Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Private acts, public accusations

Greetings from Kolkata airport, which has made a late new entry rather high in my list of depressing, drab and desolate aiports around the world (closely rivalling Moscow, Coimbatore and Luton), with special mentions in the "confusing layout" and "excessive number of passport checks" categories. I would love to blog about Kolkata, but I've been here on a two day business trip that has allowed no time for sight seeing. I will just give a quick commendation for the absolutely superbly named Hotel Rockstar, which I passed on  my way in from the airport and which, frankly, deserves to become an international chain on the basis of the name alone.

I may not have seen much of Kolkata, but I did get to stay in the rather splendid Taj Bengal, which has rooms built around an enormous atrium like the world's most luxurious prison, and which pays attention to the details. Like the little "things to do" reminder note on my bed when I arrived, which included tips like "confirm your flights" and "take your prescribed medicine", but which kicked off with "have you called your family today?" This inspired a minor twinge of guilt as I reflected that it had been some days since I called anyone in my family (although I have introduced my mum to the joys of Skype). Sorry, mum.

The Taj Bengal: the most luxurious guilt trip in India

It's very Indian to find that a hotel takes it upon itsef to remind you to stay in contact with your nearest and dearest. It's impossible to overstate the importance of the family here and how assumptions about family relationships inform every social interaction. "Proper" family relationships are subject to public sanction that show themselves in ways that range from small and harmless (as per the Taj's chirpy note) to quite horrifying (such as the ritual of Sati - supposedly still practiced in places - whereby a widow is expected to throw herself onto her husband's funeral pyre).

Of course India is far from unique in imposing strict social (and sometimes legal) controls on matters that in the West would be considered private matters. But I wonder if anywhere else in the world has to deal quite so intensely with the conflicts that inevitably spring up between this and the values of a democratic, secular and liberal state. News just broke, for instance, that the Indian actress Nikhita Thukral has been suspended from making Kannada language films for three years after rumours circulated that she had caused the break up of a fellow actor's marriage by having an affair with him. The move has not gone uncriticised - anonymous members of the film industry are reported as describing it, rather mildly I think, as "unprofessional" - but the fact that this could happen at all highlights the yawning gulf that exists between what is considered acceptable censure of others' private lives in India and the UK.

Quite apart from the disproportionate blame attached to the woman in a case of alleged adultery (which is, I'm afraid, entirely unsurprising) and the apparently very shoddy ground on which Thukral has been tried and convicted by a faceless committee at the Kannada Film Producers' Association, the idea that such a private matter could lead to a formal, public ban is, for an outsider like me, incredible. It's not that Western film industries are incapable of shutting out individuals thought to have behaved improperly - from poor old Fatty Arbuckle to Lindsey Lohan, many people have found there are lines that cannot be crossed without retribution, even if they are only suspected of crossing them.

But a formal, public blacklisting is, by the standards I am used to, an extraordinarily rare thing. Even elected officials, for whom marital or sexual improprieties once spelled career death, have ceased to face such stringent condemnation for private matters in the UK (the US is a very different case in this regard, while until recently France, by contrast, seemed to take a kind of pride in the voracious appetites of Dominique Strauss-Kahn).

This very public judgement reflects the fact that in India, a strictly organised, hierarchical and family-focused society has combined with a working democracy to produce a rather fuzzy dividing line between the personal and the political, the private and the public. It seems to me to have more in common in this regards with the West in the 1950s - a time when social censure for personal indiscretions could still easily ruin lives. The question is whether the counter-culture that emerged immediately after that decade in the West will have its counterpart here. There are already signs - tentative gay pride marches, underground music scenes, an increasing number of young people who have money and access to the internet - that things are changing. But the forces of Indian conservatism remain strong.

I make no judgement about whether such social change is a good or bad thing. I don't condone the treatment of Thukral, but I recognise that traditional Indian values have long provided a source of strength and stability that has arguably been increasingly lacking in the West. I wonder, though, if India is ready for its own version of the "culture wars" - and what form they will take in the coming decades.

1 comment:

Kay in India said...

Even among the well educated upper class, there's a distinct double standard for men and women in India. Take bachelor parties for example--with the incoming horde of Eastern European sex workers, they seem to be catching on and becoming a part of 'tradition' among certain pockets of society. The same behavior will most definitely not be tolerated for women. While bachelorette parties are also catching on, they're mostly about drinking bellinis and talking about how much diamond and gold they've been given for the wedding.