Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

Wine, Women, Valentine

Wine, Women, Valentine

While the Mangalore attacks were exclusively of Hindu right-wing provenance, the underlying prejudices that enable these to happen, or condone them ex-post facto, are widely shared


Tradition is a story that every generation fabricates anew. Each time a past is recreated, it serves a purpose. Cultures are ways of being that evolve in the face of tradition.   

To say that there is an Indian culture that must be protected from the influences of 'Westernisation' or 'negative modernity', or that certain kinds of cultures must 'stop' (Indian Minister Ramadoss recently said, "pub culture must stop") is fundamentally wrong because imposing values upon others is not democracy but dictatorship.

The recent physical and verbal attacks on pub-going women and men in India are part of a larger narrative of moral policing that requires analysis. While the Mangalore attacks were exclusively of Hindu right-wing provenance, the underlying prejudices around wine, women and Valentine that enable it to happen, or condone it ex-post facto, are widely shared.  

The controversy over 'pub culture' is ultimately about an inability to trust one's own judgments over others. Why seek to protect women from making their choices about their lifestyle? Why seek to protect young people (both men and women) from going out and mingling? This is because the 'moral police' believe that : first, their prescribed ways of behaviour are not likely to prevail by consent alone because people will not like them or because they will not make rational sense to others, and second, because they do not trust the capability or conscience of others in how they will lead their lives. As a result, they resort to coercion, and in the case of Mangalore, outright violence against young women and men who choose to be different from them. 

The mere word 'drinking' in Indian popular imagination immediately conjures images of drunken disorderliness and lecherous behaviour after copious imbibing of spirits. The idea that someone could peaceably enjoy a drink with friends and music is exotic (permissive ancients are exotic anyway and the tribals and 'lower' castes who drink can't help being who they are). For the guardians of aggregate morality, men taking alcohol is bad enough -- the writer Vikram Seth was slated in the regional press after he appeared on stage sipping wine at a session of the Jaipur Literature festival -- but women taking alcohol is unimaginably perverted.  

Women and alcohol appear together generally in three kinds of Indian contexts -- one, the 'fallen' brothel woman who may knowingly drink, two, the suffering wife of an alcoholic husband who tolerates alcohol and may be forced to sip it (Meena Kumari  in the famous movie Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam says to her wayward husband that she has even drunk alcohol because of him and so made the ultimate sacrifice that a wife can make), and three, the righteous female activists who rail against alcohol shops that corrupt society (often justifiably, such as in 1990s when women in Andhra Pradesh protested against their husbands spending entire household incomes on toddy). Add to these three contexts, the special one of Bollywood heroines drinking alcohol on screen. If the woman in a film drinks and she is not villainous, she will be reformed and shown the error of her ways after finding the love of a man; either she will be an Indian resident abroad or an unsuspecting innocent who has taken alcohol without knowing what it is ('Cognac is not alcohol' was the refrain to which one diva drank on screen). 

Against this, imagine women with men and money going out to a pub and consuming alcohol. For the zealots, it is hell. The idea that women can choose to have lifestyles as diverse as those of men is not acceptable to the moderates either. This is because it upsets hierarchies. What begins with a vote leads to a job, then to the possibility of love-marriages and divorce, co-habitation without marriage, maybe a refusal to have children, and then to social catastrophe. That's the fear of the 'good folk' (including 'liberal' men and women) who would like women to study but mostly to earn, earn but not work late, dress 'decently' to avoid male lust, have arranged marriages (or the trendy semi-arranged ones where the lover is chosen by family but some courtship thereafter ensues, in any case the man thus chosen is always older, taller, and earns more), give up jobs to bring up children, economise at home, and for entertainment: if bright, read pulp fiction, if rich, morph into a socialite, if neither, watch cable TV serials pioneered by Ekta Kapoor which are a rage nationally, and depict the women soaking in makeup and jewellery. 

On average -- despite some progress in some urban quarters -- women in India have an undoubtedly inferior existence compared to men. Progress is made everyday, statistics improve on female literacy, mortality, labour force participation; women come into prominence in public life and an earlier generation of women heroes are recovered from obscurity. Nonetheless, women having an education largely does not mean that they are able to choose their life partners or their lifestyles (educated women still have to face arranged marriages and doubledays), or even want to do so. They are respected only so long as they adhere to certain restrictive norms. Leave alone going to pubs, smoking, drinking or being intimate with men, how many widows manage to remarry if they want to? How many single working women feel secure living alone? How many women inherit or own property? How many women are harassed every day within the household and outside? The laws, even when they exist to protect the rights of women, in practice often don't lead to justice in the face of a nexus between law makers and law enforcers who share similar gender prejudices. Moreover, even the letter of the law is seeped in patriarchal assumptions about the provider and protected roles of men and women respectively - else why have an age of marriage that is 21 years for men but 18 for women?  

Amorous expression on St. Valentine's Day is a perfect symbolic target for the amorphous but endangered 'culture'. For the moral police, February 14th is a celebration that is new to India, and foreign, western, perverse. They threaten that couples seen together will be forcibly married. This leads to hilarious possibilities: should gay couples and lovers facing parental or societal opposition to their marriages hang around hoping to be married off? Some youngsters have wondered if their being below the legal marriage age not make the Sri Ram Sene guilty of breaking the law? This shows both a ridiculous immaturity in understanding intimacy and an idiotic faith in the institution of marriage. Come Saturday, these merchants of morality will go about touting the no-refund, no-exchange package deal of marriage, sex, love (strictly in that order); chase lovers, burn cards with hearts on them, beat up people. What is at stake is not 'our cultural values' but the 'value and culture of a democracy'. A much-publicized internet group formed on Facebook says it will give the moral brigade pink underwear (setting off retaliatory campaigns to return the compliments with pink sarees and then back again pink condoms) -- such a to-and-fro stunt protests are still relatively rare in India (where burning effigies is more standard). Yet, neither this trite symbolism nor the commercial overselling of Valentine's Day will help the earnest (albeit scheming) young individuals in small cities who want to experience love and life on their own terms. Lovers are not always martyrs, but the expanding moral brigade in India, would seem to leave them no choice.   

Moral policing is an insidious aspect of postcolonial states on the subcontinent. Being a democracy means commitment to freedom of expression, but it also involves a certain level of commitment to individualism. Democracies reconcile values: procedurally, by elections and elaborate governance mechanisms through which administrative power can operate, and substantially, by facilitating discussion and allowing for individuals to have their say in the system. When India became free at the proverbial stroke of midnight in 1947, there was a desire to define its purity in opposition to the moral decadence of the colonising West. The postcolonial entity India, created with a rupture and greeted with rapture, sought to create unity in diversity by appealing to a sense of civic morality springing from emergent nationalism. But this civic ethic in India did not evolve alongside the coming-into-being of democratic principles at the level of the nation-state (unlike England, for example, where the two grew together). Democracy in India had to shoulder a greater responsibility (and this it is still remarkable) in bringing people and their conflicting views together. To put it simply, unlike places where the relationship between people and state and between people and people co-evolved over long runs of time, in postcolonial India, the relationship between people and state had to itself be the basis for developing the relationship between people and people. In such a scenario, when people feel disappointed in the expectations of their hierarchical relationship with the state, they try to forcibly replicate their values in the civic domain, and the people to people relationship becomes the target of a violence which is legitimised by claims to preservation of culture. 

Yet, the outburst of the moral police is not a random spontaneous expression of emasculated men enraged by class-envy. It is a moment in the larger scheme of things. The middle path of the middle classes may have meandered off-course by the desires of seductive capitalism, especially following on from 1991 and the heady 'opening up' of the economy. Along with economic liberalisation, there has been a corresponding consensus in large parts of the political mainstream regarding the need for private enterprise, deregulation, competitiveness, and so on. In this political climate, the social domain has become the grounds for differentiation between the mainstream parties. Often, the mall is an incontestable destination for the successful Indian; no political party would earnestly oppose an unending consumption of goods. What will differentiate them then? Precisely their stance on social issues. By rallying people around 'moral values' -- that have to do with surface modernity: what we wear, what we eat, where we go for entertainment -- as opposed to a substantive modernity: how we deal with unequal hierarchies, what are the rights of those most trammelled upon, how aware are we of goings-on in the wider world -- such self-styled vigilantes can create disaffected psyches that could become easy vote-banks upon alignment with some bigger party once the media attention is gained. So these spectacles of vigilantism are coordinated and filmed without fail when the intent is to gain political mileage.  

Moral policing in India is a mix of criminal hooliganism, gender hypocrisy, and political opportunism. At the time of new year in 2008, women in Mumbai were punched and had their clothes torn off by hooligans, every so often newspapers in India carry reports of revengeful acid attacks on women, women with men are chased and assaulted for taking alcohol or going to a pub, working women are shot dead in metropolitan cities when out late, couples are threatened on Valentine's day, women, in particular, with infamy -- is this the image of a democracy? Politicians choose to lament the loss of Indian culture when women drink alcohol, yet when did groups of drunken women drive by shooting people or throwing glass bottles at them (something that has been easy to find men doing in cities)?  

Moral policing is also about reserving certain codes of behaviour for certain actors. It is not only women but a certain view of 'femininity' that the moral brigade cherish to the point of violence. A respectably feminine woman whose choices reflect the approval of those around her, who grooms herself to be a good wife and mother and whose sexuality exists to please her owner (read husband, hence change of surname) alone, is the ideal. Women who live for themselves, who do not conform to the ideal, or men who are not 'masculine' enough and are with such women or those who condone their behaviour are seen as illegitimate subjects of the state and a threat to society. They are a threat because their actions can have a demonstration effect on others; in such a situation the norm would itself require an explanation. It is much simpler to appeal to tradition and condemn a suitably adjectivised (western/perverted/foreign/ debilitating/dangerous) modernity.  

Certain clarifications are in order, let us take the argument about the problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption -- health effects, public order problems, motivational issues. These are the effects of alcoholism, not of social drinking as entertainment. To make these points, as several Indian politicians have done, at this particular juncture of events, betrays an unease that is not about health and alcohol alone but about gender and alcohol. However, being in the public eye, it is easier to be a hypocrite professing health concerns than to genuinely debate the underlying discomfort that both men and women have when they see others making the choices that they personally cannot agree with. 

As for the plaint that women are objectified by such modes of existence (going to pubs, wearing trendy clothes), it should be clear that the commercialism and consumerism that leads to a fulfilment of the capitalist dream across ever larger parts of the globe today, does not commodify women alone. It commodifies the human body and translates our desires into objects that refer to other objects in turn. Moral policing of a woman's right to entertain herself is no way of asserting an unease with the vanishing dividing line between people and things. In a free and democratic set-up, the state can provide information on alternative modes of existence, but unless one's actions are verifiably causing a negative externality (imposing a cost on someone else), it cannot conservatively stack a 'public interest' veneer to the consequences of moral policing (as several Chief Ministers have publicly done). 

A toss for Ambumani Ramadoss (union health minister) who stated his ostensibly neutral discomfort with the pub-culture and Indian ethos disconnect only when the moral police were in action, and a cautious cheer for Renuka Choudhary's (union women and child development minister) 'Pub Bharo Andolan' (Fill the Pubs Campaign) which, at least as an immediate reaction of symbolic solidarity, is correct in principle, though it might not succeed as a strategy because of its potential to polarise. The multiplicity of legitimate and non-violent protest is essential to democracy and moral policing should be tackled not just in the political domain but also at the cultural level.  

The pub as a social site is not alien to any culture, including Indian culture; it merely takes different forms. The women and men at pubs this Valentine's Day could recall one of the most famous and beautiful Hindi verses entitled The Madhushala (The House of Wine, by Harivansh Rai Bachchan, published in 1935; incidentally a condemnatory Fatwa was also issued against this poem in Lucknow, India in 2008) which celebrates the curious wine of life itself.  

No human society has survived without its intoxicants. Neither has any flourished without a constant scrutiny of moral strictures. Consciousness is our heaviest burden as human beings.   

Dr Nitasha Kaul is a writer and academic based in London. She has authored books, articles, poetry and a novel on identity in various contexts.