At a time when there is talk of anti-Romeo squads to monitor who girls hang out with, a film certification board that rejects a movie for being “lady oriented” and young college students threatened with physical violation for voicing their opinions, how do Indian women negotiate the politics of intimacy? This Women’s Day, five women from their 20s to 60s tell us about their idea of love and desire, and, a look at sexism in popular culture and everyday life.
Mallika Dua, comedian, 27
‘I don’t wait for a man to make a move; if I like someone, I let them know’
When I was 18, I used to be very conscious of my body, even in front of my then boyfriend. I just couldn’t get how one could let go of inhibitions and allow someone to come so close to them. I was abroad for four years and, on hindsight, that could have been my cue to a wild time. But I barely ever went out, forget pursuing anyone.
One reason for this was the kind of films our generation grew up watching — you know the kind that portrayed love, sex and desire with a generous dose of morality — where sex meant pregnancy and unmarried women having sex was a fast pass to ruin (remember Kya Kehna?). We were taught over and over again that women had to be coy, that sex before marriage was a bad thing and dare you think otherwise.
And then, a few years later, when I hit my 20s, something changed. When I look back at that time now, I realise it probably had something to do with the kind of people I met, who made me feel like I was the hottest person around. I remember watching Friends and thinking that the women were cool because they spoke their mind and articulated what they wanted. That included sex, too. In 2011, when Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara released, I was thrilled to see a character — Katrina Kaif’s — who had agency over her own life and body. My favourite dialogue from the movie is when she goes to Hrithik Roshan and says, “Mujhe afsos karna nahi aata.” That’s exactly how I lead my life now. I don’t wait for a man to make a move; if I like someone, I let them know. If they feel the same way, well, come home, let’s explore.
I believe social media has had a tremendous impact on how we look at love, sex and all things in between. It’s made desire gender-neutral. When Tinder first came to India, I remember thinking it was creepy and unsafe. With time, I embraced it, and met two guys on it as well. It cuts through the bullshit — you don’t even have to ask someone their hobby. I get to decide who I want, I get to swipe right or left. There is no pretence. It’s turned us into adults who know their minds instead of simpering girls waiting for their turn. It’s a conversation that many of us need to have with our parents now — that we are adults and we come with desires, physical and emotional. There’s little point in brushing this fact under the carpet.
The characters I have developed now for my act, like Komal and Kanchan, talk about sex bindaas. We have just released a video with All India Bakchod called A Woman’s Besties, where the protagonists are Clitika, Vagayenti, and Geeta-Boobita. The response has been great, but there are people who find the obvious references to body parts gross, too. What is so gross about our body parts, I wonder. And why should I be ashamed of my body and what it desires?
(As told to Somya Lakhani)
Sharanya Manivannan, 31, author
‘I am already all the ages I will ever be’
I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26 — neither too young to know, nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.
This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 — “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.
It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often.
But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in love with a capital “L”? I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small “l”, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.
This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.
But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it — melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness — is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and — yes — pleasures, little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes, I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.
Mita Kapur, 51, author and literary agent
‘I really don’t know how to define intimacy at my age’
We’ve been through the motions, quite literally. The candle-lit evenings with flowers, chocolate baths, suggestive surprise gifts, even surprise trips, many times over. I’ve been plucked out of a meeting and whisked away to an unknown destination in the mountains in a meticulously-planned operation that included a suitcase packed with possible essentials. The only hitch was that slinky backless dresses and sexy stilettoes were packed to fend off a 4-5 degree daytime temperature for the dreamily-imagined long walks in the hills. A smart move, because I apparently needed to stick to the husband for bodily warmth, but it kind of failed because I feel very cold. The heat came from an explosive fight and a sullen walk down the mall road to shop for warm jackets and track pants.
Our children are sick of us. According to them, we don’t understand the concept of personal space and we don’t need a double bed — why are we wasting precious wood? We’ve never shied away to look all proper even if the kids are with us. Our second born, when all of 14, once asked us out of curiosity, “How many men did you date before marrying Papa?” My answer was, “No one else.” That led to an aghast expression and a stuttering question, “Are you trying to tell me that Papa is the only man you’ve kissed and slept with?” She managed to put me on the defensive mode and before I could open my mouth to murmur platitudes like “In our times…”, she burst out angrily, almost disappointed, “What a boring life, Mom!”
I really don’t know how to define intimacy at my age. For me, it’s a great feeling that he automatically reaches for my hand when we start climbing steps, knowing my penchant for tripping. It’s nice when a bottle of my favourite massage oil appears quietly on a Sunday morning and a deep tissue massage follows. I still get cheap thrills when he sends me a couple of hundred red roses on Valentine’s Day when I am in a distant city organising a festival. But then, I use those roses to decorate the stage the next morning. We are on a cold war right now but there is tacit understanding on why we sleep the way we do (got to work the next day, so why toss and turn?). Which also means I slide my feet over and wait for them to be pressed. The fight resumes post-massage, the feet aching less.
I posted a common message to the husband and a friend asking, “What do I write for this brief on sex-desire-intimacy after 50?” The friend piped up, “Write about your affairs, high time!”
“I’m on a deadline, I need time to imagine all the affairs I would have liked to have.”
The friend’s quick retort: “Half of Delhi and all of Jaipur thinks we are having an affair, so might as well give them what they are looking for — just tell them, yaar!”
The husband pipes in, “Go for it girl, let the juices flow.” Ewww!
The friend is gay.
Mithu Sen, 45, artist
‘The wait for true love never reaches its climax’
Love is actually like death — the other side of our life that is unknown, unreachable, sublime, and for which we spend all our life waiting. If you really think about it, you could call both love and death romantic.
But then, the idea of being loved is dreamy, in ways that death can never be. It brings with it promises of fulfillment — at its most prosaic, the sublime state of orgasm; at its imaginative best, it can be the gateway to a parallel creative universe. I’ve found for myself this parallel universe where age is no bar and where I constantly find myself being sexually, romantically, mentally and emotionally aroused. In this state, anything is possible. The idea of sex moves from being merely a corporeal act to a creative impulse. If you can stand outside of yourself and explore your body, its desires and fetishes objectively, then you are not bound by standard notions of bodily pleasure. My idea of sexual fulfillment has always been about being mentally creative and it finds expression in different ways in my art.
As a woman, it has always been a taboo to talk about my desires or fetishes. And so, they twisted and turned and sought ways of alternate expressions. How would you label the desire to be a different person? Or, the desire to acquire a different body? Can all desires be called sexual? How much of our inner selves can we expose without fear or shame? As an artist, I find my desires moving beyond the confinements of the world we live in and exposing themselves through the images I create. While I understand the freedom I have as an artist, it’s still difficult to articulate my inner feelings in person. The wait for “true” love never reaches its climax.
Perhaps, we overvalue conversations around love. Perhaps, love is overrated. For, it’s really all about loving the life we create while we wait for the love we crave — whether those cravings ever get realised is not as important as the knowledge that you have enough love to give.
At my age, I feel love should be more about what we want for ourselves than about anyone else. For that to happen, for women to prioritise themselves, we need to value ourselves and our bodies more. If we are at peace with ourselves, we will be confident about our right to our desires. It’s fine to choose our lovers, just as it is fine to believe that sex is not a momentary act, but a state of perpetual joy with an ability to transform.
The universe that I’ve created is inside this world only. It’s a world with my imaginary lover, where we incessantly unfinish each other. It’s a world of possibilities and all of us are capable of creating our own means of loving ourselves more.
Maya Krishna Rao, 63, theatreperson
‘A large number of women of my generation didn’t put love on a pedestal’
I grew up in an all-female home in Delhi. My mother was an actor and a dancer, and she was always playing roles that were out of the ordinary — she would play women who are either obnoxious or extraordinary, or who the world would laugh at. I lost my father when I was 16, but even when he was alive, he was mostly travelling. So, my mother was the only real parent I knew. She was liberal, but also strict. Thanks to this wonderful contradiction, perhaps, I was also never defined as a girl/woman in relation to men. We weren’t told how to behave like a girl. My mother wanted us to read more, travel more. She herself sat on a boat one day when she was 23 and went off to London alone. This was a huge thing to do back in 1946 in Madras. My mother knew no fear and that set us free.
Of course, one missed a male presence at home, but there were no bars. My mother used to dress me up as an adult and take me to adult films when I was 15. I saw my first gay film with her. It was The Fox, a DH Lawrence adaptation. I remember asking her afterwards, “Amma, why were those girls kissing?” She put it very bluntly: “Well, in life, you see men kiss women, women kiss men. Sometimes, men kiss men and women kiss women.” And that was all there was to one’s sexual orientation — a personal choice that was no one else’s business. Looking back, I realise that the fact that the lesson came at a young age stood me in good stead.
Love was an exciting game, too, in high school —waiting for the “ideal love”, writing love letters, passing it on, waiting for a reply. But once I entered Miranda College in 1970 and theatre took over my life, I realised that the kind of butterflies I experience on stage were the same I would feel when I used to be in “love”. I couldn’t make out the difference.
When I was in my first year in college, feminism was coming in in a big way; so was Marxism — the emphasis on the individual thinking for themself and taking a stand, the idea of looking beyond yourself, notions of class, and so on. A prominent college event during that time was ‘Miss Miranda’, which judged women on their beauty and how they walked on stage in a sari and high heels. That year, a bunch of us decided we did not need such an event.
Eventually, it ended up happening at somebody’s home. I remember feeling a great sense of achievement, and this thinking took root that how I look is worth nothing because I haven’t contributed to it, it’s my work as an actor and the person that I am and want to be that determine my worth.
By the third year in college, I had completely stopped missing boys. I had made a bunch of women friends and realised the importance of these friendships. I think it’s true for a lot of women of our generation. A large number of women I used to hang out with didn’t put love on a pedestal. Some married late, some never married at all! In my case, I didn’t marry my husband when I was “in love” with him, but eight years later, when we had become best friends. It’s a joke in the family that if we had married out of love, we would have broken up long time ago.
(As told to Pallavi Pundir)