It has all the awkwardness of a Tinder date, minus the underlying sexual connotation. Sitting at a popular coffee shop in Bandra, surrounded by a couple in a heated discussion on one table, a man reading his book over music and smoke on a second, I am awaiting my first ‘rented’ friend.
The writer with Amol at a Bandra coffee shop. The Rent A Friend safety precautions suggest that you meet at a public place and leave any time you feel uncomfortable. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
When a friend sent a link to an article written by a Chris Colin on his experience of meeting a ‘friend on rent’ in Tokyo, our first comments ranged from ‘how cool’ to the predictable ‘how sad that the service needs to even exist’.
Journalistic curiosity led us to an American platform (www.rentafriend.com) that allows Indians to sign up. It has several men, and a few women, who, for a fee that starts from $10, provide you company for an activity of your choice — movie, stroll around the beach, a meeting at a café or even a wingman/woman.
Make no mistake, the friends are not supposed to be dates. The site, in fact, makes it clear that there must be ‘no touching’ between friend and member. Membership, which allows you to select friends from a set of those available in your chosen neighbourhood, comes at a cost of $24 (Rs 1,587) per month. It allows you to send your friends a message through the site, or, if your request needs more urgent processing, check their number.
Since journalists work on a deadline, I decided to send two chosen ‘friends’ — there are several men on the site who only want to meet women; I have picked one man and one woman who are happy meeting people of all genders and sexualities — an SMS.
The response was immediate.
The first friend to respond, Amol Manek (name changed to protect identity) agrees to meet the same day at a Bandra coffee house. In the hours prior, when we chat, he asks, “Are you single?” I clarify I am not “looking for anything specific” from our meeting.
He is half hour late. The reason — “I got caught in traffic”. You can rent a friend, but you cannot get them to arrive on time. I have an exit strategy in plae in case the meeting goes south. “I have to rush in 45 minutes for a meeting with a friend,” I say. He seems fine with it.
Amol, who does most of the talking during the 40-minute conversation, doesn’t order tea or coffee. All he wants is a glass of water. In fact, he says I can skip paying him the pre-agreed $10 (Rs 662). “A few years ago, I quit my IT job because I got tired of cubicle life. In fact, I had forgotten I had signed up on the site hoping to earn some money and meet new people, and who knows, some women too,” he says. He says he can’t remember how he chanced upon the site.
He asks me about my back story. Taking note of the wise advice of Keigo Higashino, I stick to as much of the truth as possible. “Content creation” becomes my job and “the search for a fictitious character for a novel” becomes my purpose for registering.
Amol, who says he is 33, talks of wanting to “return to nature”. Building and then living in a house of mud, with no electricity. He talks of how modern science and medicine have ruined our bodies. How pure coconut oil is the cure for all evil. The conversation is neither strange nor uncomfortable.
We part, and he messages saying it was nice meeting me.
The second friend I rent the next morning is a single mother and entrepreneur in her late 30s. Meeting her is a bit assuring, not merely because she is a woman, but because her asking me for photo ID and address proof provides some kind of authenticity to this meeting. The only problem is that I am not comfortable providing either. I tell Noor Salian (name changed) that I am uncomfortable whatsapping a grab of my passport. She says it’s a protocol of the site for safety.
“While I understand that you may be uncomfortable, I would really like to meet you,” I say, fearing I am beginning to sound creepy.
Much of the conversation that ensues over SMS before we meet is awkward. When I type: “what kind of activities do you work with?” I realise it doesn’t sound appropriate. I apologise. Noor’s ‘LOL’ is an understanding validation.
We meet the next morning at a Parel-based coffee chain.
In the absence of any verification by Rent a Friend — my ‘friend’ profile was rejected once only because I hadn’t uploaded the minimum requirement of two photographs and hadn’t said enough about myself and the kind of activities I’d be interested in — instinct becomes my first line of defence. Noor says she agreed to meet partly because her gut said I was harmless. Besides, it was unlikely I’d jump at her throat at a mall.
Conversation unfolds like a brunch date with a female pal. She says she joined the site a few years ago as a measure to earn money on the side and make new friends.
There’s been the good and the bad. One ‘friend’ was an old woman who wanted a few chores done, including sorting out family pictures and converting them into a collage. Another was an out-of-towner who, despite being unable to furnish any decent documentation, wondered if Noor could meet him. The request was not met. We chat about our families and jobs. She talks about her daughter and the shenanigans she is up to.
Soon, the conversation turns to theatre — in my message to her, I’d said we could meet up for a play or coffee. She asks me if I have seen Beauty and The Beast. I say I found the tickets expensive. “Skip four plays to save, but don’t miss this one,” she says, going on to describe how well the Broadway-style musical has been executed.
Noor, too, waives off the meeting fee. “So long as you pick up the coffee tab, it’s fine. You can pay me if we meet another time.”
It’s hard not to be struck by the normalcy of this arrangement. Being able to order gourmet roast chicken or a Pernia Qureshi designer number online without stepping out is one thing, but renting a friend still feels wrong.
And then there was the guilt. I hadn’t been honest to tell Amol and Noor that I was, in fact, a journalist out on an assignment. It felt like a betrayal of their ‘friendship’.
Until, that is, Pradeep Dhivar, my colleague and mid-day photographer, who shot my meeting with Amol from afar, told me three men had accompanied Amol to the date. They sat at a distance watching closely every move of “the girl in the jeans” who had agreed to meet their friend.
Friends can be rented. Friendship might still have to be earned.