Saturday, February 2, 2013


"Ok, goodbye," he said with a quick hug that wouldn't cause any undue notice among the mass of strangers surrounding us at the airport. Though we didn't know most of them, there was one friend of his with us for navigation purposes, and this friend didn't really know me well. So despite us having just shared weeks of intimacy and traveling solo together for days around various parts of Kerala and Karnataka, two consensual adults having their fun, what was happening between us in private was not fit for public consumption in India. Welcome to the land of oh-so many contradictions.

This aspect of the last leg of my journey was as frustrating as it was exhilarating. I ended up meeting someone in Kannur, and cast in a certain light, it was all very romantic in the way of novels and movie scripts. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They come from different lands, different backgrounds, different norms. They're both strongly attracted at a subtle level, sharing deeply meaningful conversations from the start. Spiritual beings that they are, they believe there is a soul connection, yet can't be totally sure of the other's feelings because there's the chance of incorrectly translating the signals across cultural bounds. Finally the moment presents itself for some private time and their mutual affection is revealed. Sparks fly.

From there it began as stolen moments, lest anyone find out who might deem the affair inappropriate. By anyone, I mean practically everyone because we're in India after all, and not presently in a big city that would afford the degree of anonymity and modernity that would make such a tryst no big thing. Effectively permission had to be sought from those closest to us (by him, not me, of course) and even then, we had to be very careful about how and where we interacted.

Let me tell you how this sort of thing can drive an independent, passionate western woman a bit crazy! 

One of the things that confuses me most about the Indian culture is the way love and affection are shown. The interactions between men and women can be very curious to someone who comes from a more sexualized society where freedom of expression in most all ways is encouraged, at least among the crowd I run with. On the one hand, you look at traditional Indian dance with its stunningly beautiful, sensual women, dressed and decorated provocatively, using their hands, eyes, hips and every other body part as an expression of love. This is a completely acceptable aspect of the culture, considered an expression of love for the Divine, but who could argue that it isn't tantalizing and evocative for the opposite sex? You have Bollywood, MTV and the like showing gorgeous men and women, dressed and dancing to evoke all the blatant sexuality and party-crazed focus that you'd find elsewhere. You've got places like Goa and big city night clubs. And yet on the other hand, many here still consider even the most innocent of interactions between a man and a woman entirely unsuitable for anyone else's eyes.

In many places you'll rarely see a couple holding hands in public. Often wives walk behind their husbands, ride sideways off the back of the motorcycle so as not to inappropriately touch the driver, stay home at night while their men are out and about. What I might consider a completely innocent touch could be seen by prying eyes everywhere as scandalous. Some men won't even shake a woman's hand, lest he invade her personal space. All this is evolving in bigger metropolitan areas, but I wasn't in one of them at the time this relationship blossomed, so I had to get a crash course in what I could and couldn't get away with. We jokingly established touching and no touching zones while riding on the bike, but I still felt stung every time I confused the two and was told "no" by the man who was so attentive and expressive toward me at other times.

It is mainly for this reason I'd never really considered the prospect of meeting an Indian man on this trip. I just didn't think I'd have the opportunity to get close enough to anyone for that type of connection to be revealed. I also didn't think I could deal well with this particular cultural divide, even having so easily embraced many aspects of the Indian way. I was wrong about the former, but I was not far off base about the latter. 

I tried my very best to accept what I intellectually understood to be necessary, but emotionally it was a big challenge. I'm a self made woman who has accumulated enough experience to know what she likes and wants, and how to express that. Adults living with their parents, ever-present neighbors, aunties and everyone else keeping watch over your comings and goings, public displays of affection as taboo, it's just all a bit much to take when you live alone in total privacy and have years of experience and cultural conditioning that tells you love is celebrated and expressed, often in at least a semi-public way. To me, walking hand in hand with your honey is a sweet pleasure of being in a relationship. Kisses goodbye that linger on your lips fan the flames of longing. The freedom to be comfortably in your own space with your lover allow you to get to know each other ever more intimately. Take those away because you so seldom have privacy and suddenly the whole game changes.

India certainly isn't all bad where love is concerned.  Love takes on a general, communal form here. Romantic intimacy between couples may be largely hidden behind bedroom doors, but you get love from a broad, welcoming community that acts like one big family in so many ways. There is something very special about that, and that is hugely different from western ways.  Being forced to be pretty puritanical and chaste so often actually causes you to take note and appreciate every little touch and gesture all the more. There's a youthful innocence to the exchanges that is novel at first. Maybe that charm would hold longer for some. For me though it was the source of some inner turmoil, and in that perfunctory airport goodbye, I knew for sure this was not something I could tolerate for the long haul. 

I felt jarred by the abrupt goodbye, expecting one more tender exchange between us before I returned to my corner of the world and he to his. He'd implored me to keep in touch, asking when I'll return, speaking of a future together that deep down I believe we both know isn't likely to become manifest. I, being more of a realist and having had the flames of the romance dampened by all the cultural restraints, encouraged us to just live our lives happily and leave the rest in God's hands. Despite that, I still reacted to the pain of that last moment. He professed so much love yet left me there so unceremoniously, so unaffectionately, that it took me a few minutes to reconcile his actions as being typical of the place and circumstance, not personal toward me. And though I was physically still on Indian soil, that exchange catapulted me out of the dream state of this journey and back to my reality. I come from a land where love takes on a very different public image than it does in India, and for better or worse, I carry that ideal with me. I look forward to returning to where I am free to love, and to show that love, without restraint.

Thank you, Mother India, for all you've given and taught me. Thank you, dear lover, for the many beautiful moments we shared. Thank you, to everyone who has been part of this journey. There is no sadness in my departure now, only peace and love. And if it is the will of the Universe that I should return to India, something I believe will come to pass, then so I shall, ready to learn more about love and all the lessons this land holds.

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