Strap yourselves in, patient readers. Pull out your patience and worry it gently between your fingers, for this is not going to be a short post.
We’ll start with a little bit of personal anecdote, because it’s highly relevant to what I’ll go on to say. On Monday night, I went to see a gig in London. By fate’s cruel conspirations, I found myself committed to working from 8.30 a.m. the next day, on the other side of the city from where I actually live. The friend who accompanied me lives even further from where the gig was than I do, hence she was in as much of a hurry as I to leg it out. An early finish was swiftly undermined by our getting on the wrong branch of the Northern Line, rushing off the train and then my seeing a man rush frantically to the doors, holding up her card-holder as the train rushed off.
I persuaded her to catch the next train to the next stop and scour the platform. Gloriously, he was there, right at the other end. She received her card-holder, and he showed us alternative, quicker routes to reach our respective destinations. A young woman had given him a newspaper to read while he waited for us. As luck would have it, she turned out to be on our carriage when we boarded the next train, and was introduced to us. Already buzzing from a brilliant live music experience earlier, my friend and I were now steeped in gratitude at the kindness of strangers.
Once I reached my destination, I suddenly remembered that oh shit, I had absolutely no number for the friend I was meant to stay with (mobile or flat number!), and couldn’t even remember which residence she was staying in. A lady in the Residences Office narrowed it down to one residence, which I got lost trying to find, and had to seek directions to a second time, as the rain began. Trying not to panic, I began the laborious process of ringing and knocking, asking for my friend.
Fairly early on, a guy (Bangladeshi or Pakistani, I assumed) let me in and let me knock on doors inside the flat. He also said I could call him if I didn’t find my friend, before going back to his room. I had no luck, slipped out, and continued my mission. He and another guy from the flat came out a little later and were watching me go, ringing doorbells because my survival at work depended on it. As I drew back from another series of unanswered disappointments, they called me over. I went over and explained the situation: I had more doors to go, and my phone’s Internet wasn’t working. The thing that worried me, I explained, was that I needed to establish some sort of contact soon, or I wouldn’t be able to go home and would be stranded. The first guy let me use his Net briefly, and I waited in his room for my friend to ring. Just as I was giving up hope and resigning myself to sleeping there (he even offered me a pair of his shorts, which I put on and then whipped off shortly after!), the call came. I was blessedly saved from the awkwardness of depending on a total stranger.
Nonetheless, I was grateful (as you would be) for his help, which came without any of the attendant sleaze and creepiness that a young female might reasonably expect (especially when I found out he was Indian!). He insisted on walking me to my friend’s flat, and I thanked him. I eventually got to bed (though I didn’t sleep amazingly… my friend was up till 5 a.m.!) and the next day at work was actually pretty fun.
The evening was when things got interesting. I had considered, and then forgotten, the possibility of adding the Indian dude on Facebook, or even just messaging to say thanks. Maybe even proposing a hot drink or somesuch, if I was ever in the area. Then, I got this message:
I hope you remember me, It was quite strange the way we met each other last night, but now I cant stop thinking about you,
I know its looks strange, but it was not only mere coincidence,
Just want to meet you once, If you feel like meeting reply back
My best friend and boyfriend were slightly more amused and less dismayed at this than I. As my best friend put it: ‘Yeah, kinda saw that one coming.’
‘Bollywood.’ I wasn’t exactly blind to the decidedly filmi aspects of the message (lame, over-dramatised intensity, anyone?), but my friend’s repeated and direct invocation of Bollywood sealed it. My brain was sent spinning; I would have to write about this.
Bollywood is hugely influential in India. It impacts upon, and attempts to reflect, just about every aspect of Indian life. Even the soaps and adverts have been unable to resist copying it to some extent. The one area that Bollywood categorically does not shy away from – nay, adores – is romantic relationships. You could say that Bollywood tends very much to be an advert for marriage, and you’d be pretty much right.
The erasure of homosexuality and non-marriage-centred romantic relationships (such as cohabiting, polyamorous relationships or fuck-buddy hook-ups) is bad enough as it is. However, given how conservative and religiously-rooted Indian society is, it’s kind of deluded to expect to see such relationships in Bollywood anytime soon. I mean, ferChrissakes, the Delhi high court only decriminalised homosexuality about a week ago, and already they’re being challenged.
Bollywood’s depiction of romantic love isn’t exactly a good one at that. It fetishises the notion of ‘love at first sight,’ reducing love (which is a complex yet often surprisingly mundane feeling) to an entirely superficial experience, forged of insecurity, inexperience and hormones (read: sexual attraction). This superficiality is conveniently disguised and justified through spirituality (or the veneer of it anyway). You ‘love’ this person because you’re supposed to; because you’re destined to be together! Neat, innit?! God has decided it! Your meeting was not a mere coincidence… but destiny. So far, so teenage and stalkerish. The unfortunate reality of love being more difficult than that, and taking more work, is conveniently dealt with in other instances by having people who ‘grew up together’ suddenly fall for each other.
So, the subliminal messages say: marry your friends! Don’t go for a stranger unless it’s ‘fated’! Um, yeah. There’s a group on Facebook called ‘Bollywood gave me unrealistic expectations about desi men‘. However, I’d never before considered the broader impact that Bollywood has. Bollywood encourages women to develop ridiculous hopes about love, whilst effectively encouraging men to enjoy the deeply patriarchal status quo. In a culture where the segregation of the genders is commonplace and notions of gender are fixedly ‘traditional,’ it offers up to men a language of love with which to pursue women just as clueless and naive, whether their intentions incline towards love or not.
This isn’t a new scenario, of course; men telling women they love them in order to get sex or because they think it’s the right thing to say when they don’t actually KNOW what they want. Deceit on the part of the men, is of course, inexcusable. However – and here I’ll return to that message I received – what if there’s nothing else? What if men use that language because it’s the only language available to them?
The message made me a little angry at first. I actually said ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, he helped me out yesterday and now because of that he thinks he’s in LOVE with me?! I bet he just woke up, remembered our odd encounter and liked the look of my Facebook picture! If anything, it’s infatuation.’ Partly, my reaction was so strong because I have had Indian and Arab guys coming on really strong like that, more than once. It is absolutely not appealing; I actually find it insulting and clichéd.
However, this fellow was very unlike those others. He had been nothing but gentlemanly; something was wrong with the picture. Then, it clicked. I realised he didn’t actually KNOW what the hell he should say to a girl. And why would he? It’s not as if discussions of sex of any sort are exactly commonplace in India. Even among the middle classes, which my family apparently spring from, I am mystified as to how people learn about it. All I know for sure is that it is usually surreptitiously, shamefully and most likely through interaction with contemporaries of the same gender (often, but not always older) rather than through direct experience of the opposite sex.
The patriarchy has a lot to do with this. In a culture that rewards men for being men, I don’t doubt that part of the way men approach women is down to a sense of entitlement. They deserve us, ladies, and if we knock back their oh-so-impassioned approach, we have every right to expect the rape, stalkings, murder and general misogynistic harassment that is (sometimes) (briefly) featured on-screen! Hence, in a few cases, the coming-on-strong is bolstered by genuinely arrogant delusion.
The segregation of men and women also is a patriarchal classic, with its roots in that well-known phenomenon of the Goddess/Whore dichotomy. I’ve adapted it from the original Virgin/Whore dichotomy, as you can see. A perfect example of this is in the novel-turned-film Devdas, where Devdas becomes attached to both Paro (a low-born but goddess-like woman of pride, beauty and obedience to her social duties) and Chandramukhi (the ‘tart with a heart,’ to put it bluntly). OF COURSE he flirts with Chandramukhi, but the star of the love-obsession show is Paro.
The big problem is that whatever you spin to keep the genders separated – THEY’RE STAYING SEPARATED. Women are domestic and ‘goddesses,’ neatly kept out of harm’s way on their pedestals in the kitchen, or alluring and ‘whores,’ paraded for all to sneer at (and secretly desire) in the bazaar, whilst men are, er… everything else? Heroes, villains and everything in-between? They have no experience of each other, and thanks to the pervasive belief in arranged marriages, it’s likely that many never will really know just how much fun romantic love can be before it settles down. The thing is – Bollywood could change this. Instead, it entrenches it. How? By ignoring friendship.
That’s right. Think of a Bollywood film where a male and female are friends. Single – or one of them is attached – and friends. Just friends. You can’t, can you?! That’s because as far as Bollywood is concerned, it doesn’t exist! It never happens! Friendships are generally only possible between people who are already involved; otherwise they are yet ANOTHER springboard to ROMANCE and MARRIAGE. Friendships are certainly never shown as a valuable source of information on the other gender, even though that is exactly what they are to so many people. Where are the films where a girl says to a guy: ‘Don’t tell her that, she’ll run for the hills!’ or a man says ‘You know, a lot of guys don’t actually mind girls dressing ‘Westernised’ a lot’?!
Slightly skewed and/or stereotyped information is surely better than no information at all! It’s no wonder that there is such a glaring gulf between ‘freshie’ men and British Asian women. The ridiculous thing is that if things changed and friendship wasn’t treated as an aberration to be suspicious of, things might go better between British Asian women and British Asian men as well. Let us not forget that the adoption of stereotypical ‘black macho gangster’ posturing by so many comes from a place of insecurity and cluelessness. They haven’t been taught how to communicate with women by their parents either, so they just cast around for a general rule: confidence and directness. Unfortunately, wooing (even just for the purposes of sex) often involves so much more precision and subtlety than that lets on.
Luckily for a friend of mine (a French citizen who was born in India and now lives here), he had me to turn to when he wanted to ask a girl out. His original inspiration involved the likes of ‘When I see you, I lose control and I feel weak in my body.’ Yeahhhhh… NO. I helped him to save face and comprehend that that type of thing might work with French girls, but with British Asian girls? FUGGEDABOUTIT.
That, ultimately, is the whacked-out thing. Bollywood’s acknowledging that men and women can BE FRIENDS with each other – yeah, with no marriages popping up all red and infectious between them – would ease the misunderstandings between Asian men and women somewhat. It would suggest to people that they have some personal freedom (to ask questions about sexual matters), that segregation is a sucky state of affairs, and that you don’t have to settle for anyone because you’re romantically clueless. Men wouldn’t lose face so bad, women wouldn’t feel quite so harassed (because trust me, it often feels like your acquiescence is taken for granted when men invoke fate and destiny!); hell, maybe they could even laugh it off and become friends afterwards! However, that would suggest that – SHOCK – marriage isn’t the be-all and end-all of life, that personal happiness is a desirable thing and that discussing sex doesn’t have to be a shameless ‘Westernised’ semi-pornographic experience, or a shameful, carefully-concealed, potentially guilt-ridden ‘Eastern’ extravangaza – but instructive, fun and rewarding. And we can’t have THAT now, can we?!