It’s a match!
When moral police rule the roost, can online dating apps offer any respite?
Lily Tekseng Delhi
A few weeks ago, I saw a rather risqué picture of an old friend. He was in the arms of a man who was sparsely-haired but handsome in a soft, round sort of way. His back was bent backwards, his lips consumed in its entirety by the mouth of the man he was clinging to.
It would be silly to assume that this friend had unwittingly become the face of the Kiss of Love movement — a movement that brought thousands of people onto the streets of various cities across India to protest peacefully against the culture of moral policing that is on the rise in the country. The protesters kissed each other, sang old Bollywood songs about loving without fear, even as right-wing groups protested against the protest of love, and policemen thronged the rally in apprehension. The friend that I speak of has a knack for sensation and eyes for men, women and all things outside the accepted binary. More importantly, he is brave beyond what conventionality can approve of.
What is risqué is relative. A stylish gender-bender in Hauz Khas Village, a beautiful transwoman in Humayunpur village, an S&M meeting, a Congolese-Indian couple, two men kissing, two women kissing, an embrace, clasped hands, a couple on a date, having friends of the opposite sex, woman drinking, woman smoking, woman working late, woman-tenant returning home after 11 pm, premarital sex, ‘love marriage’, love, marriage outside the caste/community, female undergarments hanging from a laundry string, innocuous peeping bra straps, jeans, shorts, T-shirt, salwar kameez without dupatta — all of these are equally capable of shocking, surprising, and offending sensibilities. We live in a surreal social environment where a shadow may become suggestive pornography.
In such an oppressive environment, love becomes a radical act. To say that ‘I choose this person to love’ is to say that ‘I will not consider caste/jati, race, religion, 377, astrology, marriage contract, etc as primary when I make a very personal decision’. To chase love that is blind to what the self-proclaimed guardians of culture and caste enthusiasts call appropriate is to exercise agency. To love is to protest.
‘In such an oppressive environment, love becomes a radical act’
There has been talk about a silent sexual revolution in India for a while now. But it is too quiet even for a silent revolution yet too restlessness for nothing to actually be happening. A case can certainly be made of how people have always made space for love, even of the ‘unacceptable’ variety. Delhi still abounds with nooks and corners filled with lovers: behind the old tree in Lodhi garden, on the secluded bench in the deer park, in the ruins of the Sultanate and Mughal era monuments, one of the dinghy apartments on the periphery of the university campus in north Delhi.
Now one can add smartphones and the world they come with to the list: downloaded music, movies, pornography, Facebook and the awkward friendship requests to strangers, Instagram, Twitter, and even Tinder. There is a generational shift slowly unfurling. It is not only a divide between the Khap culture and the urban Indian culture, but also between the email generation and the Tinder/Grinder generation. The Kiss of Love movement, which was first launched online, reflects this energy of the younger, restless, ambitious India that lives as much online as it does offline.
“#17 was a Tinderboy who I swiped right on way back in September,” writes the female blogger of 50 Dates in Delhi (https://50datesindelhi.wordpress.com/about/). She continues, “but it is hard to bring the night to an end, and I want to touch him. Eventually, overwhelmed by how sweet he’s been, and amused by how respectful he’s being, I lean over and I kiss him. He doesn’t seem to mind at all.”
The blogger is a 30-something, single working woman in Delhi who is also broke, nonetheless, hopeful of finding someone she likes even if that means going through a long process of hit and trial. This excerpt is a relatively happy one, where she is not theorising on the problems of a young Indian woman in the dating world. Similarly, there are numerous other female profiles across various online dating forums. Far from being blessed with financial abundance and the luxury of time to be a dedicated, full-time flaneur and libertine, most of the young women as well as men on these dating sites are young, hard-working, ambitious professionals/students negotiating their way with social cultures and practices in the country which can range from restrictive to hostile.
In the past few years, Shaadi.com and Bharatmatrimoney.com — websites that match people of the same caste/class/skin colour preference for marriage — have given way to dating sites. In the early days of Orkut and Facebook, people were anxious about having an online profile that gave away any information about themselves and often social media profiles would have a cringingly cute puppy, a flower or Katrina Kaif’s photograph as display pictures. Now, surprisingly, we mirror the global phenomenon of providing confessional and voluntary information on various social media channels available. On the surface, it may sound alarming but an interesting case for the phenomenon of self-fashioning among young Indians can be made, inherent in which are the diminishing taboos related to searching for a mate for intimacy rather than for purely matrimonial or procreational purposes.
S normally meets men through her social circle, i.e., friends of friends and work. However, she reserves Tinder for meeting women. Tinder is a hook-up site that can be downloaded for free on any smartphone. Often seen as the death of romance and valorisation of shallowness (since it uses only photographs as a source of judging a profile), in India however, Tinder transforms into an interesting space. Many of the profiles are very odd: profiles with photographs of various Hindu gods, profile owner’s wedding photos, even spouses and children. Tinder may be many things to a lot of people in the city (display of their religious beliefs?) but it functions as more than a hook-up site-- a dating site or even a site for meeting people outside of their social circles.
“I am more gay than straight,” S tells me, but it is something her family would never approve of. So are men the in-betweeners, I ask her. “It’s hard to meet women who like women in Delhi,” she tells me. Most dating sites have a highly unfavourable sex ratio and despite Tinder’s reputation internationally as a female-friendly and female abundant site, it is not the case here. This may be magnified for homosexual women since the L in the LGBTQ here is is almost invisible.
On the contrary, for homosexual men, the Internet is an extremely important space. “In the queer context, online channels have actually functioned as support systems, as nurturers of community and more importantly, as a relatively safer place to interact with other men/women,” says A, a queer art professional. “It allows for a free kind of intimacy (not love necessarily) and a space for a lifestyle that may not be otherwise legitimised or talked about.” Both Grinder and Planet Romeo are extensively used by the queer community.
There has been a proliferation of homegrown dating apps in recent times. There’s Thrill, Woo, DesiCrush, Truly Madly, and so on, which are available on both Android and iOS, besides Badoo and OK Cupid which are extensively used. There is also Fetlife for people with S&M preferences to meet and rendezvous under the quiet garb of respectability and domesticity.
The virtual world is the new frontier that allows for boundaries to be pushed in an extremely claustrophobic society with its countless Dos and Don’ts, a wild west with immense possibilities as much as dangers (social media is an excellent tool for propaganda). The concoction of love and technology is a potion for unrestrained love — not the kind of love potion that is forced on an unknowing victim, like a dowry induced companionship, but a radical kind of love.
Rife with mischief
India is going to be the youngest country by 2020. It is also one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones in the world. Internet access will increase tremendously. India anticipates. The air is rife with mischief of a new kind. There is the Love Jihad but there is also the Kiss of Love; gerontological tyranny and bigotry against the open-minded younger generations. The boundaries of mischief are being pushed and since there are so many boundaries, it may even be entertaining to push them.