A friend jokes about how much easier it is for him to be gay in India than in the U.S. In India, it is not uncommon to see two men demonstrating their affections for each other openly in public. Holding hands, hugging, entwining fingers, engaging in kitten play or riding pillion on a motorcycle wedged together like bread and butter. Are all these men gay? Who knows? Yet the same is not permissible for heterosexual couples.
Last year, walking down Camac Street, in an upscale neighborhood of Calcutta, I witnessed a disturbing incident. A man and a woman, probably in their early twenties, were walking ahead of me, laughing and joking, when the woman playfully reached out and grabbed her friend’s hand. They walked along, still talking and swinging their locked hands in a carefree manner, when a group of men, vendors who run little snack stalls that line the pavements, came charging. The men stopped short a few paces of the couple, and began to shout at them. “Bitch!” “Whore!” And a string of such epithets. The young couple released their hands and ran like their lives depended on it.
The couple had clearly violated an unspoken public code of moral decency. While it is perfectly acceptable for men to unzip and urinate just about everywhere and anywhere in India, in full public view, with no concern for anybody else’s sensibilities, it is lewd and offensive for a man and a woman to hold hands in public. Were this couple lovers or just friends? No one really knew. And it didn’t matter. All that mattered to the men who were standing there by the road, straining their necks and howling like dingoes about to attack a prey, was they were guarding public moral territory.
For me, the most unsettling aspect of this incident was how the rage was directed towards the woman. Why only the woman? What was it about this woman that was so threatening to the men? Was it in that she was the one who reached for the man’s hand and in doing so, exercised choice and free will which to the men was daunting? Or would the woman still be the “bitch” if the man had reached for her hand? Is there a potential “bitch” in every woman regardless of what she does or doesn’t do?My Story: Holding Hands