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The land of the Kama Sutra is still waiting for a sexual revolution

Reuters/Kamal Kishore
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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan—the most interesting recent release in what is already a special year for Indian cinema—begins with a lovers’ assignation in a rent-by-the-hour hotel. A police raid, supposedly cracking down on prostitution, but actually focused on humiliation, blackmail and extortion, interrupts the couple.

Watching the opening scenes, my thoughts turned to a poem by Philip Larkin, whose birth anniversary falls this week. It is among Larkin’s most popular poems though by no means his best. The first stanza reads:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The ‘Chatterley ban’ refers to DH Lawrence’s controversial hymn to sex, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was proscribed in the UK soon after its publication in 1928, and stayed that way until a well-publicised trial in 1960 vindicated the novel’s supporters. The book was banned in India as well, but the country’s supreme court parted from Britain when its ruling in 1964 upheld the novel’s categorisation as obscene. Since the ‘Chatterley ban’ never ended in India, did sexual intercourse ever begin? I’m speaking of sexual intercourse in the sense Larkin defined it, which is made clear in the second stanza of Annus Mirabilis (Miraculous Year in Latin):

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, sex in Britain was inextricably connected to marriage. Women offered sex to their partners in return for assurances of wedlock. In Larkin’s view, this kind of bargaining, or wrangling for the wedding ring, poisoned the essence of sex and infected every aspect of life.

Tying the knot

The lovers in Masaan commit the crime of desiring pleasure for its own sake. Although Indian law permits consensual sex between adults, it also promotes the idea that intercourse is essentially shameful for women, and can usually be extracted only through promises of a formal relationship. Men who renege on a commitment to marry are tried not for breach of promise but for rape.

Among the men tried in this fashion, a Jet Airways pilot named Varun Agarwal got away relatively lightly because his ex-girlfriend, who had lived with him for two years before accusing him of rape, eventually withdrew charges. Others, like Yogesh Palekar, a Goa-based casino dealer who was sentenced to seven years in jail for a similar offence, have been less lucky.

It’s frightening to think that any nasty breakup can land an Indian man in prison. But it’s pretty insignificant compared to what Indian women have to endure, because for every breach-of-promise rape case filed by a spurned girlfriend, dozens of actual rapes occur, and few perpetrators ever see the inside of a jail cell.

It’s striking how many of the gang rapes that have come to light in the past three years involved couples. The Dec. 16 Delhi rapists, as well as the Shakti Mills gang, preyed on twosomes, and even justified their acts in moral terms. Mukesh Singh, one of the Delhi thugs, said in an interview for Leslie Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter (currently on India’s banned list along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover), “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”

Fallen women

Predators are aware that a large percentage of couples, like the Delhi rape victim and Awindra Pratap Pandey on that December night, meet in secret, and will do a lot to keep the truth from their families. Mumbai police constable Sunil More knew it, too, when he used the threat of exposure to rape a 16-year-old college girl inside the Marine Drive police station. Back in 1983, Sohaila Abdulali wrote an incredibly brave article in Manushi describing being raped after she and her boyfriend were attacked by a gang armed with sickles. They, too, displayed the Mukesh Singh attitude:

 “After what seemed like years of torture (I think I was raped 10 times but I was in so much pain that I lost track of what was going on after a while), we were let go, with a final long lecture on what an immoral whore I was to be alone with a boy. That infuriated them more than anything. They acted the whole time as if they were doing me a favour, teaching me a lesson. Theirs was the most fanatical kind of self righteousness.”

There was no shortage of political leaders interested in blaming women after the Dec. 16 and Shakti Mills cases. Abu Azmi, who can be trusted to say something idiotic in response to almost any event, invoked nation and religion in his effort to shame females.

“No parents in our Indian culture would agree if their daughter goes out with another man, and indulges in something wrong… As per Islam, if a girl does it, she will be awarded the death penalty… If two people go to a hotel and have sex with consent, even that should be banned. They should be punished.”

The couple in Masaan, in other words, deserved everything they got.

The Hindutvavadis aren’t far behind Azmi in the battle against sexual intercourse. Gujarat’s chief minister Anandiben Patel wants rent-by-the-hour hotels closed down. Chandra Prakash Kaushik of the Hindu Mahasabha, condemning celebrations of romantic love such as Valentine’s Day, is determined to marry off any unrelated male and female found holding hands. “We are not against love,” Kaushik said. “But couples need to be taught that the only way to express love is by tying the knot in the presence of fire, not by exchanging roses.”

One might assume gay people, at least, can freely express pure sexual desire, since they are forbidden marriage, but the assumption would be false. The suicide of Priya Vedi, a doctor married to a closeted gay husband, underscored the pressure put on gay men to enter into marriages of convenience (convenient for them, their parents, and the bride’s parents, and torture for the woman). Sexual intercourse hasn’t begun for Indian homosexuals any more than it has for straight couples. It’s a long way to that explosion of freedom described by Larkin in the final stanzas of his poem:

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Evidence in stone

Two objections may arise at this stage, with Khajuraho and Tinder as their emblems. First, wasn’t India more liberated in some glorious past age? And second, doesn’t the success of dating apps signal a freer future?

As far as erotic temple art is concerned, it is dangerous to draw any conclusion about the social life in 10th to 13th century India, leave alone any era a thousand or more years previous to that, based on the Khajuraho and Konark sculptures.

Consider that there are hundreds if not thousands of stones strewn across Maharashtra that depict donkeys having sex with women. A layperson looking at a collection of these gadhegals might conclude (wrongly) that bestiality was accepted, even routine, across the land in the past. Equally, anybody with only contemporary Hollywood films as reference might believe that Americans, especially women, are notably thin, while in fact there have been few nations in history with as corpulent a population as the US in 2015. Whatever we do know of daily life in the period when the Khajuraho temples were built suggests a social system as conservative as the one in place today.

As for dating apps, well, it is only a matter of time before even gullible Indian men realise that every woman on Tinder is a journalist researching a story about Indian men on Tinder. And the research does not extend to getting laid.

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