Friday, April 27, 2007
The most shocking thing in India
As India, where I spent the early part of this year, strides into the 21st century witnessing as rapid an economic and social transformation as any country has seen in the last 25 years, one may fairly ask what is the biggest challenge facing this diverse, vibrant but often problematic mini-continent of 1.2 billion people. Would it be its historic enmity with neighboring Pakistan, which has lead to four wars between the two since 1947 and resulted in both countries exploding nuclear bombs to prove their dominance in their respective deserts in 1998? Would it be the shameless demagoguery of local politicians such as Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, who used his position in 2002 to (at best) stand idly by as 2,000 (most Muslim) citizens of his state were slaughtered and is now being accused of involvement in extra-judicial police killings? Would it be the continuing conflict in Kashmir or the country's ongoing Maoist insurgency?
According to Jaipur’s Chief Judicial Magistrate Dinesh Gupta and solicitor Poonam Chand Bhandari, no. The greatest problem facing India is what you see in the photo, the over-enthusiastic embrace and kiss that American actor Richard Gere planted on Indian actress Shilpa Shetty during an AIDS awareness program in the Indian capital of New Delhi early this month. This week, at Bhandari’s request, Gupta’s court issued a warrant ordering the arrests of Gere and Shetty charging that their kiss was “highly sexually erotic” and “transgressed all limits of vulgarity and have the tendency to corrupt the society.”
I can only imagine the guffaws with which this order is being greeted among the Bollywood elite of Colaba and elsewhere in India’s cultural and economic capital of Bombay, but to me, the Gere/Shetty evokes an unwelcome sense of intolerant deju vu, recalling this past Valentine’s Day, when supporters of the xenophobic Shiv Sena party ran amok in Maharashtra state, trashing a shop that sold Valentine’s Day cards and setting much of the merchandise on fire before pummeling a large billboard put up by the Indian cell phone giant Hutch which advertised Valentine’s Day with a host of balloons. A Shiv Sena youth leader at the time explained that "Valentine’s Day-like celebrations are all western concepts and has been forced on our society for the commercial purpose. Shiv Sena will never allow the commercialization of Indian feelings.”
But one must ask if the Shiv Sainiks, Dinesh Gupta and Poonam Chand Bhandari have ever bothered to study their own country's history. As I have noted on this blog before, India, despite what some opportunistic politicians and judges might like to lead people to believe, is hardly any stranger to highly charged eroticism, nor to public displays of it, nor is the rather brief tangle between Gere and Shetty so much as a patch on India’s own highly developed sense of carnal tradition. This is the country, after all, that composed the Kama Sutra, a hefty chunk of which can perhaps best be described as an owner's manual for how to best use the body for sexual enjoyment and, indeed, describes the act of making love itself as a "divine union." Likewise, near the holy ghats of Varanasi (now Benares) resides the 800 year-old erotic temples at Khajuraho, which depict men and women in various acrobatic and highly explicit sexual poses and quite joyfully copulating, often with multiple partners.
Of course, puritanical busybodies are hardly a phenomenon particular to India but, given their relatively advanced levels of education, one thinks that the gentlemen from Jaipur could find something better to do with their time to engage in demagoguery about an incident that looks childish in comparison to India’s own highly-developed (and quite positive) zest for pleasures of the flesh.