I’d like to shift to a slightly lighter topic for this essay. I feel compelled to write about a mental disposition I discovered about myself (and the society I hailed from) as I navigated those first few steps of my immigrant journey. I had a latent understanding of this mental disposition while growing up in India, but I had to really step out of that space to see how entrenched it was.
Now, I am of the opinion that most Indians, indeed most South Asians, have a genetic predisposition towards prudishness – not a physiological gene, mind you, but a cultural one. For the uninformed, the principle function of this gene is to induce steady amounts of caution to sterilize any thoughts of fun that the average South Asian brain might dare to consider. In and of itself the average South Asian brain is not particularly capable of envisioning what the rest of the world would consider fun, but even when it does (potentially through the resuscitation of dormant thoughts hitherto crushed by social moors), the prudishness gene will immediately kick in like a counterintuitive adrenaline gland.
This is possibly the reason why our most famous piece of erotica, the Kama Sutra, is a couple of thousand years old, probably took the same amount of time to write, and just as much time to hesitatingly plod its way into the homes and hearts of the denizens of the land. The illustrious authors would have had to wage monumental battles with the prudishness gene in order to just get a first draft going. Those ancient scholars of sexology, their minds wracked with contradictory voices, must have wondered, “But…we’re Indian. How on earth can we show ourselves having fun when making love?” It’s possibly also the reason why all the figures in the memorable book, making love in every position imaginable, look like they’re bored out of their fucking minds (pun, very sadly, intended). Subsequently, those who were interested in reading it must have had to wage further monumental battles with this repressive gene in order to summon up the courage to ask ancient book-sellers for a little look-see, while simultaneously dealing with the stern, judgmental stares that they would have received from the person next to them buying the latest version (circa 200 BC) of the best selling palm-leaf manuscript, 3000 Gods and You: Navigating the confusion to find inner peace and do away with joy.
Thus, the prudishness gene has been passed down the ages. In India, I just took it as a given. A mind-numbingly oppressive given. It was only when I came to America did I realize just how irritatingly ingrained it was. Couples in America kissed in public, sometimes slobbered all over each other in full view of passersby who barely gave them a second look, while I could barely hold hands with my partner in public. And I had heard that America was prudish compared to parts of Europe.
I lost my virginity to my then girlfriend in India when I was nineteen years old. It was a lovely twist of fate that I was dating a wonderful woman, a few years older and more experienced than I, with the ability to successfully suppress that infernal prudishness gene. Back home I was the youngest to lose it by many, many years. Most of my friends, male and female, lost their virginity when they married their college sweethearts, with flower-loss usually only confirmed when a baby popped out. I was a sensational exception to the astoundingly puritan norm. In Indian terms I was a spring chicken as far as forbidden-fruit-tasting was concerned.
I never accounted for just how average that was in my new home.
One evening, as I was hanging out with my new best friends from the campus antiwar movement, the topic eventually veered towards sex. Aided by the weed we were smoking, Mary-Rose and Anna almost burst out laughing when I told them that nineteen was ridiculously young to be losing one’s virginity. They had lost theirs at sixteen and seventeen respectively, which was apparently par for the course.
“What an old stick-in-the-mud you are Sri!” Mary-Rose jokingly said. “Do you really consider nineteen to be too young for sex?”
“Well, nineteen is super young in India.” I replied.
They giggled at what must have been a rather perplexed look on my face.
The contrast was stark. Here I was, the youngest by a mile among my group of friends in India to have lost their virginity, now relatively old in these new circles I was in. And I wasn’t exactly in a San Francisco commune or some other part of the world where free love was imagined to be the norm.
The prudishness however was not just regarding sex, though lord knows that desperately needed to be smashed. I could sense it weighing me down in general social relations too. The easy, free-flowing banter covering topics that would sometimes make me blush, the clothing styles (especially in the summer) that would make me blush even more, the open displays of physical affection, all had my prudishness gene working overtime.
I couldn’t just step out of it and go with the flow either. It wasn’t that simple. When you move from an environment where “love marriages” (you know, ones where you fall in love and then get married as opposed to having it arranged by your parents) or hugging your female friends in public are considered radical acts, the prudishness enmeshed in that thinking is not easy to let go off. To this day I still get squeamish when my partner kisses me in public.
This made me realize that there was something missing in the recent history of Indian society after independence from the (equally prudish) Brits.
A sexual revolution.
India needed something akin to the Roaring Twenties with free-flowing parties and the discarding of old Victorianesque norms, as well as the Swinging Sixties with flower power, one love, and the breaking down of social taboos, preferably with both eras rolled into one intense revolution that, many generations later, will ultimately be referred to as The Purge of Prudishness.
Many people would opine that what India needed was America’s industrial development, economic progress, and capitalist growth. I respectfully call bullshit on that. I saw that stuff and no one needed a system predicated on cold profit. But there was an openness in American culture I saw, though heavily commercialized, that was enormously appealing to me. Indeed, history informs us that cultural revolutions at different times – from the glorious Emma Goldman proudly proclaiming that a revolution without dancing was not a revolution worth having to the Flower Children’s countercultural empowerment during the Summer of Love – all played a huge role in that development. That was an American export that India could have really used.
And as I further reflected on it, I realized that it wasn’t necessary to get it as an export; Indian society didn’t have to go very far to get that. Being abroad made me dig deeper into the history of where I came from. I realized that there was a time, many, many years back, when India was one of the most sexually liberated societies in the world. Yes, India. Way before capitalism and colonialism. Carvings and stories of every permutation of sexual desire abounded everywhere. Sexuality was discussed in intimate detail in scriptures and studies. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect by any stretch of imagination. Some would have had it way better than others. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but what is clear is that sexuality wasn’t taboo. Some might call it hedonism or immorality. I realized it was a part of the human condition, to be engaged with and pursued in as healthy and liberating a way as possible. How I wish I had come to America from a land that could boast of a grand sexual liberation. How I wish I could have puffed my chest out with pride at having emerged from a society that possessed a vibrant and variegated sexuality. How I wish I could have done away with the awful prudishness gene.
Unfortunately some things are hard to get rid of, especially if one was socialized in my neck of the woods. I came from a place where my grandmother reprimanded me once for having hugged a female friend goodbye in my house. I had seen my father and mother hug – hug – once in my entire life. I have never ever seen them kiss and I doubt I ever will. The school I attended once punished a boy and girl in my 10th grade class for having started “an affair” instead of treating each other like “brother and sister” – an event precipitated by one of the school teachers spotting them at a nearby juice stand after school hours…holding hands. Most members of my family looked at marriage as a bond between two families as opposed to two individuals, and consequently proceeded to arrange them as such. Women who had gone through divorces were seen as not having worked hard enough on their marriages and further faced the advances of guys who thought they would sleep with anybody. Single women beyond the age of thirty were seen as having gone past their “sell-by date.” Older folk in my and my friends’ families looked at women who dated or hung out with guys on their own as having loose morals. Taking on an even more sinister turn, a woman’s “moral character” was still seen as important in cases of sexual assault, and wearing western clothing was one such marker of bad character. Despite not having to endure patriarchy and sexism, I was still seen as a lascivious philanderer because I had dated a grand total of three women before the age of twenty two (and no one knew that I lost my virginity at nineteen). As a teenager, my father sat with me while I watched Trading Places, an old Eddie Murphy movie, in order to fast-forward scenes with scantily clad women or crass-language in the dialogue. To this day I still get uncomfortable when there is anything mildly erotic, even heavy kissing, in a movie that I watch with my parents. My friends and I were so sexually repressed in high school that once, when my parents left on a trip, we spent the entire day in my house watching porn.
How far the dial had turned in India. How I wished it could turn again. Damn this repressed sexuality. Damn these conservative social moors. Damn this infernal prudishness gene. Away with them I say. A liberated sexuality, free from censure and exploitation, was a human right and I was made acutely aware of that as I journeyed through America. India indeed needed The Purge of Prudishness.
[Next up: Mandatory Shoestring Budgeting]