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Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza

Immorality Play


April 19, 2003

Three weeks ago, I spent a morning at the Sun Temple in Konark, Orissa. This is a spectacular piece of Indian history, even more magnificent than the gorgeous Sun Temple at the other end of the country, in Modhera, Gujarat. The carving is lush and precise, the lines elegant and imposing, and the overall effect inspires awe.

But of course, the government-approved guide we hired paid only perfunctory attention to such Sun Temple aspects as history and lines. At every turn, he directed our gaze to the one feature of the temple that really needs no such direction, because you can see it all over: its erotic sculptures. From the medallions in the large chariot wheels that have become the symbol of Orissa, to a larger-than-life vision of love high on one face; from gentle but definitely sexual caresses to scenes explicit enough for a live sex show -- this edifice has it all. In abundance. In a fabulous celebration of lust, love and full-blooded life; a soaring tribute to the joys of being woman and man.

So I didn't mind the guide nudging us, pointing here and there, whispering gratingly in my ear.

Oddly, Konark came to mind when I heard of the gang who defaced and tore up a large Levi's hoarding in Mahim. It was immoral, they said. This was an ad for a new line of low-waisted Levi's jeans. It featured a line-up of shapely women, each wearing the jeans, a flesh-coloured bra and nothing else. Designed to catch your eye, of course, and eminently successful at doing so. But to a number of people, clearly offensive and immoral.

I should say here, apparently the male counterpart to this ad wasn't immoral. It features a line-up of shapely men, each wearing the low jeans and nothing else. Also designed to catch your eye, also successful at doing so. But yes: apparently that one did not offend.

Fine, so I don't want to get into arguments about whether a largely uncovered woman is more, or less, or just as immoral/sexy/offensive as a largely uncovered man. I can see that some do indeed find the picture of the women immoral, so let's leave it there. What gets me to begin with is this idea of morality.

Take a look at the questions that crop up with this Levi's hoarding episode alone. Why is nobody heading out to Konark to deface and tear down that temple? After all, what's on its walls is infinitely more explicit -- yes, a great deal more sensual and erotic too -- than the Levi's ad. How did we progress from carving, and admiring, the glorious spectacle on those temple walls to the idea that a picture of several lovely women is immoral? (If "progress" is the word I want to use here).

But leave aside even that. With womanly bodies in particular, I know morality is firmly in the eye of the beholder. (Sometimes I wonder if I mean "beholden" there, but never mind). So let's ask: is it moral to deface and damage, because you find it immoral, something that belongs to someone else? Is it ever moral, in any circumstances, to vandalise? Is it moral to assume that your morals are everyone else's, or that you can thrust them down everyone else's cleavage? What is this morality, or immorality, anyway?

For the reasons implied in all these questions, the word "morality" has always troubled me. The idea itself troubles me. Can I be so sure that what I believe to be moral sits well with you?

Get out of here, you're saying, this dude's making mountains out of pairs of flesh-coloured-bra-encased molehills. Actually, no. What I'm saying is, your morals are not hers over there are not mine. So we might all be better off if we left morality out of our various arguments.

I was horrified by the looting of Baghdad's priceless historical heritage, not least because it is also my heritage. I was also horrified by the invasion that made that looting possible: the suffering the bombs and bullets brought to Iraq's people, the Bush-Blair hypocrisies that writers from P Sainath to Robert Fisk to Noam Chomsky have commented on more lucidly than I can. But then the man the invasion went after spent years murdering dissidents, used ghastly weapons on his own people. Not that using them on other people would have been excusable.

Is there morality anywhere in here? To me, no. Yet you can find very righteous people supporting the invasion of Iraq. You can find moral paragons standing up for Saddam. (I don't know of anyone defending the museum loot-fest, though who knows?) So who's right?

Move to Afghanistan. Over two decades, a regime of bigots did everything in its power to destroy that nation. They too murdered opponents. Treated women miserably. Launched an obscene assault on ancient statues of Buddha. Connived with the madman who launched terror via screaming airliners into New York. The final obscenity: they did all this in the name of religion. So what's moral?

Terror, somebody said? From the WTC to Godhra, the LTTE to Kashmir and Kandahar, it was on display in Churchgate station this week. Gruesome pictures and captions that asked, if rhetorically, "What ideology can justify all this?" Precisely: none can, and therefore these ideologies are repulsive. Moral outrage over all this horror and terror. You feel it, I feel it.

Yet I look at the Churchgate display and try to decide why there's not one picture, or even a mention, of the terror in Gujarat through months of 2002. Or the terror in Delhi in 1984. Or the terror in Mumbai ten years ago, apart from the bomb explosions in March '93. Not one.

What ideology can justify these very careful omissions? None can. Which is why I find the ideology that does omit them repulsive; just as repulsive as the ideologies it disparages. I find it immoral. But do you agree? What's moral, then?

In everything I've listed above, there are facets that have inspired righteous outrage in one or the other quarter. Meaning there are people who have found each of these things immoral (besides those who found them morally justified). Yet they happened anyway. The ideologies find support anyway. What price morality?

Don't answer that. Instead, come walk with me through Dharavi sometime. Watch your head in this dank and narrow lane, because you must step over -- yes, over -- the little kid who has squatted here for a crap. Don't pay attention to that family whose front door opens over the putrid mess in an open drain, so putrid that you quail from looking at it. Be sure to dodge those naked electric wires that snake past at eye level, ready to zap the unwary passerby. And remind yourself that there are millions in Mumbai alone who live worse than this. They actually aspire to live in Dharavi.

Wander with me and wonder with me: what can morality even begin to mean when humans -- vast numbers of humans -- have to exist like this?

So throw away morality, I say. Take all these things for what they are, untouched by either the gloss or the blemish of moral meaning. Konark as the paean to life it is. Levi's ad as another advertising come-on, more successful than most. Terrorism as the political weapon every single ideology, every single political stripe, finds use for. Slum conditions as a mirror to us all.

Clearer that way. Your morality and mine? They only cloud things.

---

You can send your comments directly to me at
dilipd@rediff.co.in

Dilip D'Souza


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Number of User Comments: 35




Sub: writing... point amiss!!

A point that many of the readers seem to miss here is that a 'journalist' or a 'writer' doesn't write with an intention to tell ...


Posted by Rohini





Sub: Opinion

Sorry... I am making these comments even without reading the article. I bet this too has comparisons between Vajpayye and Saddam, Bush and Modi, Gujarat ...


Posted by Markk





Sub: Re immortality play

i would like to thank dilip for always writing thought-provoking articles and steering clear of rabble-rousing. more power to him! i have started visiting rediff ...


Posted by Ajay Devgun





Sub: tks, dilip!

rediff, pls post more such articles and many more from dilip. he is among the best u have. may he write for a long, long ...


Posted by anupreet





Sub: good one, dilip

yet another good one from dilip. thought-provoking, as usual. a little disturbing, as usual. eye-opening, as usual. hate-mail guaranteed from idealogues of various hues! Suneeta ...


Posted by Suneeta Kaul




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