Papon row: Avuncular peck or perverse action, incident highlights need to teach kids about good, bad touch

When Papon kissed one of the children — a contestant on the reality show he judges, The Voice India Kids — did he think it would go unnoticed? Was it an avuncular peck on the lips, or a perverse action that took advantage of a child?

It was the candid video uploaded by Papon himself on Facbook that did the singer in. It showed him kissing his child protegee on the lips after he smeared her face with Holi colours. In today's over-charged touch-sensitive atmosphere, such an action takes on huge dimensions — and rightly so.

Papon. Image courtesy Facebook/@AngaraagPAPONMahanta

Papon. Image courtesy Facebook/@AngaraagPAPONMahanta

Puzzlingly, when Supreme Court advocate Runa Bhuyan filed a complaint against Papon for 'inappropriately kissing’ the child, the girl's father jumped to the singer's defense. And the little girl herself said Papon had kissed her as a parent would have. Did they really find his behaviour acceptable?

While the Papon case is being analysed, let us delve back a bit.  Many of the child stars of the '60s and '70s had to endure overt and covert harassment from their “mentors” because their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t protect them. I’ve interviewed many heroines who started off as child stars.  All spoke out about ambitious parents pushing them into filmdom. They spoke of the punishing regime, of being forced to stay up late and mix with adults (who were often consuming alcohol), of being kept away from school and companions of their own age. They were afraid to openly speak about sexual harassment but it was implicit in much of what they said. Jayalalitha for instance often openly spoke about her mother pushing her into films even though she wanted to study.  Those who knew her well spoke about the other kinds of harassment she faced from her mentors.

Social mores change with the times. What was once considered “normal” behaviour could now be considered inappropriate because of changed sensitivities and heightened awareness. Yet, because we have internalised some of these so-called harmless gestures we do not even notice when a child cringes because its cheeks are pinched by a random stranger or it is kissed by an over-loving relative. Society continues to condone such behaviour, which is dismissed as trivial and non-threatening. We have been programmed and brainwashed over generations into believing that unless there is serious physical harm, everything else is acceptable and fun. Our movies still project stalking, street sexual harassment and other forms of violent wooing as romantic overtures. Except for a few cosmetic touches here and there, nothing has changed.

Papon’s lawyer Gaurang Kanth told a TV channel that his client only “gave a peck on the child’s lips” as a gesture of affection. He claimed that the consent of the little girl was not required because Papon thought of her as his own child. Kanth also rather bizarrely added this was like the ancient guru-shishya parampara where Ekalavya gave his thumb to his mentor! What on earth has that equally condemnable act got to do with a grown man kissing a little girl on her lips?

“My definition of kissing is not like yours,” he told the anchor, “I think it is a peck.”

Predatory behaviour is not new. It has always existed. Maybe once upon a time, this whole episode might have been passed off as Holi fun — or even, as Gaurav Kanth said, guru-shishya interaction!  Even the adults watching over the child might have accepted Papon’s kiss as a gesture of affection.  Maybe the child would have rubbed the unwanted touch off her lips in disgust and moved on. But did that make it right?

We forget how we ourselves, as teenagers hid from over-avuncular uncles and gushy aunties or as young adults, shied away from lecherous bosses and colleagues. We forget because we don’t want to remember and we also live with the hope that the world has changed for the better.

But the world remains the same. It is what it was. And the bad touch remains the bad touch. What we have to learn to recognize and teach our children to recognise is the nuance of that touch.

Some have blamed social media for boosting and blowing up this “gesture of affection” into a sexual assault case. Maybe social media did turn its magnifying glass on this event as it has done on many others. But that shouldn’t take our focus away from the inappropriateness of the gesture itself.

Does a grown man who projects himself as a guru and a mentor for young kids have any right whatsoever to kiss on the lips, a child who is under his care? That is the question.


Updated Date: Feb 26, 2018 11:52 AM

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