India's youth caught between tradition and temptation

by AFP/Yasmeen Mohiuddin, Feb 16, 2009 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

New Delhi, February 15, 2009 - Indian lovebirds had reason to rejoice this Valentine's Day thanks to a recent court ruling that cleared a young married couple who were caught kissing in public of "obscene" behaviour.

But the verdict is unlikely to have much of an impact in a country that still squirms at public displays of affection and where even hand-holding can elicit awkward stares and snickers.

Indians still recall the uproar when American actor Richard Gere locked lips with Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness event in 2007, leading a judge to issue an arrest warrant against him.

The debate over what is appropriate social behaviour has intensified in recent weeks after several right-wing Hindu groups threatened to target unmarried couples and unleashed a tirade against "un-Indian" mores.

Although many people condemned such extreme reactions, they also criticised a growing "pub and mall culture," an indication that many Indians are uncomfortable with practices seen as culturally alien.

At the heart of this debate are the more than 422 million Indians aged under 35, many from the urban middle-class generation that embraced "Western" imports such as MTV and McDonald's but are reluctant to push the boundaries their parents stayed within.

Despite the popularity of Bollywood movies with sexually suggestive scenes, dating and common-law relationships, there is little chance of life imitating art when the sanctity of tradition, culture and morality are at stake.

"Bollywood has always been escapist," said Rashmi Bansal, the editor of youth magazine JAM.

"I think people have an internal antenna which tells them... this is a movie but this cannot happen in real life."

While JAM's core readership is comprised of young Indians with exposure to economic and political globalisation, Bansal said they are still most comfortable with soft consumerism that doesn't threaten long-held values.

"We're okay with adopting many things from the West, but there is a certain something called family values which means in a nutshell we should not drink, we should not date," said Bansal.

"Everything you do somehow still has a reference point about whether it's acceptable to your family."

Padma Govindan, founder of the Chennai-based Shakti Centre that promotes dialogue on gender and sexuality, agreed.

"Middle and upper-middle class in India really like being able to buy Nike sneakers and Louis Vuitton bags," she said.

"But what they don't like is that along with those consumable goods comes the idea that there could be a shift in values as well. That plays into this very deep-held schizophrenia and anxiety around sexuality in India," said Govindan.

Govindan wrote a weekly sex advice column in the New Indian Express daily until it was axed in January for being too risque. It still exists online, but the complaints it drew highlighted the limits of public discourse on traditionally taboo subjects.

Even so-called "liberal" Indians often draw the line at any promotion of non-heterosexual lifestyles.

Much of this discomfort with non-traditional family structures comes down to the pressure of living in villages and non-urban settings, said Anand Kumar, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"Seventy percent of India is still living in face-to-face communities, where anonymity is not possible," a world away from urban India "where people can have live-in relationships, gay or lesbian partnerships," he said.

Regardless of location and lifestyle though, Anand said all youth face an "acute pressure for continuity" in the face of globalisation.

"A lot of the publicly played-out conflicts of values, cultures, ideas and behaviours that we're seeing in India were the same things that were happening in America 30-40 years ago," said Govindan.

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