A REVOLUTION GONE WRONG
The Game of Dice in the Indian epic Mahabharata plays a pivotal role which ultimately leads to the Kurukshetra War: a final showdown between the clashing clans, Pandavas and Kauravas. Having lost everything to the Kauravas in the game of dice, the eldest of the five Pandavas, Yudhishthira puts Draupadi at stake for yet another round. Draupadi is married to the five brothers and when Yudhishthira loses the final round, the main antagonist Duryodhana orders his younger brother Dushasana to disrobe Draupadi in front of everyone. What follows is divine intervention: as Dushasana unwrap layers and layers of her sari, Draupadi’s cloth keeps getting extended. And this is the precise moment that has been providing titillation to the Indian masses for centuries, or at least since the days of Victorian morality. In villages and small towns, men, women and children have been watching this scene from street plays without batting an eye: as the lanky male actor dressed as Draupadi in a rather long sari and with a hilariously long wig screeched for help as his co-actor desperately tried to disrobe him with a devilish grin on his face. In the late eighties, when the 94-episode television adaptation of the epic was broadcasted, Sunday mornings in India resembled a post-disaster Chernobyl. Every Indian irrespective of gender, socio-political and religious background sat glued to the television set. And the episode involving disrobing of Draupadi has been one of the most watched episodes in Indian television history: there are myths about how men have delayed rushing their pregnant wives to the hospital and there are myths about doctors postponing emergency surgeries. And to the sexually frustrated Indians, this was the epoch of erotica that one could watch legitimately. Titillation sugarcoated with sacred Indian mythology.
When I was growing up, I can’t recall coming across the word sex until I was about twelve years old, probably. India was still going to a period which saw predominant sexual repression countrywide, something which could be best expressed by a 1972 photograph by noted Indian photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew. A notice board announcing ‘A discussion on eS x and Marriage’ outside a hall in New Delhi could ideally express India’s attitude towards sex. But things were changing slowly. Sex was neither confined to Bollywood diva Helen’s dances, nor was it confined to the Calcutta Film Festival showcasing masterpieces by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni once a year. Sex was neither confined to the yellowed pages of Sydney Sheldon novels in roadside reading libraries, neither in vernacular pornographic novels sold discreetly in small book-fairs or railway stations. Sex was not about sitting in a claustrophobic rundown cinema hall, watching American Kamasutra, as the elderly prostitute performed fellatio on a young man a few seats away from you. Things were changing. Society was becoming more liberal. I remember watching the first on-screen kiss in the 1994 Vidhu Vinod Chopra classic, 1942: A Love Story, set against the backdrop of India’s struggle for freedom. My family was criticized by the neighbors for taking me out for the film and exposing me to ‘adult things’. A dear friend of mine, who’s no more: her parents didn’t admit her to a coeducational school of great repute because it was against the principle of conservative Indian families. It was like pushing your child into debauchery. But the foundation of the conservative Indian homes was threatened, as cable television stormed into the Indian drawing rooms. Life became different; like never before. And my first glimpse of nudity on television: Kate Winslet’s derriere in the James Cameron blockbuster Titanic on the eve of the new millennium left a lasting impression on me. And things would change forever. For me. For India.
I came to learn about Poonam Pandey on the 1st of April, 2011. The Cricket World Cup was going on. And India had displayed great performance by marching on to the final, which was to be held on 2nd April. And this largely unknown woman, Poonam Pandey came to the limelight for vowing to strip, if her beloved Team India won the tournament. India did win. And the Indian media was like: Where is Poonam Pandey now? Different people have emerged at different moments in the history of India. And they have faded away as easily as they have emerged. But Poonam Pandey is here to stay for a while, at least. She is determined. As the July 4 discovery of God Particle which marks a new chapter in scientific knowledge drew applause from people worldwide, Poonam Pandey was busy daring the scientists to find the G-Spot. And I was having a hilarious time experiencing the circus.
Recently, the advertisement for Clean & Dry Intimate Wash invaded prime-time television in India, causing furor all over the nation. It shows a young woman using the product to brighten her vagina in order to please her partner, who is observed having black coffee with an aura of boredom about him. Though I am usually prepared for most of what happens in our society, this advertisement shocked me. The fetish for fair skin would be taken so seriously in India, I could never imagine. Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan endorsing Fair & Handsome, a fairness cream for men was still tolerable. But discrimination against dark skin could go to this extent, it still is unbelievable.
Have we changed? How have we evolved over the years?
While sexual revolution took place in the 60s in the west, India has been witnessing a different kind of revolution since the beginning of the millennium. With globalization, India witnessed acceptance of pre-marital sex, contraception and normalization of homosexuality. Today, on-screen sex is not confined to shoddy B-grade films being projected in obscure cinema halls. Filmmakers now have the guts to make sensitive films like I AM and erotica-lased critically commended blockbusters like The Dirty Picture based on the life of Silk Smitha, south Indian actress noted for her erotic roles in B-grade films in the eighties. And even if Sherlyn Chopra raves about becoming the first Indian woman to adorn the cover of Playboy magazine, you cannot take the Indian-ness out of the Indians. Gone are the days, when gay couples would be beaten up by the public if found out. Gone are the days when your grandmother would marry off your gay uncle to a girl of her liking; confident that marriage would heal him of his waywardness. It will not be surprising if you find a sachet of condom in your son’s schoolbag today. And it is quite predicable that your middle-aged chauffeur carries pornographic movies on his mobile phone. Yet, the Target Rating Point (TRP) of your favorite stand-up comedy show has gone up because your favorite host cracks the most hilarious homophobic jokes you have ever heard. Your favorite superstar cracks rape jokes in one of India’s most successful films and yet hosts a didactic talk show highlighting social issues like female feticide, child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Pinki Pramanik, the Indian athlete who won gold and silver for India in international events was recently in the news for allegedly raping her live-in partner who claimed that Pinki was actually a male, thereby creating a field day for the Indian media. During one of the tests that were being conducted to ascertain her sex, some bastard made a MMS video with his mobile, which has gone viral in some circles, thereby initiating another round of debate about a sexual revolution gone horribly wrong. My thoughts now wander to that nineteen year old girl, who would proudly proclaim to her best friend: ‘My father didn’t even touch my mother for two years after they got married; that is the strength of his character!’ These days, she is leafing through Fifty Shades of Grey and it is heard that she no longer talks about her father anymore. As I finish this article, my neighbor’s young wife returns home with her hubby, late in the night from a party, clad in a little black dress and matching stilettos. She would have looked stunning; her look ruined by that red blaze of vermilion on her head and the shankha-pwola around her wrists: symbols of a traditional married Hindu woman. And hence, with one foot grounded in age-old traditions and the other desperately striding towards modernity, India embraces diversity in her own bizarre way, at the price of the lives of our beloved Raginis and Nirbhayas.