What is the worth of an individual body on the streets of Mumbai?
Not much. In our public places, our bodies are governed by two standards: the rule of law, which disallows ‘indecent behaviour’ and the rule of Khap, which disallows everything. The nuances between the two are frequently ambiguous, as is seen in the case of Kuber Sarup who was booked by a policeman for perceived indecency while saying his goodbyes to a female colleague.
His ordeal tells you that your body, in public, is not your own. If at all it needs to be outdoors, it must be positioned appropriately. Ideally, so our city implies — stay at home. If you must come out, do so for a reason, and get off the streets as soon as possible. Watch Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to learn the proper slumped posture for a public presence.
Any expression beyond the terminally inert is likely to be plotted along a scale of conformity to standards of propriety or morality. A body may not touch another body on Mumbai’s streets. No matter that you travel daily in what the railways call ‘Hyper Dense Crush Load’; clinched in the most intimate of same-sex body-positions. The moment you are ejaculated at the station: haath laavoo nakaa.
Let us recreate Sarup’s act, shorn of value judgment: in a public place, a male puts his arms around a female and presses his lips to her cheek for what may be a second or two. Both separate to depart. The female catches a vehicle. The male is picked up and subjected to quasi-judicial hell. He is booked, fined and given a dressing down on his ‘bad behaviour’.
Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act 1951 says: “No person shall willfully and indecently expose his person ill (sic) any street or public place or within sight of, and in such manner as to be seen from any street or public place, whether from within any house or building or not, or use indecent language or behave indecently or riotously, or in a disorderly manner in a street or place of public resort or in any office station or station house.” There are no specifics. This paragraph is neatly sandwiched between sections disallowing ferocious dogs and horses to be let loose, public bathing, and flying kites. The only phrase from Section 110 that could remotely apply here is ‘behave indecently’.
How many options did the policeman discard to conclude that Sarup’s behaviour was indeed indecent? On the face of it, he had no way of knowing who the individuals were: brother or sister, husband or wife, spiritual leader or acolyte or even two strangers. The act was consensual, neither complained of a forced advance. Would the same policeman have booked an adult female kissing an infant male in public for possible paedophilia? Or all those males embracing heartily as they emerged from mosques after the Idd prayer?
Any student of semiotics knows that an act is separate from its perception. The two are loosely linked at best and understood by common-law agreement. Meaning is never inherent; we ascribe meaning to something. How we do is based on our own background and world view. Body language therefore is hardly subject to normative judgments. To do so would be like asserting that only Marathi should be spoken in public in Mumbai. If such linguo-fascism is sniggered at, why should the acts of bodies be subject to similar homogeneity?
In our public realm, we are no models of perfection when it comes to inadvertent action: remember Clan Bachchan proudly and collectively emerging after voting, holding up erect middle fingers? Everyone did a double take, then laughed it off, good naturedly. No one threw the book of Indian Culture at them.
I would be happy if a policeman prevented me from breaking the law. I would even appreciate it if I were booked if I did, indeed break the law. But I will not abide any policeman giving me a lecture on Indian Culture and Traditions, like the hapless Sarup was subject to. I do not believe that policemen in Mumbai have the education and awareness to do so. I do not think that imbibing Amar Chitra Katha at a young age or the ritual observance of religious channels first thing in the morning makes anyone an authority on the subject. Not until the beat cop has a certification of credit hours spent learning under qualified teachers on the diversity of Indian Culture (from ‘A’ for Arunachal to ‘J’ for Jarawa, and every letter in between and beyond) will I accept this kind of edification.
Why is any public display of affection in Mumbai an offence to Indian Culture? Are our minds (and upbringing) so fickle that any conjoining of body parts, however innocuous, can only be an allusion to the act of coitus? It is indeed a matter of concern that every public action we make has to run the gauntlet between the upholders of the Police Act 1951 and the lumpen upholders of the Khap. Both these are, at the best of times, uncanny reflections of each other. You and me, on the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight and of higher education, amount to nothing on Mumbai’s moral streets.