There was a point in time when watching people getting intimate in a public place made me feel uncomfortable. Call it my ‘small-town upbringing’ or ‘middle-class values’, it did attract my attention. As someone who had recently landed in the capital, I was awestruck. Was it like this in the metros? Is this what my parents told me to keep away from when they asked me to maintain a distance from ‘bad things’? I didn’t know. The most I did about it was probably look away, being opinionated about them inside my head.
But then, this is only expected. If you are any other way (read supportive), people give you a look that they probably reserve for extra-terrestrials.
Our society doesn’t raise an eyebrow when watching actors cosying up onscreen, but if they see it around themselves, hackles are immediately raised. This hypocrisy has come to almost define our society and it is heart-breaking. Perhaps the root of it lies in what we like to pass off as ‘traditional’ thinking.
I warmed up to Public Display of Affection (PDA) and harmless necking once I had lived in Delhi for a while. Thankfully, my Bachelor’s in English helped me a lot to come to terms with the fact that it was, indeed, all right. An art degree opens up your mind in ways you didn’t think was possible. That said, arts or no arts, it never hurts to be a little accommodating and accepting towards your fellow humans. It is as much their space as it is yours.
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I’ve had my parents commenting on women dressing a certain way, or the fact that someone got married outside their religion. Given the kind of setup I come from, I was more than happy that they were even accepting of a love marriage (I did have one). When something objectionable (read steamy) came on TV, my parents changed the channel. They also talked about how people who were tattooed or wore revealing clothes were ‘not good.
What I once shrugged off as ‘it’s their opinion’, now receives a more balanced argument from me. I’ve learnt that turning a blind eye does not change opinion. Opinions change through debate and debate is good. Debate puts things on the table that you were probably too awkward to discuss in the first place.
But then even with all the so-called ‘progressive’ mentality that I consider myself equipped with, there are times when I do a double-take. Let me give you a personal example.
Once my wife and I went to a friend’s birthday bash. Like us, there were other married couples and some unmarried people too. Everything was going fine. Most of us were slightly inebriated. Once the clock struck midnight, the cake was cut and people cheered, a nice mood set in. Everyone was ‘happy high’, as the saying goes. While we were all talking to each other and being typically boisterous, someone nudged me. I turned and expected said couple to be maybe in the middle of some harmless necking.
Related reading: Are Indians ignorant about their bodies and intimacy?
But boy, was I wrong.
I don’t want to spend words and sentences recreating the scene. There was quite a bit of ‘action’, so to say. For the first few moments, all of us at the party exchanged looks, quietly smiling and nodding our heads to each other, showing that we understood, that we were ‘cool’. When things seemed to stretch into infinity, there was nothing to do except look away. The conversation soon turned from semi-loud to awkward to mumbling and finally, dead silence. It was as if time had come to a standstill. I am glad none of us called out, “Guys, get a room.” But yeah, things did get a little weird. Once they separated, things sort of went back on the original track. Although there was a shade of awkwardness, an unintended pause in the conversation never really disappeared after that.
So here’s my conundrum. How does one change an entire society, which has been brought up on absolutely zero physical display of intimacy? What is the appropriate way to react when an elder within your own family terms someone as ‘characterless’ because they were probably harmlessly hugging or kissing in public? While I see this as an expression of love, it does get a little awkward for me if it gets too much.
But then, how much is too much? I’d love to hear your views on it.