The couple on the television leaned closer, their eyes closed, their lips barely touching, fully clothed. Click. Now, a news anchor had replaced the image of the lovers, talking about bloodshed in Libya.
Ah, yes. Much safer.
My dad replaced the television controller on the table, and carried on with his crossword puzzle, content, perhaps, with the knowledge that his daughter (in her mid-20s) was no longer exposed to all the nonsense love-making. Yeesh.
That his daughter had spent much of her time lip-locked (among other things) with a white man until about four months ago, was something he was blissfully unaware of.
This was a daily occurrence in my home, back when I used to live at home as a child. I remember watching a Friends episode at an NRI family friend’s house, just before I went away for college – the scene where Rachel and Joey kiss for the first time. My father hastily grabbed the remote, amidst chuckles from my friend. Apparently, her NRI father didn’t do that. I do remember watching violent “dishum-dishum” Hindi movies as a seven-year old child with my family; thankfully, Bollywood movies had no sex scenes.
I love my father; I know he loves me. I also know that his values are shared by a considerable number of people, NRIs or otherwise.
I get that; I also get why it took me so long to allow myself to be intimate with a man. That my cousin, who lives in India, had to ask his father, the day he got engaged, what happens during the “first night”, is telling, of our culture’s hush-hush attitude towards this most natural and wonderful aspects of human life. I’m not talking about just sex; rather, the entirety of the sharing of love and intimacy with another person.
I’m not advocating for all Indians to begin having frank conversations with their children about sex and love. I only want to suggest that this veil of secrecy, and the pretence either that such things do not happen to their kids, or if they do, are attributable to all that is wrong with Western society, provides little help to NRI children navigating their first experiences of this real human emotion known as love. The guilt commonly experienced by NRI youth as we engage in even the simplest acts of intimacy, such as kissing another, can prevent us from experiencing, enjoying, learning, and growing, as people. (Side note - turns out that kissing - and all of its different forms - originated in the Indian subcontinent.)
So many restrictions surround the idea of love and physical intimacy in our culture, chiefly the one of marriage being the only meaningful institution in which physical intimacy should exist, and/or will be tolerated. To desist until you meet the person you are to marry (as chosen by your parents, and/or by you, as long as they are: someone from the very same religion, culture, caste), is to succumb to a juvenile understanding of love and intimacy, shackled within the confines of cultural institutions. Perhaps the 'pervyness' of men in India can be partly attributed to the cultural intolerance of contact with the opposite sex until the wedding night.
Marriages in the past were arranged, often a pact between families, both benefiting from the union. They were a matter of convenience, perhaps the only way a woman had to leave her home, and make something of herself: to procreate, raise a family.
Today’s women are no longer the helpless, innocent young girls of yester-year, their every decisions made by elder brothers, fathers, uncles. Our lives no longer revolve around cooking and birthing babies; we are increasingly more empowered, and often, do fine even if we’re not married. Yet, the idea of seeking companionship remains outdated. That a woman must be chaste until marriage, marry at a certain age, and have children, was the cultural norm of a different era; still, the same beliefs linger. Mere observation suggests to me that NRI families begin looking for a husband for a woman at a far earlier age than that of a wife for a man; and if allowed to date, one must do so only with the intention of marrying that person in the near future. Break-ups not allowed. Similarly, divorces – not allowed.
That Western countries have higher rates of divorce is not proof that desi unions are somehow better than Western ones; instead, it is partly a reflection of the negativity with which divorce is still viewed in our culture. I would argue that matrimonial sites and horoscope matching are just as good at choosing suitable life-partners as online dating sites, or speed dating; i.e. not very good. In desi culture, it makes more sense to stay together than bring pain upon the families by separating, thus creating the semblance of happier unions. I know plenty of desi couples who merely co-exist, with little evident affection for one another.
Seeing an online profile and knowing a person for a week before becoming engaged is not exactly a recipe for an organic, passionate life-union; it simply is an extension of marriage as an inorganic, social/legal contract, the union of two parties for mutual benefit and the fulfillment of some pre-determined duty. It is marriage for the sake of marriage; not the thing of beauty that one supposes is being celebrated in the wedding rituals and ceremonies.
When we consider what our land produced (the Kama Sutra, Tantric sex, erotic carvings on holy Hindu temples, etc.) it is clear that this land has not always been so conservative or prudish; in fact, one can imagine that once upon a time, while British missionaries spread their message of the wicked sinfulness of sex, our religious teachers were probably engaging in, and celebrating, their sexuality. Now it seems that the only exposure to sex for many Indian men comes from what they can find on the internet, or like my cousin, none at all. Not exactly a healthy introduction.
Much can be learnt from intimacy that occurs without the confines of prior agreements and familial contracts; and besides, it’s fun, when its mutual and consensual. Intimacy might be the act that comes most naturally to us, as humans; surely, none of us would exist without the most sacred form of which no one must speak of. Why is it so bad, to get to know someone of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, depending on your proclivity) intimately before marriage, or even if marriage never occurs? Short answer ... it’s not.
In time, perhaps the idealized image of the naive bride, veiled, innocent and virginal, can be replaced with the image of a self-assured woman, in love and confident. Perhaps the groom is someone who is experienced in matters of love, and knows how to make a woman happy, rather than a naive, intimacy-starved youth whose first contact with the opposite sex occurs on the "first night". Both know what they want; love is no longer a mystery. As our world evolves so rapidly around us, it is time that our culture shifts with it.
It's not easy, but the dialogue must begin somewhere. This is what it means to evolve, and to be empowered.