Monday, February 09, 2009

Liberty is not libertinism

Whom does Pink Chaddi Brigade fight for?

(The picture on the right shows Sri Ram Sena thugs assaulting young men and women at Amnesia, a pub in Mangalore. It's surprising that skinny hoods gave men with gym-toned bodies with bulging biceps the hiding of their lives.)

How blithely we abuse the Right for anything and everything that offends those who promote and practice unrestrained libertinism and are appalled that morals and scruples are still valued by the vast majority of the people of India. It is of little or no consequence to the critics of the Right that most of them lack the intellectual wherewithal to define and qualify the object of their hate. Despite the absence of any real understanding of what the Right stands for, in contrast to the Left, it is fashionable to mock at the former even for those whom the latter holds in utter contempt.

Hence the outpouring of abuse and worse against the Right following the attack on a pub in Mangalore, evocatively named Amnesia, by a bunch of goons masquerading as soldiers of Sri Ram Sena on January 24. Strangely, most of the scathing criticism of the Right has been voiced by those whose dissolute lifestyle sets them firmly apart from conservatives as well as liberals. It is doubtful whether the Left, leave alone the Right, would endorse the enterprise undertaken by The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women to collect pink underwear, sneeringly referred to as ‘chaddis’, which will be sent to Pramod Muthalik and his hoodlums on Valentine’s Day this Thursday. There is nothing amusing about either this ‘creative’ protest or Union Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Choudhury’s call for a ‘pub bharo andolan’; both merely highlight the moral bankruptcy of a certain segment of our urban society which seeks to impose on India the trailer park ‘culture’ that permeates every aspect of their lives.

The issue really isn’t one of culture and tradition, which are far too complex for those who look askance at responsible behaviour to comprehend, but the manner in which they view others who may refuse to embrace or applaud their lifestyle. It is also to do with perverse notions of ‘modernism’ and assertion of perverted ‘modernity’. For instance, The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women — this Facebook group also has men as its members — would consider women who don’t consume alcoholic beverages or smoke cigarettes, wear saris and are not necessarily long-suffering wives who spend their lives as home-makers but in building successful careers, as ‘backward’.

They would view working women who travel in over-crowded buses and commuter trains and return home in the evening too tired to contemplate a night out on the tiles, or those who contribute to the family kitty to keep the home fire burning and, therefore, cannot afford the luxury of scoffing exotic cocktails at pubs, as losers deserving of their pity. The women who scrub floors, wash clothes and clean dishes to eke out subsistence wages from which they save money to pay for their children’s school fees and books, and are regularly beaten black and blue by their husbands after they have had their fill of liquor at ‘pubs’ which cater to the underclass, simply do not matter and, hence, are not worthy of The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women’s attention.

There is also the aspect of duplicity, the double standards which are practiced by those who equate ‘pub culture’ and its attendant libertine self-indulgence with being ‘forward’ or ‘modern’. For example, a woman with the pallu of her sari firmly placed over her head will be sneered at as not only ‘backward’ but also a ‘conservative’ who is preventing society from moving ‘forward’. But a woman forced to clad herself in an all-enveloping burqa will be seen as being true to her ‘faith’ and ‘culture’, which only underscores the amazing ignorance of those who do the tagging.

Who is to tell The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women, and their guardian angel Renuka Choudhury, that a vegetarian and a teetotaller, whether a man or a woman, who finds ‘pub culture’ abhorrent and distasteful, or those who reject conspicuous consumption since it clashes with their middle class values, can also be ‘forward’ and ‘modern’ in their personal lives?

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar did not give up his sacred thread nor did he get rid of the tuft of hair that denoted his caste; he wore a short Bengali peasant’s dhuti and used a coarse cotton chaador to cover his torso. He was a scholar of Sanskrit who was barely able to make ends meet, leave alone indulge in the smallest of luxuries. Such a person would be an object of ridicule and worse for The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women, especially the male members of the group who would burst into derisive laughter. That’s understandable. For those busy collecting pink chaddis would be blissfully ignorant of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s pioneering role in championing women’s emancipation and promoting widow remarriage. Nor would they know about Raja Ram Mohun Roy who led a remarkable campaign for social reform without abandoning culture and tradition: The Brahmo Samaj was — and remains — grounded in India’s civilisational identity and cultural ethos while repudiating aberrations and excesses of faith.

A last point that merits elaboration is the disdain which the pink chaddi brigade and charlatans who pose as emancipators of women and ostensibly believe that emancipation lies in sipping Bacardi or chasing whiskey while blowing smoke rings have for local community sensitivities, which are often casually referred to as local culture and tradition. Just because lip-locking or similar public display of carnal attraction (which is not to be confused with love) raises no eyebrows in the West does not mean the East must ape the mating game. It is immaterial whether individuals are comfortable with licentious behaviour in front of others. What is material and important is whether those around the individuals — in a street, a park, a cafĂ© or a restaurant — are comfortable with it; if they feel discomfited or outraged, then their sensitivities must over-ride the presumed right to make a spectacle of yourself in public.

None of this is in defence of Pramod Muthalik’s hooliganism. But to oppose misplaced and vulgar vigilantism is not to support the obnoxious celebration of ‘pub culture’. Liberty, after all, is not about libertinism nor is modernism to be confused with libertarianism. By idolising deracinated men and women who have scant regard for moral values and even less respect for ethical rectitude, we are promoting everything that is antithetical to our culture, our tradition. There really is no need to fashion our lifestyle after Sex and the City. But if informed — or should it be ill-informed? — adults elect to do so, it is their choice and they are welcome to it. Of course, provided they do not seek to impose it on others or demand approval, acceptance and applause.

(Coffee Break, The Pioneer, February 8, 2009.)