Squeamishness about sex, desire's capacity to breach politically correct boundaries with libidinal force, sometimes makes bedfellows of ideological adversaries
People marry for many reasons—love, money, stability and respectability. Of these, the last reason is truly dodgy. What is respectability, but the weapon of conservatives and the excuse of liberals, in their contest to be cultural gatekeepers and rightful elites?
Marriage, family and the status of women, have long been a site of this contest.
Part of the British PR campaign for colonisation involved demonstrating that a culture with practices like Sati needed their civilising control. Elite Indians responded with campaigns for social reform. Education of women, widow remarriage, raising the age of marriage became some of the issues of the day. Historians have shown how, despite positive changes, these processes also made upper-caste women stand in for diverse women; that public acts like legal age of marriage provided symbolic respectability, while obscuring questions of consent inside marriage, making outsiders of sexuality and relationships, which were not heterosexual, monogamous and endogamous. Upper caste patriarchy shifted, but preserved its primacy.
Today, in the midst of similar arguments about redefining India and establishing rightful elites, questions of "our bitiyas"—not women, but daughters—persist (including once more raising the age of marriage, instead of discussing other rights and services). The Tanishq advertisement featuring a well-to-do inter-faith marriage, services this contest. Hence, it has right wingers ritualistically thrashing about crying love jihad and others declaring their inter-faith unions on
Everyone who crosses a border, does so against unease or opposition, and asserts their right to craft their own life-journey, away from norms. Yet, nothing in the world has only one meaning, so, as Bahujan thinkers have pointed out, inter-faith marriages rarely cross the boundary of caste. The inter-faith discussion, while important, forecloses discussion on caste. Relationships, a potent political force in themselves, recognised through social-change advertising, organise us into good consumer-citizens, who vote for buying Tanishq (beauty and value for money being now obscured), absolving the state of its law and order responsibility in the face of thuggishness.
The discussion once again hinges on which kind of marriage is worth respecting. More than maintaining the primacy of marriage, this upholds the idea of respectability. Yaniki, marriage, and by extension legal and social approval, retain the power to govern and validate our intimacies. It's not that ending marriage equals liberation. But, decentering marriage into simply one of many valid intimate choices empowers the world of private desires. It shifts the focus from respectability, to tougher articulations, of respect, relationship ethics, love, equality and a heterogenous love-sex-equality, not homogenous marriage-equality alone.
If something disrupted the respectability argument this week, it was the boudoir style staged honeymoon photos of a couple from Kerala, where they cavorted in the outdoors with sensual affection, fun, freedom, wrapped in bed sheets. They shared them on social media. Public response followed. Right wing trolls chose vulgar abuse. Liberal critics chose respectable disapproval, invoking soft-porn, exhibitionism (a charge never levelled at non-sexual social media performance) and the indecency implicit in sharing the explicit. Squeamishness about sex, desire's capacity to breach politically correct boundaries with libidinal force, sometimes makes bedfellows of ideological adversaries.
Tanishq withdrew its advertisement with programmatic haste. But the dancing in the sheets couple? They decided not to feed the respectability argument—not to take down their pictures, respond to trolls, or make police complaints. What's your political takeaway from that, this wedding season, frenz?
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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