Ahead of Valentine’s day, we look at why couples flock to parks and monuments in search of safe spaces in an oppressive society.
On the next page of this week’s Valentine’s Day special issue, you will find the weekly travel column – by yours truly – on Sunder Nursery. I won’t spoil that piece, but the reason we chose the sprawling park for an issue surrounding the theme of romance was because of its most prominent visitors: couples looking for safe spaces to share moments of love in a country where loving outside of wedlock is taboo.
This dislike of expressing love or affection is particularly curious when you look around at the things that make up desi culture. This is a country that’s known for its infamously romantic films with lines like, “Pyar soch samajh kar nahi kiya jata… bas ho jata hai” (”Love doesn’t happen by plan, it just happens”) and for songs with heart wrenching lyrics like, “Tujh mein rab dikhta hai” (“I see god in you”). Despite these dramatic and cheesy notions of love pervading our entertainment, being in a relationship in India is often no less than a game of high stakes.
For most students in college, inviting their significant other home is a hard proposition as well when living with family. Hotel rooms are often off-limits as well, due to financial constraints (and sometimes moral ones). That rules out almost any form of private safe spaces for young people to share moments of affection. This is exactly why parks and monuments such as Lodhi Gardens, Sunder Nursery, Humayun’s Tomb and more have become safe havens for young couples looking to catch a break from the rest of a deeply conservative country.
It is a socially acceptable convention in most liberal spaces around the world to indulge in public displays of affection that include holding hands, hugging, kissing and more – as a sign of affection. In India though, all of the above are taboo. Innocent acts of affection in the parks that are supposed to be safe havens for the young are still met with looks of disgust and in extreme cases, violent interventions on the behalf of prude strangers.
Online social spaces like Reddit are often full of such firsthand instances by young lovers looking to spend time together but facing harassment by strangers. Worse, there are instances of police officers using this atmosphere of oppression and fear surrounding young lovers to extort the youth for money. In a specific instance posted to the Reddit community r/tamilnadu last year, a police constable and a sub inspector tried to blackmail a couple for a ridiculous 10,000 rupees for a hug and a kiss. The couple later had to approach the collector of the district to apprehend the police officer behind this blackmailing. The officers were found to have been extorting couples for three years before finally being apprehended. The fact that the poster and his significant other had to appeal to government officials in the first place after losing 10,000 rupees is a big mark on the authorities. In addition, the young couple were also terrified of the prospect of having to testify against the police officer in court as this meant publicly disclosing their relationship to their families – another sign of the social stigma surrounding the idea of young people dating.
In the face of instances like these, it is no doubt that even the aforementioned “safe havens” aren’t truly safe. It creates a fear in the youth to even attempt to express any sort of affection – even if it’s simply holding hands with a significant other. This fear is after all exactly what this moral police attempts to create in an effort to control how consenting adults express love and affection between each other. There is no logical reason why sharing a kiss or a hug with someone you love should be more than just a simple gesture to show care. Often, the harassers cite preventing “western influences” as the reason behind their actions. It is interesting how expressing affection consensually is “western” and “bad” while Delhi is known as the “Rape capital” and India ranks as the 9th most dangerous country for women travellers.
Further, the case in Tamil Nadu involved a heterosexual couple. However, these parks are often also a safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community looking to find safe corners in the vast expanses of such parks. The general bigoted atmosphere throughout Indian society means that these quick, stolen moments of love and affection are often even more treasured. However, for members of the community, PDA is generally a much bigger risk due to the possibility of added persecution on the behalf of patriarchal bigots.
Looking out at the landscape of a country blitzing past population records while vehemently discouraging love and affection, one must wonder if in the end this story is not about love or hate but instead about control. This moral policing reeks of conservative, patriarchal ideals that still believe that a woman’s sexuality is to be controlled. It further seems to cling to hetero-normative sexist values where any form of affection is seen as dirty – especially if the consenting adults belong to the queer community. Because of course, being terrified of love and sex is how India became the most populated country in the world. What they do not seem to be able to comprehend is that humans are social animals and seek warmth as they run into each other’s arms. It is a shame that a country that claims to celebrate love is so terrible at providing its citizens the right to love.
This piece was first featured in our print newsletter. Look out for us the next time you’re on campus!
Read Also: DUB Travels: Silent Nights in Sunder Nursery