Does anyone remember Lakshmi Pandit?

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Her story was small and insignificant in the face of other stories, but it changed her life.

Lakshmi was a beautiful and ambitious young woman who competed in the Miss India pageant with dreams of changing her life, and, for a very short brief period, she did. It was only a matter of days before she ‘fell from grace’, and was forced to return the crown she had fought so hard to win.

To cut a long story short, she was living with her boyfriend in a middle class neighbourhood in suburban Mumbai. Astounded neighbours who watched her win the title blew the whistle on her ‘marital status’, and the press raked her over the proverbial hot coals. She was forced to admit that she’d lied about her marital status on her rental agreement so that she could live with her boyfriend in peace, without fear of judgement. Her statement reads that she willingly returned her crown, and that it was accepted just as willingly. I bet she did return it willingly. If it were me, I’d give up anything just to get people to leave me the hell alone.

If you’re not Indian, you probably don’t understand this. Why this hullabaloo about two people in love living with one another? If you are Indian, then you know why. It’s because it has something to do with sex, and sex, as you know, is sin. Oh, it isn’t sinful when a man does it. Men, as we are all told over and over again, have needs. It isn’t like Indian women don’t have needs. We’re no different to women all over the world. However, if you’re Indian, and you’re a woman, and you’re decent, you just don’t put out. You don’t live in sin. You don’t sleep with anyone except your husband. You’re supposed to get married a virgin. Imagine how terrifying that would be, especially for women who still go through the Indian system of arranged marriages. You barely know the man, and you’re just supposed to get naked with him. You just are. Your parents signed you away, and you’re someone’s wife now. It’s time to put out.

A while back I read an article in the Times about how difficult it was for single women trying to find accommodation in Chennai, the city I live in. Unless you’re willing to live in someone’s home as a paying guest, or you’re willing to rough it in a working women’s hostel, you can’t find an apartment or a house for love or money. A single woman living alone, it said, is continually harassed, either by her landlord or landlady, or by her neighbours. Her actions are under constant scrutiny, and heaven forbid she ever brings a man back to her apartment – which she legally rents – to spend the night. The writer of the article had interviewed a few women who said they felt their actions were continually monitored. One woman even complained that she wasn’t allowed to entertain _anyone_ in her apartment. If she wanted to meet her friends, she said, she arranged to meet them in a restaurant or a café. She couldn’t bring them back to her place, or she would lose it. Some women beat this system by buying their own place, but the majority just go with it.

What a preposterous, ugly thing. Why is it that Indians treat their women so shamefully? Oh, wait. There’s that sex ratio thing again. That shameful statistic that has come to be one of the definitions of modern India. We can’t stop talking about it. I can look it up on every single day of the week to find articles, interviews, and blog posts harping on and on and on and on about the skewered sex ratio in India. Indians, as we all know, love to talk. Meanwhile, somewhere, as I write this, another baby girl was murdered.

I remember telling my best friend over coffee a few weeks ago that it isn’t with Indian men that the problem lies – although they are hardly blameless – but with Indian women. That’s where the issue stems. You see, Indian women treat their sons like living gods, while their daughters are expected to pick up where their mothers left off. Often, they do. The living gods grow up and expect their wives to pick up where their mothers left off. Often, they do. A large number of women who were convicted of murdering their daughters spoke of unspeakable tortures – not at the hands of their husbands, although these did occur – but for the most part, at the hands of their mothers-in-law. Women kicking women down. How hateful. How despicable. How utterly typical.

However, I digress, if only slightly.

When Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty, I paid no attention to it. It was a little news blip that happened for a few seconds, and then it was lost. But I did sit up and pay attention to it when I heard that three people were suing Gere for the kiss. At first I laughed, and then I boggled. The rage over the kiss spread far and wide. People burned posters on the streets. There were rallies! It was just a kiss. It wasn’t even a full on make-out session. It wasn’t the pair of them snogging on stage in front of thousands of people. He dipped her and kissed her on her cheek, and it was over in a few seconds. Well, apparently not.

Apparently, that kiss went against the grain of ‘Indian culture’. Excuse me? Is this the same culture that gave the world the Kamasutra? Is this the same culture that has hundreds of statues of naked men and women doing the dirty, all dating back to thousands of years ago? It’s that culture we’re talking about? We were once a proud people who enjoyed sex, and we enjoyed letting the world know that we enjoyed it. We sang songs about it. We wrote a book about it – a book that has become the definitive book of sex and love. And suddenly sex is against our culture? Yeah, I know. Excuse me while I pick my chin up off the floor.

Do you think for one moment that if Lakshmi Pandit’s boyfriend had been in the male equivalent of Miss India, and he’d won the title that she won, that he would have had to give it back just because it was revealed that he lived with a woman? Not in a million billion gazillion years. One rule for the Indian man, and another rule, a whole other rule, for the Indian woman. Do you think Indian men are subjected to rules about whom they can entertain at their apartments? Not in any universe, they’re not. Is the male child in danger of dwindling out, slowly? Are there advertisements exhorting people to ‘love the male child’? No. Sons are always welcome. They’re precious, and wonderful, and join the family like they were always a part of it. The hated daughter isn’t, and yet she’s the one who will probably look out for her parents until they die. Your son’s your son until he takes a wife, but your daughter’s your daughter all of her life. Isn’t that right?

It’s time India woke up to the facts. Sex isn’t taboo. It isn’t a sin. Indian women have a right to live their lives the way they want to live it, with the person of their choosing, and they don’t have to get married first in order to do it. Come on, India. There are over a billion of us, and we still pretend we’re all the products of immaculate conception.

Well, balls to that.