The year was 2009 and I was in London for an official assignment. The month was May and everyone was enjoying the summer sunshine. Be it a daytime sojourn to St James’s Park or a night stroll through Piccadilly Circus, the most common thing to notice was couples busy in PDA (Public Display of Affection). They could be lip-locking, or be sprawled together on the green grass or sitting together and having a drink in between some kissing and hand-holding. For someone like me, who is used to seeing couples desperately looking for privacy behind bushes in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata or Lodhi Gardens in Delhi, this used to be quite a culture shock. My London friends were totally blasé to the PDA scenario in their city but my eyes popped out often.
But I didn’t know then a bigger shock was awaiting me. One night I got late at work and took a train at 11 pm. When the train stopped and the doors opened the compartment I stepped into was empty except for around six couples, all of whom were kissing. Yes, all were engrossed in PDA. My Indian eyes didn’t know which way to look so I looked down at my mobile and completed the ride.
Implications of PDA in India
Fast forward to 2019. This was a metro ride through the city of Kolkata. The compartment was crowded and a young couple stood near the entrance busy in touchy-feely romance. Obviously everyone was trying to catch a glimpse of that through sideways glances. Then it happened.
The girl landed a kiss on the boy’s lips. A pretty long one must say. Instantly an old gentleman protested saying that it was unbelievable that they dared to do something like that in the public transport, the mother of a kindergarten kid said she had to shut her daughter’s eyes and few other women kept telling the couple they were taking the Indian culture to the docks.
The boy tried to stand up for his girl but the atmosphere in the ac coupe started getting too heated for their own good.
A few sensible souls, who thought the couple should leave and not argue, considering public opinion was completely against them, managed to push them out of the train after a couple of stops. I felt a disaster had been averted. The situation was indeed getting out of hand and the couple could have ended up being slapped by the conscience keepers for their very public kiss.
PDA in India can turn dangerous
As tabulated in Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, PDA (Public Display of Affection) could be penalized for being an obscene act done in public.
Section 298A says:
Obscene acts and songs.—Whoever, to the annoyance of others —
(a) does any obscene act in any public place, or
(b) sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.
It’s rather vague since “obscene” is not rightly defined but it gives the moral police enough leeway to manipulate the law. Couples have been harassed by the police and public because of this section of IPC. There have been protests against this section too, but it still exists and in the end, the fact remains PDA can be termed illegal in India.
Acceptance of PDA is place-specific
Couples holding hands in public is quite the norm in India now. And even if people see high school kids in uniform holding hands and walking down the street, they do not flinch. A decade back this scene could have got the moral police into a tizzy. A quick hug is also acceptable or maybe a peck on the cheek. I saw a young couple sitting next to each other doing the same in a public bus, recently. People weren’t looking. But a liplock!! God help you it’s still a strict no-no.
But depends on the place where you choose to kiss. If you are in a nightclub or on the dance floor in a disco it’s just fine. But if things start going beyond a kiss the bouncers could go on high alert.
The thin line between PDA and harassment
A few years back on Valentine’s Day I could see from my balcony two boys involved in PDA with a girl. From where I was standing it looked like they were physically harassing the girl. They were picking her up by the waist, kissing her, feeling her and passing her on like a rag doll between the two of them. My mom got alarmed and asked me to go and check what was happening. When I did, the girl, a pretty drunk teenager, told me she was with her lover and I had no business to interfere. The boyfriend even threatened to call the police.
I backed out but I was still confused. If this was consensual PDA then what is harassment?
Like Bollywood movies have moved beyond the flowers and birds, Indians have also evolved in real life. PDA has become acceptable to a great extent but we aren’t a western country and culturally and psychologically we are different people. So there is still no clear definition of PDA as there isn’t of “obscenity”. We still don’t know where affection ends and salaciousness begins. In a scenario like this, it’s better to be safe than sorry.