Page 2 of 3   <       >

Indians Divided on Kissing A Cultural Taboo Goodbye

In 1948, a militant Hindu who claimed to have once been a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member killed Mahatma Gandhi. The party has been banned from time to time, but recently it has come out strongly against all forms of violence, Madhav said, adding that there must be a way to voice opinions "while choosing the positive energy of globalization and sleeping through the bad elements."

Some civil society leaders and free speech advocates say the commotion over kissing is a distraction from the real issues.

"Where's the outrage when a woman is raped by her brother-in-law or when thousands of daughters of India are killed every year for an unpaid dowry?" asked Girija Vyas, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, who sat in her Delhi government office last week fielding calls from girls trying to escape abusive arranged marriages. "These protesters should come out when someone is raped."

"Domestic violence, bride burning and sex-selective abortion . . . are all still there in many Indian lives," Vyas said. "We should be opening the sky for Indian women and for India, not wasting energy when someone kisses a woman versus rapes her. These extremists are dividing society."

Critics contend that the hard-line nationalist parties are publicity hounds without a real commitment to an anti-globalization agenda. Jobless youths are exploited and turned into moral police, they say. Still, most critics agree there is a genuine debate in society over how India should redefine itself. The Bollywood film industry, which produces far more films than Hollywood, was once infamous for the often melodramatic and comical non-kiss. Moments before a swooning hero and heroine leaned in for the fairy-tale kiss, the camera would pan to scenes of a snowstorm in the Himalayas or colorful fields of flowers.

When Bollywood started losing viewers to Western films on cable, the metaphorical scenes were replaced with MTV-style bump-and-grind, along with actors wearing tight pants and proclaiming themselves "horny." Lately, some feel Bollywood has gone too far.

The world's largest democracy may have given mankind the Kama Sutra, but that guide to love-making and romance is specifically for married couples, said Pramod Navalkar, a 73-year-old regarded as the country's original culture cop and a former minister with Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu party.

"Public kissing is just not Indian," he has said repeatedly.

As India's economy has grown at breakneck speed, its people have redefined themselves. Many members of India's rising middle class have a relative living abroad, in England or the United States.

"But this is India, not England or America," Navalkar said. "India is different."

Even so, by next year more Indians will live in cities than ever before, and with that shift in population come hundreds of social changes. Changing India is flourishing next to unchanging India. Couples, many of them dating without their parent's approval in "love relationships," sometimes go to extreme lengths to cuddle even as they continue to get harassed.

"Everyone has constraints on us -- the police, the family," lamented Sanjeev Gagrae, 20, who was leaning on the leg of girlfriend Saloni, 18, under the shade of a tree at Safdarjung's Tomb, a towering red sandstone dome completed in 1754 and an ironic place for a cuddle in the shadow of India's centuries-old heritage.

<       2        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company