“Faith is a wraith
Promising paradise for the soul
Hope is the rope
That lets you climb out of a hole
Charity should spell clarity ---
Returning the wealth you stole…. “
From Dhoka Cola by Bachchoo
My parents first took me to Khajuraho on a cultural holiday trip when I was about eleven years old. We went from Kanpur to Madhya Pradesh and spent some time looking at the display of erotic carvings in the temples. A late beginner, I suppose, I didn’t quite appreciate the erotic dimension of the sculptures, though I observed my dad and mum studying them with a distanced, yet acute, curiosity.
Without protesting any form of innocence or naivete, gentle reader, I promise I have never opened the pages of the Kama Sutra, even though there have been at one time or other two editions, one pictorially endowed, on my bookshelves in my short and happy life. I know that they are eighth century depictions of sexual possibilities, some in extreme yogic distortions which promise erotic pleasure, but I have never felt the need to take instruction in these instinctive urges from man, beast or book. One ploughs one’s own furrow, so to speak.
Apart from Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, there are at least twelve and perhaps a hundred surviving Hindu temples which include in their sculptural representations acts of human sexual coupling. And some of the central symbols of Hindu cosmic creativity are the lingam of Shiva and the universal Yoni which symbolises birth and perpetuity. Hinduism has, from the Vedas onwards, never been prissy about human love, sex and procreation. The Temple of Surya in Konarak in Odisha has some of the world-famous exemplars of erotic sculpture. In Maharashtra, the Markandeshwar temple and the depiction of love in Ellora are also a glorious part of India’s heritage.
Hence it came as an absolute article of bewildered wonder that some idiot, or some misguided organisation, is suing Mira Nair’s depiction in the Netflix series adaptation of Vikram Seth’s universally acclaimed novel A Suitable Boy in a Madhya Pradesh court for a scene in which two characters kiss near a temple. In the name of Krishna and the gopis, of Shiva and Parvati, of Vishnu and Lakshmi, Ram and Sita -- and of the Khajuraho temples of Madhya Pradesh, are these misguided Victorian puritan protesters saying that love and its active manifestations are anything to object to? Are they anti-Hindu-history-and-heritage bigots?
Surely Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his entire Cabinet and the philosophy of his party are dedicated to the upholding of Hindu heritage and India’s inherited values and traditions!
This absurd puritanism, which objects to a scene in a fictional drama of two characters kissing -- not even in an act of fornication so graphically celebrated in revered Hindu temples -- is surely some imperial hangover which we can do without?
Hinduism is much more philosophically explorative and wider than the Semitic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and some interpretations of Islam. There is no puritan tradition in Hinduism which would forbid the depiction of two lovers kissing outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop or a temple. The people who are attempting to bring this case against Netflix ought to be, Your Honour, sent to re-education classes about the ethics of dharma, etc, in Hindu teachings! (Don’t get carried away, you idiot, this is a column, not an address to the court – Ed. Of course, boss! Sorry – fd)
I would like to address the people in Netflix who face these absurd charges, but I have no conduit to them. I would say to them have some faith in Indian justice because I have faced similar legally enlisted assaults and have prevailed.
The first was against a film I had commissioned and wrote called Bandit Queen. A group of people tried to stop the film being released for several reasons, not all idealistic, but they didn’t succeed.
Then there was the case against a film I wrote called Mangal Pandey, The Rising.
Some people claimed that they were the descendants of Mangal Pandey and the film had represented him in an unfavourable light. The judge ruled that it was a waste of court time and threw the case out. l am now told that judges have changed, that there has been some ideological adjustment on the juridical benches. Gentle reader, living in London, so far away from home, I know nothing of this. I feel confident that the barristers who defend this very peripheral right to freedom of depiction, even using the arguments I have posed above, will convince a judge who knows his Hinduism.
Freedom of expression and the right to any, even those considered dissenting, opinions are an absolute requirement of democracy. Regimes in today’s Turkey and Iran have suppressed free expression as the right of the state to exclusively disseminate information, both in the name of their exclusive interpretations of Islam. I don’t know, but perhaps they censor scenes on Netflix of couples kissing outside mosques.
Of course, the Madhya Pradesh court should treat the case against the kissing next to a mandir with the contempt it deserves. And that would be a precedent in universal law pronouncing the freedom of depiction which doesn’t transgress decency, tradition or in the case of the kiss outside a temple, explicitly graphic Hindu iconography.