There's a stretch of four-lane divided highway along the shore in the Bombay suburb of Bandra. It is supposed to feed you on to the famous Bandra-Worli sealink, once the sealink is completed. For now, it is no more than one more way to speed into Bandra.
It is also occasionally used for events in which guys show off the capabilities, over an entire quarter mile, of their muscle cars. It is also frequently used by couples, who drive onto the edge and sit there, or on the seawall, finding some privacy in this very public city. Many couples, any time of day.
So one day not long ago, I'm tooling along at a fair clip in an autorickshaw, zipping past these couples. In the mirror, I can see the driver looking at them. I get the feeling his temperature is rising, but I put it down to the mirror's distortion. Suddenly it's no distortion.
Because he leans out and screams at them as we go: "Saale @#$%$#@! Line mein khada kar ke ek-ek ko goli se maar dena chahiye!" (Loose translation: "You bastards! We should line you up and shoot you dead one by one!") He looks ready to jump out and do it himself. He is loud enough that at least a few of the couples turn to see what the fuss is about.
Startled by this venom, I ask why he feels it. Out comes a long angry twisted flood of words, hard to follow but I do catch such familiar suspects as "sanskriti" and "parampara" (culture, traditions, you know). He believes these couples, cooing lovingly as they are, hugging and necking as they are, are doing immoral things and thus spitting on his culture.
Naturally that assault must be fought with other apparent hallmarks of his culture: vile abuse and death threats. Naturally I'm not supposed to ask how he himself came to be -- how a billion-plus Indians came to be, truth be told -- if not by some degree of hugging and necking. Maybe even cooing.
But I do ask.
I don't get very far, of course. He waves off my question, saying: ""Woh sab chhodo! Yeh log bahut galat kaam kar rahe hain! Maar dena chahiye saalon ko!" ("Forget all that! These people are doing very bad things! They should be killed, the bastards!")
It's not the first time I think morality is like terrorism: a word so coloured by who's saying it and what their outlook is on life, that it is effectively meaningless. Take me. If pressed, I'd say that it's hard to imagine a more vile thing -- short of actually doing the deed -- than threatening to kill innocent people, even the sitting-on-a-roadside-necking kind of people. Yet this is precisely how this driver wants to shore up his own idea of morality. I realise there's a certain emptiness to his threat. Yet what makes him make it at all?
This is why morality means nothing. Your immorality is my fondness for my lover; my immorality is your threat of extreme violence. So I say, spare me the morality stuff.
Two recent Bombay episodes have had me muttering that again.
First, the Maharashtra government's sudden move against dance bars. These are degenerate places, they tell us, that corrupt 'our young boys.' Girls dancing in such bars are doing something depraved, and this immorality has got to be stopped. Therefore the government, that always excellent arbiter of our morality, has decided to shut down these bars.
Bar Dancers: Their side of the story
I met some of these dancers recently. Ordinary young women, earning a living with some very hard work. What do they fear will happen as a result of this government move? They and some 75,000 other dancer girls -- most of them poor -- stand to lose their only source of income. If it happens, most of them will end up in even greater poverty. "Some of us," they told me, "will be pushed into prostitution. Is that what the government wants?"
Tell me about morality then. No, tell me about morality now.
Second, the rape of a college student by a policeman on Marine Drive. If the crime was not disgusting by itself, some subsequent reactions have been putrid.
An entire political party has advised women not to wear provocative clothing that might inflame manly passions and 'invite' rape. Put that down to the known irrationality of the party, you say? But there are people who actually go along with this logic.
One young man tells the press that 'sixty per cent of the time it is how women dress that is the cause' for rape (I want to know how he came up with that figure); and such dress, of course, is 'not a part of our culture and society' (is rape a part of our culture and society?). A young woman, a student herself, allows that the girl was 'not provocatively dressed,' though 'girls nowadays wear revealing clothes to impress their friends.' But somewhere in between is her real wisdom: she actually suggests that the victim was 'wrong to have been walking on Marine Drive with boys.'
Oh, the enormous immorality of walking with boys!
And oh, how should I square that with my feelings on reading this? That there is obscenity in the very suggestion that a woman's clothes causes rape, in the very idea that it was her stroll with some boys that led to her rape.
I suppose I should be glad that autorickshaws are not allowed into South Bombay. Or who knows, my driver might have wanted to shoot the girl for walking with boys.
And now, I want to find a convenient place to go commit the terribly immoral act of throwing up.
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Death Ends Fun: