Discussing Sex in Comtemporary Indian Culture
I’ve never had sex in India, the country where I was born and spent most of my first eighteen years. I’ve had impatient kisses in the shadows of whale-backed ambassador cars, and I’ve necked in the bucket seats of crowded movie theaters in Hyderabad, the city in southern India where I was born. But that was a long time ago, when I was young and naïve and India was a conservative, closed nation, where “love marriage” was a dirty term and riotous Valentine’s Day celebrations were still a generation away.
My high school sweetheart and I were the only lovers in our high school of 2,000 students, save for one other couple: her best friend, a busty Telugu rebel named Nirupama, and Samer Khan, her handsome, brooding Muslim with green eyes, an Enfield motorcyle and a pocket knife. So scandalous was their affair in mid-80s Hyderabad, that Nirupama was banished to her grandparents’ in neighboring Tamil Nadu so that she might come to her senses. For months her amore rode all night to rendezvous with her for a few hours. When those visits were curtailed, I heard she tried to commit suicide.
My girlfriend’s family was less traditional: they had lived in Papua New Guinea, where she kissed boys under the mistletoe at “X-mas” time. I, too, was more progressive, born of a mixed marriage, my mother a relatively liberal Syrian American. We would steal quick embraces in her tiny, doorless bedroom, her grandparents constantly peeking in on us. Once we were caught fondling each other on the roof of her apartment complex by a neighbor. He hauled us into his living room, threatening exposure and subsequent censure unless we listened quietly to his diatribe on morals and bowed our heads in shame for the sins we had just committed.
When I left India at eighteen to study at Caltech in Pasadena, California, I imagined I had lifted the prudish veil of my native land and could now indulge in guilt-free, sensuous sex with gorgeous blondes on the hot and sinful shores of the West. I was still a naïve virgin after all, and teen pop culture had led me, like all the rest of my classmates, to believe that America was a land of vice and decadence, where sex was for the asking. But, like Eastern Europeans who learned quickly that fully stocked shops don’t necessarily bring about a consumerist nirvana, I was soon shorn of my illusions. While there was plenty of sex around, cool was a currency I didn’t possess. To most girls, I was just a nerdy Indian studying Physics. So, I changed. I adapted, acclimated, grew my hair out, learned the lingo, transferred to Columbia and finally lost my virginity.
But still, a part of me — an idealistic, stubborn side — kept looking for that erotic utopia I had dreamed about as a kid. While most of my Indian friends who had also moved to America finally gave up and wrote home, asking their parents to find them a “nice girl” through an arranged marriage, I kept searching, like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. My search led me to Prague, and then later to the venial Moscow of the ’90s, where sex really was there for the asking.
I returned to India occasionally, mainly for short visits to see my parents and attend family weddings. They were frustrating holidays, always sexless. Desperate to unveil India’s hypocrisy, I traveled to the erotic temples at Khajuraho with a cousin from New York, a watermarked Kama Sutra paperback in my satchel. But even there, with its stone walls teeming with lascivious sculptures of women participating in wild orgies with horses and maidservants, I couldn’t even register an echo of that past hedonism. There was nothing for me there: just a sad holy man with a pot belly who tried to seduce my cousin and a few stoned Israelies, fresh from the army, who hated the local beer.
Since Indian culture had become so pre-programmed — marriages arranged, astrological charts consulted for major decisions — there was no room for slip-ups, whims or random acts of rashness. There was no choice or freedom in your sexual and emotional partnerships. I stopped going back for a while. I used sex as a weapon to condemn the land of my childhood, to distance myself from it. Sex became a spontaneous act, often catalyzed by alcohol and other substances. I became more estranged from my parents, not returning for five years at a time. And I began to wonder, Can you miss a country you’ve never had sex in?
Several years have passed since then. I’ve changed, become “tamer” as my sister claims, more relaxed. Now in my early thirties, sex just isn’t as important as it was in my twenties, when I kept a list of the 100-plus women I’d slept with. Spending two years in the Baltics — where there’s a surfeit of beautiful, fair-haired women — has mellowed me and watered down my teenage obsession with blondes. So when I returned home for a family wedding this last February, I approached my country with fresh eyes. Gone was the prejudice, the inflexible ideological stance. I found the Indian women, with their large, dark, oval eyes, colorful clothes and affected modesty, quite alluring. I loved their accents and their natural grace, the straight line of their thin backs as they passed in their saris and chappals, their bare almond-colored waists.
But the difference I experienced wasn’t just a matter of my personal preferences softening: India has changed, too. I could discuss the nascent clubbing culture in the big cities, the rash of pubs in Bangalore, the bright discos of Bombay and Calcutta, the abundance of adult channels, the recent glut of fashion magazines, and the hype over the Indian beauties winning international beauty pageants. But something more fundamental is going on in one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Simply put, sex has come of age again, after centuries of repression. The old ideology of Hinduism has lost its clothes. Indians have begun to realize — for the first time in their history, perhaps — that they only live once. Reincarnation, the kernel of Hinduism, which justified the rigid caste system and the endless suffering of human existence, has lost its sheen. So much has happened in this last giddy century that even village Indians, once isolated, can’t imagine the world staying the same five hundred years from now and have little desire to be reborn a Brahmin after three life cycles. They’re witnessing the first economic boom since Independence; with an improved standard of living, increased mechanization and a more consumerist culture, Indians want to enjoy themselves a little. The mask of seriousness has begun to slip slightly. And Indian women, taking advantage of the changes and the growing insecurity of their men, are beginning to assert themselves: love marriages are becoming more common and, with the traditional arranged marriages, women are starting to refuse eligible suitors.
When I attended my cousin’s traditional wedding, a three-day event in remote Rajasthan, one of the most conservative states of India, these changes were palpable. The Marwari women, famed for their unswaying devotion and modesty, had stopped wearing the purdah, started baring their faces in the company of men. My married female cousins were running around sharp-tongued and confident. Even though the wedding was “arranged,” the groom and bride had already met; they’d even seen a film together before consenting to the marriage. And my cousin’s single guy friends were all instant messaging their “girls” on their shiny Nokias throughout the day, which happened to be Valentine’s.
I reveled in the gossipy tone of the groom’s friends — so different from the uptight peers of my youth. “I’ve got five girlfriends,” boasted a twenty-five year old from the 100,000-strong town of Kishangarh. “We go for a ride on my motorcycle sometimes. We even kiss!” Others admitted they flirted with American girls in chat rooms at the Internet cafes that have sprung up all over this town deep in the Hindu heartbelt. “I have three girls, one in New York, another in Virginia, and a third in the Czech Republic,” confessed the owner of the local cafe, where web access costs a dollar an hour. “One of them is planning to visit soon.”
The crisp, cool night of the actual ceremony, I went on the Bharat, the traditional Indian marriage procession, where the groom’s side travels to the bride’s house. On the way, an old-school Rajasthani wedding marching band played their trumpets; later, loudspeakers blared Hindi music and youngsters — including the unmarried women — did the bhangra, an Indian folk dance, before the crowd. The journey was intense, fueled, I suspect, by bhang, a concoction of hashish and milk lassi. People were sweating and gyrating like club kids on Ecstasy. There was something about the crowd, the charged energy, the narrow streets, the people peering out from their balconies, the beat of the cow’s hide drums, and the heat — I danced as I never had before. And with so many men.
“This is all the influence of Hindi films,” complained the older men from the sidelines, all dressed in their long, loose, buttonless kurtas. “Weddings aren’t about the ritual anymore, no one cares.” My elder cousins, all married, also grumbled over dinner. “Women aren’t the way they used to be,” said a relative who’s on his second marriage (after his first wife committed suicide). “They don’t massage your feet at night. Now it’s psychological warfare, not like it used to be in our father’s time.” His friend shook his turbaned head: “It’s all because of these beauty contests. They’re losing their heads.” He waved his finger. “I tell you, all this beauty contest stuff is the work of multinationals, they’re trying to destroy our culture.”
I had spent my youth feeling repressed and put-down. But for the first time in my life, I realized how good Indian men have had it for centuries. As long as they had a decent job and an upright family, by the time they came of age they were assured an attractive, younger bride who’d spend the rest of her life worshipping them. It didn’t matter if they hit her, ignored her most times, worked her to death, or forced her to bear any number of children. She was theirs — for life. They didn’t have to waste years looking for a potential mate in dark bars, doubting whether their girlfriend really loved them, or worrying about their wife leaving them for another man. They could focus their energies on work and card games with their friends, and then look forward to a coconut oil massage in the evening from their loyal wife.
Any breaks in tradition, any exceptions to the rule, threaten to dismantle the security of Indian marriage. No wonder some of the men are nervous.
After the wedding, I drove to Jaipur, hopped a plane to Goa, and ended up in Bangalore. Considering my revelations in Rajasthan, the growing decadence I found in these bustling cities was no surprise. Valentine’s Day had been hyped like never before. Discos were packed, restaurants had special offers. Instead of a quiet day for lovers, like it is in the West, Valentine’s Day in India had turned into a Mardi Gras festival — complete with dancing in the streets. The notorious reactionary fundamentalists, Hindu Shiv Sena, had even gone about destroying shops and restaurants celebrating Valentine’s Day in Bombay, claiming it “went against Indian culture.”
The desperate desire for hedonism, the broadsides from conservative quarters and the general dizziness about the growing multinational presence all reminded me of Eastern Europe (as did the proliferation of McDonald’s, Pizza Huts and KFCs). But unlike Russia and Poland — whose relatively young cultures were systemically eroded by half a century of Communism — India, with its 5,000-year-old continuous cultural tradition, will probably put up quite a fight against any ideological revolution. Swimming pools, even in mod cities like Bangalore, have separate hours for women. Most single people I met didn’t have steady girlfriends. Casual sex, though titillating to most, is frowned upon. Girls in mini-skirts are a rare breed. More than eighty percent of marriages are arranged. And while sex is discussed more openly now, gays and transgendered people are on the fringe.
Still, the raffish club culture was bubbling beneath the surface. Some critics might argue that this shiny new lifestyle is no better than the repression that came before — that it is shallow, grotesquely empty. But to me, it was thrilling. In Bangalore, I went clubbing with my sister and her husband, both doctors who returned home after spending eight years in the States. “DJs, VJs and fashion designers are all the rage now,” said my sister over the acid jazz. “Doctors are considered boring.” My brother-in-law said more and more marriages are falling apart because of adultery. “It’s probably better,” he said. “Most of those marriages were pretty empty anyway.”
The women dancing around us wore halter tops and tight pants, their hair Wella-conditioned and their backs bared. Drinks were expensive, five dollars for a beer. I could have been in a club anywhere in the world.
I chatted up a sultry, Indian woman with a fake tattoo on her arm, and a sleeveless T-shirt with Dolce & Gabbana emblazoned across it. She said she wanted to be a model and work in Paris or Milan. “My parents understand I don’t want to grow up like them, just have an arranged marriage and settle down with some engineer or doctor,” she said. We seemed to be “connecting” (or at least I was) when the barman announced last call. It was only midnight. She had to get back to her parents. She was just nineteen.
I didn’t get laid in India this time either. And I didn’t care. For the first time in the thirteen years since I left India, I came to empathize with that vast, ancient nation again. Its confusion, its dizzying desire for experimentation and sexual freedom, struck a chord within me. The onslaught of the West is forcing India to stare its traditions in the face — and reevaluate them. India is realizing anew the dictates of the Vedas: There is no nature without illusion, there is no power without nature, and there is no illusion without power. Life and love are too illusory to take things very seriously.