A kiss is still a kiss

Salil Tripathi attacks the lawyers and judges from 'Indian hick towns' who criticise Shilpa Shetty b

The millennium-old Sanskrit treatise about the art of love, Kama Sutra, describes many different ways in which a lover can kiss his beloved, including the bent kiss, the turned kiss, the straight kiss, and the clasping kiss. (The rest are best not named when impressionable children are around).

The Kama Sutra makes no mention of the sweeping tango motion, with which Richard Gere lunged at a surprised but clearly happy Shilpa Shetty, planting several kisses on her cheeks at an HIV-AIDS awareness rally in New Delhi late last month. While the audience cheered and whistled, clearly enjoying the performance, others weren't amused.

One curmudgeonly lawyer in Jaipur stomped off to a local court, arguing he was offended by that obscene act in public. Never mind the 3.5 million cases clogging the Indian court system - including nearly 500,000 pending over a decade - and never mind cases of forced marriage of children which took place in his state that very month; a local judge set a court date. He called the kiss "sexual and erotic"
and blamed Shetty for not doing anything to resist Gere.

Shetty acted like an innocent schoolgirl caught by her headmaster, saying that it was Gere who had kissed, but she hadn't kiss back; Gere too apologized after initially refusing to do so. She added, for good measure, that what Gere did was as per "his culture, not ours," and that they were merely re-enacting a scene from Gere's film, "Shall We Dance?"

Shall we stop this humbug first? Why this hand-wringing? After all, kissing is as much part of Indian culture as are the temples of Konarak and Khajuraho, where sculptures of kissing couples are probably the least erotic images on display. In Rajasthan alone the offended lawyer will find miniature paintings that reveal erotic love far more explicitly.

But why go that far in the past? In almost every Bollywood film, an actress bursting out of her skimpy, body-hugging costume cavorts in rain or shine, thrusting her torso and twisting her hips, leaving nothing to imagination, as she coils herself around around a male heartthrob. Now that kissing is not a taboo in Indian films, these days their lips – and not two roses – meet, accompanied by thunder and lightning.

The spoilsports aren't far behind: another lawyer, this time in Muzaffarpur, has sued stars Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan for kissing in a film called "Dhoom – 2". Another judge, seeking his 15 minutes of fame, has set a date later this month for the case to be heard. More cases are planned against Gere and Shetty.

Every ten years India goes through this paroxysm-like ritual, when an Indian actress kisses a foreign celebrity – or is kissed by one, as in Shetty's case – and the nation's honour is presumably besmirched. In 1980, Padmini Kolhapure, then an aspiring Bollywood star, couldn't resist Prince Charles and planted a kiss on his cheek, when he visited a studio where a blockbuster was being filmed. In 1993, Shabana Azmi, an actress and activist in the Vanessa Redgrave mold, kissed Nelson Mandela on his cheek. There was immediate criticism; this time Muslim leaders too joined in.

The clash between a rapidly urbanizing, modern India and the tradition-bound, insecure smaller town resurfaces periodically, and in a nation with a billion people, as the late author Nirad Chaudhuri observed, even exceptions run into millions.

Take a closer look at the curmudgeonly towns, and the picture becomes clearer: Muzaffarpur and Jaipur are relatively small towns in northern India, unable to adjust to rapid change. Satellite television is invading homes there, showing how men and women behave elsewhere in their own country. The towns too are expanding, and in that churning, tradition-minded men want to assert their authority and control their women. They are worried how their daughters would behave when out of sight, and they are horrified seeing Indian women in saris kissing foreign men in public. It must be stopped.

At heart, then, this reflects the deep-rooted misogyny. In 2005, Khushboo, another Indian actress, was criticized after she said that nothing is wrong with pre-marital sex provided it is safe, consensual and between adults, and no educated man should make virginity an issue. Tennis ace Sania Mirza appeared to have supported those remarks, but later backtracked. She didn't have a choice; the 20-year-old was already in hot water because a few Muslim leaders wanted to pass a fatwa against her for she played tennis wearing miniskirts. Mirza and Khushboo, like Azmi, are Muslims; that being Muslim women they are able to lead liberated lives is actually a triumph of Indian secularism.

The denial of sexuality – as something women can flaunt, as a natural act they enjoy – is the core of the complaint of the lawyers and judges from Indian hick towns. They will ignore horrendous abuses like rape, trafficking, dowry deaths, and female foeticide and female infanticide around them. But the moment an adult woman expresses her sexuality, she must be forced to repent. The backlash against Gere and Shetty has far less to do with maintaining Indian traditions and all to do with preserving male dominance.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times