The virgin monologues

Sentinels of righteousness would do well to dip into history, culture and of course reality before displaying a Talibanesque attitude to sexuality

Prasenjit Chowdhury Kolkata
The pillorying of the south Indian actor Khushboo for her call to "virginal" equality of the inverse kind, that is, men not virgins at their marriage should not expect virgin brides any longer, is the stuff of feminism. Several lawsuits dogging her, her being fined by a lower level judge, mobs in thousands throwing trash at her car demonstrate masculine ambivalence towards genital sex.

One is at risk to over-sexualise the institution of marriage, if one were to suggest that sex existed (or does exist) only within wedlock. And see things unfolding in Tamil Nadu, a state which had earlier banned a performance of Eve Ensler's celebrated theatre production, The Vagina Monologues which had the other metros in India going gaga. The state had allowed the police to nab hundreds of adult couples in Chennai's Anna Nagar Park and published their pictures in a local newspaper in the manner of "Most Wanted" mug shots. There are a good number of smut films coming from that state, and the pelvic jerks and jousts evidenced in many films from south India do women in Tamil Nadu no image uplift and make even the raunchiest of Hindi films look like candy floss. The abortion rate in Tamil Nadu's cities gives a lie to the vapour bath called "Indian culture" where women, it seems, take relish in premarital sex sans, certainly, the baggage of unwanted pregnancy.

According to an actress-turned-columnist, Chennai was the place where the first AIDS case was detected in 1986. If one does not set a great store by such accounts, she even recalled a survey that found maximum number of "extramarital sexual relationships" to take place in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Tamil Nadu has one of the highest rates of female foeticide and disparity in male-female literacy rates. How so disgraceful that one finds a glut of sexual crimes happening almost everyday in India, remaining unaddressed, while the heat is turned on a thing which is as trivial as a social reality! The reigning theme is surely safe sex, and with AIDS on the rampage, talking about moral abstinence is only a matter of good faith. How can the state prevent people from "doing" it other than merely saying "do it at your own risk"? Lifestyle education (a euphemism for sex education) in schools is a tortured aftermath of this social reality.

Is premarital sex really anathema to Indian culture? The acrobatics with which the Hindus spurred on their declining potency are the subject of an overrated text, Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra, the product of an effete, enervating, courtly culture in decline. It was written between the first and the fourth centuries AD and belongs to a tradition of courtly love which still holds traces of magic tribal lore. Thus the landmark manual of erotology lacks the sexual mysticism represented by Khajuraho and temples in Orissa, the Mahayana, Shaiva and Vaishnava cults.

The problem of backstreet abortions, the unmarried mother with her deprived child, and the furtive, unhealthy background of adolescent sexual behaviour in our midst should make us think. It was our grand old man of wisdom — Nirad C. Chaudhuri — who called the bluff of sexual hypocrisy in India in a scintillating chapter called "The Anodyne" in his book The Continent of Circe. He had to say that from the Rigveda down to the epics especially the Mahabharata one faces a consistent attitude towards sex life. It was based on a frank acceptance of the flesh, gusto in sensual pleasures, and "is marked by a total absence of any kind of forced continence, and of course, sense of guilt".

The vedic and epic gods are as lecherous as the Olympians, and Indra, the supreme warrior god, is the most reckless of
them all.

Chaudhuri was canny enough to point out that our great sages of yore did not practise "chastity of the Gandhian type". In the hermitages there was a good deal of dignified flirtation, and a certain amount of discreet adultery, in addition to the violent love at first sight between handsome princes and hermitage girls.

Is a Hindu mind automatically reticent? In his revulsion from sexual enjoyment (possibly for lack of an opportune moment or societal stricture) he took recourse to some very tortured psychological and physiological acrobatics because to give up lust was for him to turn his back on life itself: "So, even when he abandoned the world, his abnegation did not exclude an insidious and disguised lust. A peeping, pricking, tormenting naughty little thing had to keep up even the sadhu's faith
in spirituality". 

All societies are presented with a problem of how to channel and control the awakening sex drive of the young. When one gets to hear cant about the moral-immoral tangle to premarital sex, there lies an obvious irony as India derives its original name (Bharat) from the legendary Bharata who was born out of a premarital relationship between Shakuntala, a beautiful maiden, daughter of the sage Kanva, and Dushyanta a king. In the epic Mahabharata, Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, begets a son (Karna) from the sun before her marriage to Pandu. She suffers for the rest of her life for this transgression. Fearing condemnation from her family, she deserts the newborn baby who eventually grows up to become a great hero and an arch enemy of the Pandavas and participates in the Mahabharata (the great Indian) war against his own brothers.

Anthropologically speaking, premarital sex has survived in many tribal societies in India as elsewhere. The aboriginal Indian peoples, such as the Nagas, Bhotias, Santhals, Urao, Munda, Birhor, Kharia, Juang, Konds and Bhuiya have well developed meeting points of man-woman social intercourse before marriage. It existed in a vestigial form among the Muthuvan, and Paluyan of Cochin and the Hill Maria of Bastar. Premarital sexual institutions had varied from the highly organised communal dormitory (ghotul) of the Indian Muria indigenous tribe, to the casual visiting of girls' houses by boys among some groups in the Philippines. Missionaries were the first people to report on what they were inclined to term orgiastic living conditions in the Pacific Islands. One wrote, "The Devil has founded here seminaries of debauchery."

If we are going to scoff at the gross epicurism of the tribal kind, we're perhaps living in one of the most sexcitable times. It can add to our notion of forced continence when we read MK Gandhi's autobiography. Here he recalls an incident that occurred in 1885 when Gandhi was merely sixteen and had married for three years (does anyone from the urban gentry marry that young these days?). His wife Kasturba was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. On a particular fateful night, tired of massaging his father, a task taken over from him by his uncle, he went straight into the bedroom blinded by a carnal desire. That night his father died. He never came to forgive himself. Even fifteen years later, after the birth of his fifth child, he was yet to grapple with his sexual needs. He found mastering his sexual needs a daily struggle, like "walking on the sword's edge".

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose said as much in his autobiography, An Indian Pilgrim: "Perhaps the bitterest struggle I had with myself was in the domain of sex instinct." In order to suppress or sublimate the sex-instinct, he had to transform the demons of his mind — "the life of instinct and impulse" — into a higher spiritual plane. Both were extraordinary cases and both were fired by a loftier vision of life, though both of them found the primacy of sexual passion most difficult to conquer.

Sexual trends in India, according to statistics presented by Avishkaar, a counselling clinic in Mumbai, bare some alarming facts. The all India occurrence of STDs in the age group of 18 to 30 is as high as 48 to 52 per cent. Of this, approximately 60 per cent hail from the lower strata of society where there is a lack of awareness about safe sex. The figure is approximately 20 per cent among the middle and upper classes. Premarital sex among 18- to 20-year-olds in metros is as high as 65.6 per cent amongst girls and 63.3 amongst boys.

The obscurantist parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi and Dalit Panther must not ignore that there hangs a contemporary tale to all this. With the deferment of the marriageable age, premarital sex is not a subject of promiscuity but an area of reality. At a consensual level, it is a way of life and an outcome of the paradigmatic changes taking place in man-woman relationships in India. Premarital sex denotes more than being acquainted. It is not a question of generational depravity. Asking people not to have sex is no worse than forbidding them to shoot their mouths off. And the media must not act as an agent provocateur, understanding the sexual politics that lays so such importance on virginity in India. Khushboo might have inadvertently pointed to the culture of carnality that governed our pantheon of gods, our literature via Kalidasa, our lore and our mythical imaginings.  

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