Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Sex education and getting values right

India does need to infuse values when the schools teach sex education: the values of dignity, equality, consent, respect, and love

There is a beautiful sequence in Satyajit Ray’s film Apur Sansar (1959), the third of his Apu Trilogy, when we notice the subtle way Apu’s life changes after he gets married. The marriage itself is a surprise; Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) agrees to marry his friend’s cousin Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) on an impulse, because her wedding has had to be called off. The man she is supposed to marry is mentally ill—a fact that was concealed from her family—and the family priest has warned that if she doesn’t marry at the appointed hour, she would never marry. Apu discards his rational views and agrees to marry.

Earlier in the film Ray has shown us Apu’s bachelor pad. But in the first scenes after the marriage, he shows us two pillows instead of one. There are curtains on the window that used to be bare, and there is a plant on the windowsill.

These are little touches that show that a woman has been through the apartment and sorted things out. When Apu wakes up, we see him discovering a hairpin lying between the pillows, and he smiles and plays with it. Inside his pack of cigarettes he sees a note: “You promised not to smoke more than one after meals!" Apu puts the pack away.

The French film-maker Jean Renoir had remarked how Ray had shown deep intimacy without any physical contact between Apu and Aparna. Ray’s depiction of marital life was sublime, but it was also based on the reality—Indians are coy about revealing intimacy in public and that coyness is partly out of natural restraint and partly it is imposed behaviour. In that world, Tantric art, the sculptures in Khajuraho and Konarak, the wet sari sequences in Hindi and other films, and in-your-face advertising coexist with husbands and wives sitting in different rows at wedding feasts, women bowing and covering their heads when talking to other men, and where millions get married to strangers their parents or elders have decided. Advertisers tell women that to be attractive to men, women need skin whitening creams, for their faces, arms, and even their most intimate parts.

Public display of affection between two consenting adults is frowned upon—think of the police officer in Uttar Pradesh who humiliated couples in public parks even if they had broken no law; of senior police officials warning women not to wear revealing clothes; of hooligans attacking women who go to pubs; of Samajwadi Party leaders who make light of sexual violence and rape, by saying “boys will be boys"; and of Trinamool Congress MP Tapas Pal’s callous call to his activists to rape women cadres of the Communist Party. (He has since apologized).

This is hypocritical because the repression of sexuality is not found in ancient Indian thought, but in Victorian morality. Many of the weirder provisions of Indian criminal law date back to the colonial code, and it is an irony that Indian politicians who go hoarse in condemning liberals for being “Macaulayites" (referring to Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose famous 19th century Minute created a class of Indians as intermediaries between the ruler and the ruled) are at the forefront of defending colonial-era morality.

I have in my mind the minister of health, Harsh Vardhan, whose remarks on sex education sound like the homilies of a harsh warden at a students’ hostel. Sex education is necessary at the appropriate adolescent age precisely to ensure that teenagers understand the changes their bodies are undergoing, and learn to respect their own bodies and those of others. Harsh Vardhan wants values to be part of such a curriculum. Where did the values of Trinamool’s Pal, of Samajwadi Party politicians, of Sri Ram Sene, and of Goa politicians come from? Their parents? If so, can parents be entrusted with providing the right values about sexual behaviour—verbal and physical? What values does Harsh Vardhan have in mind? Those that reinforce patriarchal views, or which respect women’s rights, where young men are taught that consent is the precondition of any human encounter?

Generations of Indians have grown up “learning" about their bodies from tasteless graffiti in toilets, or from older boys or girls boasting about their real or imaginary activities. Religious leaders scare young boys and girls with scary stories about sin. Many parents leave it until the last moment, or entrust it to a family elder; many teachers talk about it only reluctantly. (Notice how in advertisements mothers talk about menstruation to their adolescent daughters only after the girls have their period, telling them not to worry; and never before, to prepare them for the physical change). And so it is that anything to do with sex becomes a taboo subject, underscoring the society’s inequities and reinforcing hierarchy and power.

Harsh Vardhan is right for wrong reasons—India does need to infuse values when the schools teach sex education: the values of dignity, equality, consent, respect, and love. That’s the world of Apu.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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