I’ll have to begin this with a mea culpa.

There have been times when I’ve been a multiplier of gossip, a pronouncer of wicked words, a deliverer of the sharply-shredding gaze. And although I don’t think gender has anything to do with who constitutes one’s tribe, I’m still plagued with a little feminist guilt when the rage subsides and I realize its recipient has been of my own “kind”. Which is to say: another chick, another bachelorette, another girlfriend gone gaga. How strange that I can comfortably joke that one of my superpowers is emasculation, but feel such self-reproach when I turn my cruelty towards another woman.

I did this, in fact, not so long ago. The when and the why have (hopefully) sunk into irrelevance, but what I’ve continued to think about is a specific phrase I appended to one particular verbal defenestration. “Oh thank God I met you today,” I said to the other party, after a long tirade about a certain distressing damsel. “I needed to talk to a female friend today to restore my faith in the sisterhood.”

The Sisterhood.

What on earth does it mean, who gets admittance, and why does it sound so grandiose? In the United States some decades ago, sisterhood was radical and political – specifically, it was also (to quote from some book titles) Powerful, Global and Forever. But what does it mean to us, here, in these times? Female friendships are one thing but what about female community? In a country where the sexes still experience segregation in some quarters, i.e. that community can be forced rather than fall together organically, it’s a particularly interesting question.

The times I have most felt that sisterhood is important have been in times of its abject lack. For instance, I have longed for it when I felt betrayed by female peers who preferred stabbing me in the back and stepping on my shoulders to reveling in the creative synergy we could have had together. I have longed for it when I’ve felt ostracized. I’ve longed for it when I’ve seen other women enjoy it with an ease I did not share.

But sisterhood is complicated, like all good and grandiose things. Platonic relationships between women are the ultimate Longfellow’s little girl – when they’re bad they’re horrid, but when they’re good they’re very good indeed. There have certainly been times when I have genuinely had it, or something resembling the fuzzy, fierce emotions I associate with it. And in those times, I haven’t always been its perkiest cheerleader, much as I may have yearned or fought for it before. I’ve thrown in the towel (“I’m sick of these chicks and these straight boys. Where is my gay posse? Give me a boa and crown me empress among queens!”). I’ve been downright partial (too little energy for a bus across town to see a galpal, way too much enthusiasm for a bus across town to see a funbunny). I’ve taken it for granted, forgotten how special it is, traded it in, opted out, and generally been less than totally sisterly.

But then, think for a moment about what it actually means to have sisters or siblings. It means rivalry, it means responsibility, it means broken things and fisticuffs and conspiracy and tears and duplicity and loyalty and love. Love is complicated. Women are complicated. Family is complicated. Sisterhood is all of these – a little less on some days, a lot more on others. But always, somehow, worth the effort of finding out which.

An edited version appeared in Times of India (Chennai) today.