Did this piece a few weeks ago, in an attempt to try and understand what it is about public displays of affection that makes the onlooker so upset.
Gardens of the heart
When I first moved out of a tiny town where everybody knew everybody and playing a game of chess with a boy was tantamount to ‘having an affair’, I discovered that my spoken English was lacking. College, awards and even poetry hadn’t prepared me for a phraseology that included: ‘Get a room’.
This business of getting a room would come up in clubs, cafes, the seaside – wherever youngsters held each other too close, too long. It would be thrown at their backs – their faces usually being occupied otherwise – like a sort of insult. Poor and middle-class newlyweds with no bedroom to call their own, or youngsters who couldn’t gain sexual independence at home even if they had a room.
Things have changed over the last decade. The explosion of cafes and pubs in urban India ensured that there are more indoor spaces to cuddle in. But these are private-public spaces for upper and middle-middle classes. The rest of our country must save up its loving for parks and promenades. The general principle seems to be – have green space, will canoodle.
Over the years, I have come to believe that it is a good principle. From the point of view of the environment, for instance. If people can be persuaded to have a good time minus air-conditioning, bonding in the lap of mother nature, what could be better? Why fork over significant sums of money to restaurants, malls and cinemaplexes that offer horrid fare and suck up energy resources like there’s no tomorrow.
Then, there’s mental and social health too. Human beings need human touch and a generation that has been made to feel ashamed of this can only end up hurt, and hurting others. Besides, there’s something to be said for quitting snobbery and becoming equal to other humans in your desire for a quiet nook and a beloved.
But inevitably, there is a price to pay. Youngsters are harassed by the police. Friends of mine were nearly arrested once, although they were engaged to be married and were doing nothing more intimate than having a cup of chai at a dhaba. Another young couple, accused of ‘kissing due to which passersby were feeling bad’ had to argue all the way to court, according to news reports. Apparently, the Delhi High Court did not find them guilty of obscenity because they were married.
Others were not so lucky. There was the headline-hogging Meerut bash-fest, branded ‘Operation Majnu’ where cops assaulted youngsters in a garden. There was also the tragic episode of 2005 in Mumbai, where a young girl was first humiliated for being out with male friends at Marine Drive, then taken to a police chowky and raped by a cop.
Blame it on the vagaries of the Indian Penal Code. Section 294 allows for three months’ imprisonment for 'obscene acts and songs' but fails to properly define 'obscene'. It simply wants to punish ‘Whoever, to the annoyance of others, does any obscene act in any public place’.
Annoyance?! How can you imprison someone for annoying someone else? Society is wildly divergent and it is ridiculous to assume that everyone finds the same things obscene. But I sometimes wonder if there is a base morality, a tacit agreement amongst us about how much intimacy is okay in public. I asked graphic artist Hemant Suthar and he says we need more parks to make room for love, particularly when there’s so much public display of hatred, but there’s a caveat of ‘decency’. “In multiplexes, we see people holding hands, hugging in gardens, cuddling behind bushes. I’ve heard of people making out in buses and cinemas and taxis,” he says, adding, “But I have not seen anything objectionable as yet.”
But then, what’s ‘objectionable’? I ask Navjyoti Jandu, a social development professional and a newlywed, and she admits that she and her husband let themselves go when they are in a romantic mood because “hugging or kissing on the forehead or cheeks is common” but she describes a park visit with her whole family as an embarrassment. “We had gone to the Garden of Five Senses and in every corner we saw couples in different postures. Some,” she puts it delicately, “were deeply involved.”
It reminds me of my first memorable tryst with cuddly couples several years ago. A Delhi park. Summer afternoon. Two girls seeking privacy, to just talk without being overheard by family. The walk turned out to be anything but private. Each scruffy bush, each patch of poky grass was occupied.
Oddly enough, none of the couples were bothered by each other’s presence or scrutiny (and scrutiny, there was. Most couples stole glances across the flowerbeds to look at what else who was doing), but our presence was clearly undesirable. Some youngsters stiffened at the sound of approaching footsteps and as we walked past, they held hands and looked resentful. Others stared at us with open hostility. I burned with an odd sort of reflected humiliation.
Until then, I had not been exposed to such swathes of intimacy. With that much display, it was a veritable museum of affection. While it did feel strange to be looking at the couples, I also clearly remember thinking that I was out of place. That I was the intruder in a space that had been marked out for privacy by those who needed it.
More recently, a young man told me about how much he loves Bandra Bandstand, but he added with a giggle, “I will not go there again, not until I have a girlfriend.”
These days, when I hear of police ‘action’ or politically ambitious locals rounding up lovers in parks or promenades, I remember my old feeling of trespass, the sense that I was unwanted. I remember the boy who needs a girlfriend to properly enjoy Bandstand. Then I wonder about the real reason for public outrage when people make out in public. And I wonder too if that is not the true obscenity of our times – that people cannot love without shame and, perhaps, don’t even know how.