Are you for PDA or anti PDA? By PDA or public displays of affection, I mean the hugging, the hand-holding, the ‘honey’ calling and smooching in the presence of others, never mind the state of the marriage. In the West, such displays are passe. Every presidential candidate worth his votes always holds his wife's hand in public, even if he is having a Lewinsky in private. Catch our Manmohan doing that? In fact, the Supreme Court of India has deemed public displays of affection to be in bad taste and unacceptable.
Some of it is cultural. A study released by the department of psychology at California State University states that “contact-prone” cultures like Latin America are more prone to public displays of affection than those from “non-contact” cultures like Asia. Specifically, the study says, “Latino male-female dyads (pairs)” are more likely “to embrace while walking in public than Asian male-female dyads.”
Until now at least, we Indians have kept our romantic displays within the confines of our bedrooms. I don’t recall a single instance in which my parents said, “I love you” to each other even though they have experienced nearly 50 years of wedded bliss. An elderly uncle goes so far as to titter when he hears his America-born grandchildren parrot “I love you” to their parents at the end of each daily phone call. “Just as we say ‘sowkiyama’ or ‘sab theek hai,’ they say ‘I love you’,” he says. I don't know the DLF Ltd group chairman, K.P. Singh, personally, but I would wager that he doesn’t smooch or hug his wife in public. Instead, love for his life’s partner is displayed by nursing her—to the exclusion of all else—through a two-year illness, according to a Time magazine profile. Love in the Indian context means simply being there in the old-fashioned sense: through thick and thin, until death do us part. Love is two flowers arching towards each other, parrots fluttering around each other, not a crude hug.
Would Mumtaz have been happy with this very PDA? We think yes!
Things are changing. In urban India, and certainly in the metros, public displays of affection have become accepted and expected. As more Indians travel and ape the West, we fling out air-kisses and have no compunction about calling our partner “my darling sweets” or something equally appalling (to a Bertie Wooster at least) in public. Even so, and this is where the Indian gene kicks in, I find that in most partnerships, one person is comfortable with public displays of affection while the other is not. In my family, we have a cousin who hugs her husband in public all the time. The lad always seems faintly embarrassed. He doesn’t actually wriggle, but you sense that he wishes he could. Sometimes, it is the husband who has no problem extolling his love for his wife loudly and publicly, until the wife cuts him off with a “that’s quite enough” look. Even my gay Indian friends are this way, even though they ought to be free of the shackles that bind us conformers. I know a gay couple who are both rabble-rousers—pierced navel, spiked hair and all. But they barely touch each other in public even if they are among close friends. That’s what I mean by the long hand of Indian culture.
I have to say that I both envy, and am embarrassed by, public displays of affection. When I hear some sappy husband go on about his wife at parties or gaze adoringly at her when she speaks, I wonder if he is for real. I think all women deep down want to be serenaded—like Juliet or the princesses of yore. In fact, old Indian movies are full of maharajas who would enter a scene and let loose a gushing poem at the sight of their lady love, sans preamble or warning. The Taj Mahal, of course, is the ultimate public display of affection, except it was built after Mumtaz died. You sense that sensible Mumtaz would not have had it any other way.
The twist that makes this issue interesting is that such public displays of affection don’t always mirror the state of a marriage. When I watch PDAs in action, I always wonder if the involved parties are as openly adoring in private as they are in public. Plus, there are many ways to show love. I once saw an old farmer in rural Gujarat quietly hand his wife an umbrella as she rushed out into an overcast sky. His anticipation of her future need seemed just as loud a proclamation of love as a kiss—at least in my mind. I have seen my grandmother hand my grandfather a paan at the precise moment when he would reach for the betel-box. Is being so exquisitely attuned to the other person’s need love? Or is it just habit?
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to be the object of public displays of affection. At least, I think so. Then again, it might get boring to be so dutifully and unceasingly adored. After all, there is a fine line between complimenting and gushing. Gushing can get terribly tiresome. I guess if I had to pick between 20 publicly delivered “I love yous” and one privately-handed umbrella, I would take the umbrella each time.
How about you?
In the matter of the People versus PDAs, Shoba agrees with the Indian Supreme Court. Write to her at email@example.com. Read her previous columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan