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What Obama, Birbal, and I have in common 

by Padma Murughappun

Around the time the folks at Dhindora and I had a conversation about unlikely friendships, an interesting podcast by the name of “Renegades” was rolled out. What struck me most out of the entire ensemble was the name, definitely an unlikely title that aptly describes the hitherto unheard of friendship between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. 


The palliness between Obama and Bruce developed through a series of encounters during the former’s presidency. Apart from the delightful repertoire of topics with shots of tequila on the side to spice it up, what is quite notable about this show is the kind of passion the two gentlemen share for their professions, their fatherhood and quite inevitably, for the people around them.   


Obama and Bruce: popularly known as the Boss and the Chief respectively, are the unlikeliest duo of friends one could ever find. One of them grew up to be loved for his voice across the country, another was slowly groomed to take up an office of international importance. They made it to where they are in distinctly different manners. While their successes, fame and money are obvious commonalities for a friendship to brew upon, their definition of it is one of an intriguing nature, unravelling why they have named this particular podcast "Renegades." Friendship in its truest form defies normal nature, one that betrays the usual and surely one that goes against all odds. 


As I revelled in the stories of these American legends, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the unlikely amiability between my grandmother and me. 


I say amicable because our relationship was not friendly right off the bat. My grandmother and I are 50 years apart and she is the kind of woman who has no remorse in getting you to do the stuff she wants for her. She is extremely persuasive and gritty. However, I would never say no to anything she asks of me. I have cleaned wardrobes filled with nighties from the 60s, ran to Kirana in the middle of homework because she had to have a drink, TV was my white noise machine during board exams owing to her love for soaps and movies. I put up with all the quintessential grandmother behaviour for one simple reason: she never said no to me either.


Don’t judge me yet, I have wondered many times if that’s all it takes to be friends with someone. Turns out it really does. Here is why: grandparents are extended parent figures except they walk slower and have an opinion about everything that the PM does. Eventually, my grandmother and I became so close that we developed our own little routine. She cultivated a taste for pasta and I tolerated the taste of beans in return. We were the most excited when my mother got busy and couldn’t take me shopping: we’d try on clothes together, make fun of all the aunties in large sunglasses, wearing the wrong shade of foundation. But the fondest memory I have of my grandma is when we would spend hours at the Mount Road Higginbothams. 


She was an avid reader and she made sure she passed the habit onto her grandchildren as well. As a kid, she bought me countless books but the ones that stuck with me the most are the Amar Chitra Kathas. I’m sure all 90s kids would have at least one or two left of those treasures from the pre-internet era. I have an entire shelf of them, thanks to my grandma. The Amar Chitra Kathas carried stories of Indian history, mythology and religion. Their visual storytelling has a way to stick with you long after you finish reading them. 


Incidentally, Indian households never had a dearth of stories to narrate about kings and queens. I dare you to find a single child who hasn’t heard the phrase “oru oorle oru raaja irundaana…” in any of the constitutionally recognised languages. We were reminded of Ashoka’s feats at Kalinga every time we failed an exam, colourful clothes of queens of Rajput were described to get us to eat our meals; stories of valour, compassion, courage and love filled my brains until I imagined myself to be one. I imagined how a day in a King’s life would be: battle planning and providing justice to their citizens and such. 


And most importantly, warding their enemies off. Empathise with the king for a moment, he is constantly surrounded by people: his advisors, ministers and even queens, but rarely there is a tale describing a king’s close compadre. As a teenager, this thought saddened me and my heart reached out to those lonely kings. 


Until I met Birbal. 


There were many reasons for the semi-fictional tales of conversations between Akbar and Birbal to be published. Here is Ira Mukhoty’s reason for it: it was to humanise a King of his valour. Unlike our history books where Akbar was always portrayed as the Shahanshah of sharp intellect and charm, these comic stories made him more accessible. Historically, Birbal was part of the Navratnas of Akbar’s court, served as his minister, advisor and close confidante. So close that a stone palace was erected in his name. 


Beyond his fopperies, intellect and poetic fervour, Birbal was cherished by Akbar because he challenged the Badshah in a sense. This could perhaps be the reason why in all these comics, the King is always shown to be dim-witted while Birbal lampooned him on many occasions. My curiosity to dig deeper about their friendships beyond the comical witty dialogues led me to find Ira Mukhoty’s book titled Akbar: The Great Mughal. It effectively captures Akbar’s relationship with Birbal which blossomed beyond the court. So much so that “when Birbal died, something broke inside Akbar,” writes Ira Mukhoty.


And as we speak of such royal friendships, an Academy Award-winning movie comes to mind.

This “against all odds” nature that a friendly relationship takes on is perfectly portrayed in a British comedy-drama movie titled “Victoria & Abdul.” Nothing can obviously go wrong with Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul, her newfound friend from the Indian colony.  This particular unlikely friendship reminds me of a wonderful thought shared by C.S.Lewis which goes to say “what draws two people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it.” 


He couldn’t have been more right. 


As established through more than one narrative that the more rebellious the people are, the stronger their friendship, we learn that Obama found it with Springsteen as they looked beyond their races and found truth in their love for their country. I loved that my grandma also liked to defy everyone’s opinions and lived life on her own terms. Akbar sensed a challenging nature similar to his own in Birbal that helped blossom their relationship as it did Victoria and Abdul, where the truth that formed their unlikely likeness was mutual respect and love. 


There really isn’t anything particularly bizarre about an unlikely friendship. So, the next time you find yourself having a conversation with an acquaintance about why the skin on the side of our fingernails peel with a complete stranger on a Monday morning, don’t stop yourself in the middle of explaining the agony of that pain in surprise that your new unlikely friend is listening to you. Sip your coffee and power through! 

Padma is an arts, culture and lifestyle enthusiast who enjoys the occasional matcha to enjoy writing better. She is also the editor of InFrame magazine.

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