A jewellery ad was accused of promoting love jihad. And now, the anti-love-jihad brigade wants people to “boycott” the web series version of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – a book that is all about arranged marriage and caste concerns, and accommodates several characters who would have fit right into the anti-love-jihad brigade – because it features an inter-faith couple kissing in the foreground of a temple.
Temples are ubiquitous in India. Several of them start off as idols in a nook.
Sex, too, is ubiquitous in India, or we wouldn’t be bursting at the seams with people.
Ideally, couples kiss before having sex, but perhaps that isn’t the way the fundamentalists like to think of it. Sex is accorded a functional role, the production of more of a kind – it would be nice for them, of course, if it were their kind rather than “the other”. Sex, to them, must be sanctified by marriage and childbirth.
Since kissing has little direct connection to procreation, it can evoke anything from disgust to jealousy. When this act takes place in with a temple or a mosque for that matter as the backdrop, it is easy for fundamentalists to accuse the couple of offending religious sentiment. When such a kiss is captured on camera, it becomes yet another in the long series of offences storytellers have committed against religion.
There is no religion that bans kissing, or for that matter, love. The Abrahamic religions did get into the particularities of who could fall in love with whom, and also who could have sex with whom – which is probably why it is against the law for heterosexual couples to hold hands in several Islamic countries, although same-sex couples might get away with it – but the saffron brigade does not align itself with the Abrahamic religions. What is it that gets their knickers – or their khaki shorts – in a twist, then?
Why do they roam the streets on Valentine’s Day, hoping to find couples whom they can force into a symbolic sibling relationship with the tying of a rakhi that could be torn off the moment they are away? What makes them barge into night clubs and assault women for wearing clothes that are “against Indian culture”? What is it that they have against love and the expression of love, against fun and the expression of fun?
Perhaps the problem is that they have never had either – not fun and not love.
It must be awful to grow up without love.
And it must be worse to deny it to oneself. There are various kinds of fundamentalists, belonging to various religions – those who live celibate lives, those who live with multiple spouses and their offspring all at once, those who have never made contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex before marriage and continue to live with their spouses till death do them part. But perhaps these unions, even when they exist, are loveless, sterile ones. Perhaps that is why they are so offended by the existence of both love and lust.
Let us, for the moment, leave aside temples like Khajuraho, with their erotic sculptures. But all temples celebrate, in some way or the other, both the human form and the pleasures of life and art. There are temples with carvings that depict different images from different angles. There are temples where the idols show gods with their wives seated on their laps.
For now, the saffron brigade has chosen to take offence to A Suitable Boy. But what next? What if they decide that erotic sculpture is offensive to Hinduism, or that the gods must not be shown to have “human” feelings such as love and lust? How far are we, then, from destroying our heritage as the Taliban did with the statues of Buddha, which to them symbolised sin?
Puritan interpretation has been one of the most oppressive forces that art has had to fight. And this puritanism is not restricted to religious sentiments. There is another group of fundamentalists too, those who consider themselves “woke”.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a campaign was launched by a group of women from New York to have the famous Balthus artwork Therese Dreaming (1938) removed from the Metropolitan Museum. The Met, thankfully, refused. The Manchester Museum, however, took down artist John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) and replaced it with a printed sign asking visitors to stick post-its as part of a “conversation about how we display art and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” The museum claimed the removal was temporary, and that this was not censorship.
How far are we, one wonders, from more violent expressions of the same sentiment? Art exhibitions have been vandalised already for “hurting religious sentiments”, book burning is a regular ritual, and religious monuments have been reduced to rubble by hands. With mobs of rabble aching to be roused, how long before libraries and temples begin to fall victim to their wrath?
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com