My husband and I were having wine and dinner at a neighbours’s house on Friday night, when the conversation turned to relationships. “Standards of morality are very different here. It’s common for people cheat and it’s not a big deal,” our neighbour (an educated Indian in his late 30s, with an engineering background) remarked.
I wasn’t surprised by his statement. In fact, it only confirmed what I’d already started thinking.
My first indication that this might be the case was when I lived in Kerala. A couple of my husband’s friends, who were in relationships with long term girlfriends, came to visit. They were keen to have a fling, “It’s okay, we’re on holiday.” They justified it to me.
My regular reading of the “Ask the Doctor” column in the Mumbai Mirror newspaper revealed more. The prospect of having an affair was a common theme. “I’m a married man, and I have the opportunity to have sex with my neighbour when her husband is often away for work. What is your advice?” Invariably, the reply neglected to mention any moral implications. Instead, it was always along the lines of, “If you think you can handle having sex with two people, be sure to use adequate protection to avoid pregnancy or infection.”
“As long as the people involved are married, it’s not so much of a problem,” my neighbour agreed. “The marriages will stay together anyway. People are often in marriages for obligation sake only, and need to look for sexual fulfillment and intimacy elsewhere. Progressive couples even have open relationships.”
My husband chimed in about the affair one of his friends, a married pharmacy owner, had just embarked on with a “sari clad aunty”. “First it was just flirting every time she walked past the shop, but now they’re having a scene”. My husband’s friend had excitedly relayed the tale to my husband.
“What? A sari clad aunty?” I was quite incredulous. “It happens when these women aren’t getting the attention they want from their husbands,” I was told. But what about the notion of Indian women being conservative, pious, and devoted no matter what?
I should also mention the unsolicited offers I get from unknown Indian men via email, who would like to have “sexy time with a housewife”. Not a white housewife. Just a housewife. They’re obviously not concerned about the immoral aspect of having sex with a married woman.
And then, there’s Emotional Atyachar (Emotional Torture), a TV show that screens on the Bindass channel. People are invited to put their partner’s fidelity to the test. The partner is set up — befriended by an attractive person who acts interested in them — and their response filmed and screened. There’s currently High Court proceedings against the show for allegedly “spreading vulgarity and demoting social and moral values of Indian society”. I must admit I’m shamefully drawn to watching it, just for the shock value of how openly and easily people lie and cheat. Yet, it’s also left me feeling sad and disappointed. It looks like young people in India are keen to embrace dating culture but not the responsibility and commitment that needs to go along with it.
Of course, many of you are most likely thinking “but what about the west”? Indians are usually in awe or disgust of the perceived idea of sexual morality in the west. After all, they see people freely having sex with whoever they please, whenever they please, in western TV serials and movies. It does happen. But when people agree to be in a committed relationship, fidelity is expected and is very important. Yes, people do cheat. But it usually comes with guilt and a heavy burden. The repercussions will usually be the end of the relationship.
India, on the other hand, prides itself on its low divorce rate. People stick together no matter what. But does this actually encourage people to look for satisfaction outside their marriages, and lead to an acceptance that it’s okay to do so? What really lays behind my neighbour’s comment about morality in India?