.

The first thing she told me was that she liked to work very closely with writers.

“Some of the interviews might be boring,” I hedged. “Maybe you should just come if it sounds like it will be visually interesting.”

“I want to come to everything,” she said earnestly. 

If outsiders know one thing about the Parsis, it’s how they traditionally dispose of their dead: The bodies are placed on the top of cement towers, where they’re very slowly consumed by birds of prey. In Mumbai, this happens in a verdant park in the center of the city, colloquially referred to as “The Towers of Silence.” Posted signs forbid entry to everyone but Parsis, and guards man the gates.

I was midway through my interview with a conservative Parsi scholar, when the hotly debated subject of the Towers of Silence came up.

“It would be great if I could see it,” Chiara jumped in: “And maybe take some photographs?”

I looked at her in irritated amazement. The scholar was silent, and I was sure that she had alienated one of our most important sources. After this, I decided, I would refuse to take her with me, and she could figure out the photographs on her own. I was about to apologize to the scholar when he looked into Chiara’s expectant face and sighed.

“Well, I am the authority,” he said. “I could take you myself.”

He took us past the guards and the forbidding signage, up a long drive to a group of secluded cottages overgrown with bougainvillea, accommodations for families of the dead. Chiara photographed the scavenging birds — mostly kites and crows — perched on the red-tiled roofs of these prayer bungalows, screaming to each other. The sky was pink, full of scudding clouds, and a half-moon hung over our heads.

Over the course of the week, Chiara and I got into a rhythm. Parsi women are notable in India for their professional success and, in many cases, the choice to remain single or childless, and the government had launched a controversial program providing assisted fertility treatments to encourage Parsi couples to have children. When we talked to the women participating in the fertility program, I would start off, commiserating about pregnancy and night feedings. But when we met a single woman who was deciding whether to hold out for a Parsi spouse — and feeling that the weight of the community’s population woes was resting on her shoulders — Chiara would begin the conversation, lamenting the dearth of eligible men from any faith out there. The girls warmed up to her right away. Soon, I stopped worrying so much about screwing up in front of Chiara, and started learning from her.

Spending a week talking to women about marriage and children, it was hard to avoid the subject ourselves. One evening, stuck in traffic on the way home from an interview, I showed Chiara some pictures of my own kids, whom I missed in a strange way. When I saw their faces on my laptop — especially when the little one attempted to hug the screen during FaceTime — I choked up, but the rest of the time I didn’t much think about them. As we drove, the Arabian Sea was gray and choppy and the lights were starting to come on along the seaside promenade, the Queen’s Necklace. I told Chiara I never wanted to go home.

She looked at me like I was crazy. She had had no fixed address since graduate school. The photos on her website had been taken all across Asia, from India to Japan, and she’d published pictures in the most prestigious magazines in the world. But now, for the first time, she was getting tired, starting to think about whether she wanted children, and how she’d manage it if she did. There was some consolation in the idea that Chiara could possibly envy something about my life: The charms of stability and constant companionship had worn thin for me. But the waning of her wanderlust didn’t last long. “I think it’s an illness,” she wrote to me recently in an email:

When I was in Laos I really couldn’t wait to get back here and take a rest … But now I am already thinking I really would love to go see the northern lights in Iceland, go back to NY, move to California, see Lisbon, go visit my uncle in Brazil … It would be so cool if we could consciously live other parallel universes at the same time as this one, wouldn’t it?

My temptation was to respond that she should live with her illness, rather than attempting to cure it. Once I had my children, I couldn’t consider any life that didn’t include them — but I could still fantasize about the other life I might have had. Parallel universes. It was strange, but I felt that evening in the car as if we’d known each other our whole lives, almost as if she were my little sister, or my former self. Do things differently, I wanted to tell her: Try something else. Let’s see how it turns out for you. 

When we reached Marine Drive, it started to pour in earnest, the traffic slowed to a stop, and umbrella-sellers materialized out of nowhere. One of them, a girl maybe 12 or 13 years old, with oiled black hair and a dun-colored dress, walked barefoot, inches from our car. She was very thin, but had an unusually self-possessed air, as if she didn’t much care whether she sold an umbrella or not. 

“Sorry!” Chiara said, leaning over me and snapping three or four pictures. Then she sat up and looked to see what she’d gotten. 

“It’s impossible through the glass,” she said. “But you have to try.”