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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Welcome Valentine's Day (Psssst.... No smooching..... this is India..)

Another week to go before that day all lovers wait for - Valentine's Day. Every year on February 14th, couples the world over go out together, and take time out to make each other feel special. But if you’re planning to hit the cafes and restaurants in India, beware - we follow a somewhat.... different tradition ;-).

Over here it’s not just bouquets, they come with brickbats too. Welcome to the largest and most hypocritical democracy in the world - India. I've lived in southern India most of my life, and I'm sorry to say travelling in a public bus with one's girlfriend sitting (just sitting mind you) close by is made most difficult by people (including the bus conductor) who keep staring at you as if you've committed a sinful and illegal act. I say this because I’ve seen it happen to people a lot of times over the years. I wonder how such couples manage. Kissing in public is sure to get one in trouble. Once an actress here had her comments publicly decried for she had spoken about safe sex and the need for awareness on protection in society. However, political parties targeted her comments as derogatory of the "traditional Indian woman". Hypocrisy at its peak.

Whereas egregious and unlawful acts go unpunished, the moral brigades and police deem it fit to barge into private parties and stop people kissing. Recently a few women in the IT hub of Bangalore (now Bengaluru) were beaten by an obscure organization's members for simply being in pub - they'd supposedly denigrated Indian values by being there. Perhaps beating women in public's a new Indian value that these self-proclaimed guardians of Indian tradition had imbibed. Kissing in public is a definite no-go here thanks to the overzealous but otherwise useless police and subsidiaries of various political parties that take it upon themselves to enforce their own so-called "Indian morals".

With Valentine's Day coming up, we are sure to see a lot more such incidents. The police need to stop playing Big Brother, and concentrate instead on how to stop people killing each other, not on kissing each other.

No doubt many of you would have heard of the recent case of a married couple in our capital city New Delhi being picked up by the cops for kissing in public. They were later set free by a court in Delhi which lambasted the police for arresting them in the first place. Below is the report from the BBC's website on the scenario in present-day India:


No kissing please, we are Indians

A court in India recently dismissed criminal proceedings against a couple who were arrested for kissing. The BBC's Soutik Biswas examines India's tangled relationship with the kiss.

Look before you kiss in India. A smooch can get you in serious trouble in the world's largest democracy.

Earlier this week, a court in Delhi - ah, of all places, in the "happening" capital! - threw out the case against a young, married couple who were picked up by police allegedly for kissing near a railway station.

The kiss has been under threat in India for as long as I can remember.

Two years ago, an over-enthusiastic Richard Gere had the riot act read to him when he swooped down and clasped actress Shilpa Shetty and planted several kisses on her. The two, by the way, were at an event to tell lorry drivers about safe sex.

News television hyperventilated, serving up titillation and tattle in equal measure on the serial-kissing Hollywood actor. Some protesters burnt effigies of Gere; others shouted slogans demanding the death of the hapless Shetty. It took the Supreme Court to suspend an arrest warrant against Gere, and obscenity charges against Shetty.

Much earlier, in the early 1990s, I remember the public outrage after Nelson Mandela kissed actress Shabana Azmi when he came visiting.


And when India's usually benign tabloids splashed grainy mobile phone pictures of a Bollywood couple - they were dating at that time - allegedly kissing some years ago, the star diva fretted and fumed and began legal proceedings against the paper.

Even marriage sometimes doesn't give you the licence to smooch - an Israeli couple was fined $22 by a court for kissing after getting married in a Hindu ceremony in Rajasthan. The priests had taken umbrage.

For clues to why Indians appear to be clueless about kissing, listen to a model-actress Udita Goswami.

India's ancient past is littered with kisses, if literary work is any evidence

"I have pledged that in any of my forthcoming films I will not give a lip kiss," she told a newspaper.

"I am not comfortable doing that. I belong to a traditional family and my values do not allow me to indulge in such acts."

But a kissing famine has led to a curious demand for it in the dark confines of the movie theatre - and become a passport to fame for some.

A Bollywood starlet's film some years ago was hyped as one in which she had kissed her dazed looking co-star 17 times. (It so happened that the kisses were the only memorable thing about the film.)

Since then kiss-starved audiences have been counting the starlet's kisses in all her films - one later film of hers was advertised as one with "99 slaps - 1 kiss" so that fans were not entirely disappointed.

A Bollywood dance girl kicked up a storm when she was smooched in front of the cameras by a little-known singer at his birthday party. She hummed and hawed about the "inappropriateness" of the kiss and the media and the kiss-hungry republic lapped it up.

India's ancient past is littered with kisses, if literary work is any evidence.


Vedic Sanskrit texts, dating back to 1500 BC, apparently contain the first mention of a kiss in writing. (A caveat from a researcher: "This does not mean that nobody kissed before then, and it doesn't mean that Indians were first to kiss.")

India's famous epic poem and one of the world's oldest literary works, The Mahabharata, composed sometime between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, mentions kissing.

Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty
Some demonstrators called Gere's embrace of Shetty 'vulgar'
The Radhika Santwanam, an collection of erotic poetry from a courtesan in a court in southern India, from the mid-18th century, describes a kiss in fairly graphic detail: Move on her lips/The tip of your tongue/Do not scare her/By biting hard.

And in Kama Sutra, the definitive epic of amour, the scholar Vatsayana, devotes a chapter on the art of kissing. He painstakingly details some 30 types of kisses - straight, bent, turned, press, nominal and throbbing are some among them.

And Richard Gere, please take note, Indian cinema's first kiss dates back to 1933 in a film called Karma where the actress is lip-locked with actor and real life husband Himanshu Rai for some four minutes. Four minutes!

So why does India have this tortured and twisted relationship with the kiss?

Some people play it down, saying those who protest belong to a "loony fringe" of moral fundamentalists. Others say it is a hangover from tradition in an ancient civilisation. Still others say many Indians long for traditional mores as Western consumerist values swamp the country.

Or is it a response to what the Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmad called "Westoxication" - superficial consumerist display of commodities and fads produced in the West?

Do some Indians - cutting across class - actually rail against such "Westoxication" when they are revulsed by couples kissing? "Looked at closely," says leading Indian sociologist Dipankar Gupta, "revulsion against Westoxication is principally an aesthetic sneer and not a full blooded call for a return to tradition".

Or is the rage against the kiss born out of a hypocritical morality that equates sex with sin and desire with guilt? As sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan tells me, "India is the only country which has a body police and not a thought police".

There must be some truth in all these theories.

So, torn between tradition and seductive imported values, Indians will continue to grapple with the Big Question - to kiss or not to kiss? And, as a friend quips, "When we do kiss, we don't tell".


As a person in an online forum aptly put it:

Chewing paan and spitting it out every-friggin-where, and peeing on the road side, is more obscene than a beautiful kiss. As is wearing a police uniform and shaking people down for bribes! Let's prosecute these guys first before we go after kissing couples.


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