Kolkata: To a foreigner, India may seem to be a country obsessed with romance. What with the booming Bollywood film industry which tirelessly churns out tales of love and glory clothed in brilliant dance and action sequences, a history etched with ideal romantics like Laila-Majnu or the fact that the Taj Mahal has immortalised the love between king Shahjahan and queen Mumtaz. It is difficult to fathom how this country with a billion-plus population routinely gets red in the face at the slightest hint or mention of sex.
It therefore may have come as a shock to many when the ‘couple-friendly’ hospitality brand OYO announced that they are “extremely humbled to share that we observed a record 90.57% increase in Valentine’s Day bookings across India”. What does that say about India’s romantic culture?
“It reflects a deeply institutionalised hypocrisy in Indian society,” said M.K. Arjun, an Ayurvedic practitioner from Kerala. “Most of the time, seeking pleasure is treated as a taboo, a forbidden desire, or something that is morally demeaning.” He attributes India’s classic paradox to the application of ‘Victorian codes of behaviour regarding sex’ in a land famously known to be a hub of liberal sexual expressions in ancient times.
Remnants of our forward-thinking ancestors can be found in the erotic and often explicit architectural motifs etched on the walls of the temples of Khajuraho, in a number of Sanskrit poems and plays, and in the Kamasutra, an ancient Sanskrit scripture attributed to philosopher Vātsyāyana that is famed for illustrating 63 sexual positions. Regardless, sex has gone on to be regarded in the public psyche as an act intended only for reproduction.
“Sex is ideally the expression of love. The divide between ‘love’ and ‘sex’ is harming the art of lovemaking in India.” says sexologist Dr Deepak Arora, founder of Delhi-based Dr Arora’s Clinic. Commenting on India’s double standards on sex, he says, “Since our parents have not provided us with the necessary sexual education, we are driven to experience it ourselves. This has led to the other extreme of sex being denigrated to a physical act only with no emotional connect.”
Q, a film-maker whose 2009 documentary titled Love in India explored the complex web of contradictions that love and sex create in the conservative Indian society, places the onus of the rising conservatism squarely on the shift in Indian popular culture representation and television programming in the 90s. “From Saas Bahu serials to anchor-driven talk-shows (shouting matches), India is consuming impossible standards of patriarchal perfection, that leaves no space for any ‘other’,” he said. He says that the future is bleak for Indian romantics, “The Bengal Renaissance period, the independence period, and the mythical ancient India where Kamasutra was a common belief – these are specks of time against a history that is a plain patriarchal pyramid structure,” he adds.
Bisaka Laskar (48), sex worker and president of, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, India’s largest organisation of and for sex workers, says the hypocrisy around sex in India is at its ugliest in the lives of sex workers. “By my calculations, the highest percentage of our clients are married men. These men are happily married but sexually starved. A large population of them dabble in casual or incestuous sex which is an open secret. It is only when I stand in the open street for work, that these men can jeer and mock me for my profession.”
She says that patriarchy’s vision of a society, where women are secondary citizens with non-existent need for pleasure has also played a huge part in the vilification of her community: “All hell breaks loose when a woman has sex like a business transaction and money passes from the male to the female.”
There is the issue of the class divide as well. For the affluent section of society, finding privacy has not been as difficult as for those from the middle, lower-middle class or the downtrodden. “The rich and educated go to nightclubs and participate in free mingling. Where are the shame and stigma there?” asks Mahashweta Mukherjee, Durbar’s liaison officer.
For those from marginalised communities, the going has been tougher. Even as ancient sculptures and murals tells us about the acceptance of same-sex love in our so-called glory days, consensual homosexual activity was a crime in modern India until 2016. One of the major arguments against accepting homosexuality as “normal” has been that it does not lead to reproduction.
According to Shreya (she/they), “It’s been tough for people within the [LGBTQ] community to love out loud and proud for many years. We quite literally were threatened with being jailed until recently – people have and continue to disappear, get murdered, and so much more because of who they naturally are. In what world is that okay?”
Shreya, who is bisexual and works as a photographer in Mumbai, points out how the lack of sex education is exposing the country to heinous sexual offences and creating a population of angry, and confused youth. “By robbing people of the opportunity to get the sex education they deserve, and the autonomy over their own bodies that they could have achieved, we as a society are laying the path for humans who walk around filled with guilt/shame, with the trauma of an unplanned or forced pregnancy. The drawbacks are endless!”
Love’s language lost
In Arora’s opinion, seeing people purely as sexual beings is a sign of how repressed society is: “Words like na-mard place extraordinary pressure on a man’s sexual performance.” Loosely translated to “not manly enough”, na-mard is one of a large family of abuses or colloquial slangs that is linked to sexual activity. Many such words rub off heavily on the woman’s character and sexual behaviour that is eternally under strict societal surveillance.
Rayyan (she/they), a transfeminine content creator from Mumbai, says that the vicious forms of ‘otherisation’ practised by the Indian society are against the nature of humanity itself. “Living as a queer person in a traditionalist society, you start to nurture self-hate by believing what the society tells you about yourself. Your parents tell you that ‘hijra’ is a bad word, the British came and said that hijras are criminals, Bollywood is telling you that hijras are villains and child snatchers, Kapil Sharma is telling you that it is okay to laugh at a hijra person,” they say, adding that when accepting oneself is so difficult, finding love and commitment is too much of a challenge for many.
Mahashweta Mukherjee, the liaison officer of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, draws from her 24 years of experience working for the welfare and empowerment of sex workers in the infamous Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red light area located in North Kolkata. She cites surprisingly acceptable sexual digressions such as boudibaaji (a colloquial Bengali term defining the relationship between brother-in-law and sister-in-law) and the casual practice of swapping wives and girlfriends in nightclubs. She adds in a voice resonant with defiance, “There are crores of women living off this profession, there is a huge demand for their services. Sex workers are also responsible for the health and well-being of hundreds of migrant workers.”
Is it time to give the Sanskaari Indian a taste of the truth serum?
In the words of Shreya, “It’s about damn time that people in our country accept that this population is not ‘Bhagwan ki Den’ (gift from God). Log sex kar rahe hai (People are having sex), get over it!”
Sreemanti Sengupta is a Kolkata-based freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer.