I don't care much for Valentine's Day, much preferring to observe V-Day. But to those who do, this year spare a minute to think about the gross inequality of the fact that in India, a person can choose or be made to marry a tree, urn or idol as a means of remedying an astrological defect but a pair of consenting adults of the same gender can not only not celebrate and consolidate their love in a legal or socially-sanctioned manner, but technically qualify as criminals just by virtue of that love.
A frequent argument used against proponents of same-sex marriages is that the legalization of gay marriage promotes a so-called "downward spiral" – that the acceptance of unions between people of the same gender will pave the way for the acceptance of unions between people and non-human species, people and inanimate objects, polygamous unions and other non-conventional deviations from the one-man-one-woman formula (which is neither necessarily natural nor the norm: even today, polygamy is a reality in the Islamic world, polyamory is increasingly acceptable in some communities, many biologists say that monogamy is a social construct not a biological imprint and last year, a woman married a dolphin in Israel). It is thus an ironic victory for the gay rights movement that here in India, that argument is void, thanks to the existence and cultural canonization of some of these "lower moral rung" marriages.
Personally, I don't think that performing a symbolic ceremony with a tree or some other object so as to cure manglik or sevai dosham is something to polish the ammo about.
Firstly, societies everywhere have their own unique rituals, and these are the essence of culture – weddings, in particular, have some of the strangest idiosyncrasies. Contextually, is marrying trees really more silly than the American tradition of the catching of the bridal bouquet being a predictor of who will marry next, or more humiliating than the tradition in Burkina Faso in which locals welcome a bride from a different village by spitting milk on her?
Secondly, in terms of what some believe is the fundamental sexism of this particular ritual, there are far more severe struggles that women face everyday (such as, just to draw a related example, forced marriage). I don't quite see the comparative urgency of ending a ritual that some people choose to undergo, not to mention the fact that if choice is truly a feminist ideal, the reality is that some people will most certainly choose the very things which one may personally abhor, and that is their right.
Thirdly, the ritual in itself is harmless, to both woman and tree, as long as the former is not forced into or somehow hurt by it, and the latter doesn't suffer any uprooting or chopping down (which as far as I'm aware, and I may be mistaken, doesn't usually occur).
So the civil lawsuit filed against Aishwarya Rai by lawyer Shruti Singh, as well as the overall feminist outcry against her for following these rituals prior to her engagement seems a tad dramatic and unnecessary to me. As a public figure, Rai has never been much of a good role model for Indian women and girls for various reasons anyway, so this bullying her instead of leaving her to her happily-ever-after doesn't quite strike me as worth the effort for the protestors, or the aggravation for her. Ms. Plastic becoming Ms Bachchan after a couple of cursory flings with a banana tree, a peepal tree and a god's idol is interesting to me for simple tabloid-voyeur surfing purposes, not feminist ones.
All in all, I anticipate that the lawsuit and fiasco in its entirety will be of little legal consequence to the Bachchans, though they've pretty much guaranteed a built-in punchline at their expense in any future dealings with the foreign media. Singh has based her protest on the argument that Rai's marriages effectively violate Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, which concerns the Abolition of Untouchability.
It reads as follows: 'Untouchability' is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of 'Untouchability' shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
Perhaps I just don't have a decent enough grasp of legalese to understand how untouchability comes into the picture here, but I don't see the relevance. Untouchability, in what may be my limited understanding, is a caste issue – serious for different reasons. Once again, if you'll excuse the obvious pun, the outcry has missed the forest for, well, the trees.
What does rile up my critical juices, however, is the fact that the tree-bride practice has come under fire without, so far anyway, a broader outlook on the entire situation with regards to conjugal rights in India.
An aspect of Hindu myth and culture which is especially intriguing — and I bring this up because the tree-bride practice is a Hindu tradition — is the religion's openness to alternative sexualities and sexual lifestyles. From the hermaphrodite Ardhanareshwara, to the gender-bending Vishnu as Mohini to Draupadi with five husbands and (but of course) the countless male characters with haremfuls of wives… deviations from the one-man-one-woman formula run the gamut.
India is a secular nation, but its everyday realities remain rooted in tradition and superstition, whatever the faith, for better or worse. And tradition, in this regard, offers some amount of consolation. Speaking secularly however, the right to have one's partner be one's benefactor upon death, to receive compensation or shelter for domestic violence, to jointly make purchases or take loans, and to simply not have to worry about criminal persecution, among other things, is a necessity — otherwise, the same-sex partnerships are left in a legal limbo.
You may accuse me of jumping the gun: when Section 377 of the Penal Code, a nearly 150-year old colonial throwback, explicitly criminalizes those who engage in "unnatural" sexual acts (oral and anal sex), which while practised by people of all sexualities particularly denies the right of sexual expression between gay men, is still very much in place, why even think about gay marriage?
Primarily, because the public is moving much faster than lawmakers, and even those seeking to repeal the law. In recent years, a number of gay marriages, usually officiated by sympathetic priests, have taken place in India, including those of Jaya Verma and Tanuja Chauhan, Pooja Singh and Sarita, and Wetka Polang and Melka Nilsa (take a moment to notice that all three examples I've used are lesbian marriages. I know I must either be missing something in my research, or there's just a much higher rate of reportage on lesbian marriage, if not a much higher rate of lesbian marriages per se in India).
These marriages have no legal standing, and in some cases have even resulted in jail terms. But always, they are bold gestures – love standing up to law, even the most uninteresting of them sending ripples of more consequence than any heterosexual union. Regardless of opposition, hatred or abuse, open homosexuality and bisexuality are a part of the reality of India. From support (organizations including The Naz Foundation, GayBombay and the Sangini Trust have mushroomed) to celebration (actor Rafiquel Haque organizes a Mardi Gras parade in Kolkata ann
ually), Indians of "alternative sexualities" have come out in full force in defence of their sexualities in a manner which, one notes wryly, heterosexual Indians simply haven't yet been able to.
Why then is not just ditching the rickety old Penal Code Section 377, amending the law so as to make room for the parts of it that have been used in assault and abuse cases, and in one fell swoop recognizing same-sex marriage legally not possible? All three seem, at least at first glance, to be a single process, given the speed at which India is changing.
In the sum of things, what, really, is worse: a pretend-marriage to a tree or inanimate object as insurance against tragedy or, to quote from the Vikram Seth-spearheaded campaign to overturn Section 377, leaving in place a law that "has on several recent occasions been used by homophobic officials to suppress the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenseless against HIV infection", among other atrocities? Is taking up arms against a harmless old tradition more important than taking up arms against a contemporary tool of persecution?
I know this much: traditions, we need to keep some of – whether for posterity, for nostalgia, for belief, or for identity. Violent, life-threatening or rights-denying discrimination? That, we need no more of.
On a less serious note…
Anyway, it being Valentine's and all, so as not to be too much of a cynic, I suppose it's appropriate to share my own story of love and heartbreak. Especially because the heartbreak in question came courtesy of, well, not quite a tree but a rather tall, interestingly-endowed plant of some kind (I never found out which kind).
Friends will surely remember my own star-crossed affair with Amarasinghe, the plant outside the neighbouring apartment whom I watered diligently because those neighbours, inexplicably, were never around. I showered Amarasinghe with affection, talking to him (getting caught once or twice by other neighbours) and taking care of him until the day he vanished. Suddenly. Brown stains on the floor. Wetness. But not a leaf left of him, or the other potted plants that used to crowd the front of that apartment. That terrible day, I saw him and blew him a kiss as usual on my way down to get something to eat, and when I came back, he was gone. I was frantic: I rang the neighbours' bell, went back down to search through the garbage dump, even went to the security office to enquire if any large plants had been moved out. But I never saw him again…
Amarasinghe, wherever you are in plant paradise (because I just know they would have let you rot), this one's for you.
(cross-posted on my blog at http://sharanyamanivannan.blogspot.com)
Sharanya Manivannan was born in India in 1985 and grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. A writer, dancer, painter, journalist and activist, she is working on her first novel and a collection of poems. She lives in Kuala Lumpur and can be found at http://sharanyamanivannan.blogspot.com .