Mumbai: In this romantically corseted society, Ashish Chettri is as close as you get to a Don Juan.
He is an irrepressible flirt: a skirt chaser who claims to pursue three women at a time, a ceaseless seeker of dates.
And that’s just with his thumbs.
Like millions of Indians today, Chettri is a cellular Casanova: a suitor who flirts by text message. Text messages have invaded courtships everywhere. But the short messaging service (SMS) is proving particularly revolutionary in India, where it is paving a secret passageway for the young around deep-rooted barriers to premarital mingling.
“The cellphone has become India’s new organ of lust and love,” said Suhel Seth, an advertising executive based in New Delhi who contributed to an anthology about being single in India.
The somewhat alien notion of free love is trickling into India. But for young middle-class men such as Chettri, who still bear the burden of making first moves, the challenge is to seduce without the tools available to the Western male flirt.
Western-style courtship does not work for reasons that stack onto each other like bricks in a firewall of romance. Young Indians, and girls especially, are taught not to exhibit interest in the opposite sex, regardless of their feelings.
Most young middle-class Indians live, moreover, with their parents. They often share rooms in cramped apartments with siblings into their late 20s, making it hard even to speak privately by telephone. And should they canoodle in public, uncles and aunts, who lurk everywhere in India, are likely to snitch on them as part of their well-established role in counter-romantic espionage.
The result is an enduring awkwardness between many young, unmarried Indians of opposite genders. But now cellphones are emboldening thumbs to type what tongues hesitate to say.
“I’m not comfortable talking face to face with a woman,” said Chettri, who is 24, short and stocky, and a cook at a hotel restaurant in Mumbai. So, instead, he approaches a woman anonymously by text message for several days as she wonders who it is. Then, if she shows interest, Chettri discloses his identity and, in many instances, convinces her to close the deal—actually to meet him in person—within one month.
The SMS fever here has even entered the doctor’s office. Prakash Kothari, India’s best-known sexologist, said clients visit him with, not sexual problems, but textual ones. Dr Kothari says the messaging boom is healthy for India because good texts can lead to good sex. It is not known what proportion of Indian SMSing is flirtatious, since operators cannot legally read them. But operators also offer chat forums, which they do supervise, and romance accounts for a large chunk of such communications, said Krishna Durbha, an executive at Reliance Mobile. But the irony of textual flirtation is that, when it succeeds, it is over.
Chettri, the cook, is perhaps most comfortable when alone, managing paramours from a distance. But when he texts persuasively, when the messages connect and the response times shorten and intimacies are ever more openly bared, the messaging sometimes ends rather hastily. It ends because a woman has written back the text to end all texts: “I want to meet you.”
Then it is time to put his thumbs away.
©2008/international herald tribune