Union health minister Harsh Vardhan recently suggested that fidelity, aka Indian culture, should be emphasised in AIDS awareness campaigns rather than condoms. Condoms sent the “wrong message” that “illicit sexual relationships” (un-Indian behaviour) were fine. Later, Vardhan clarified. He was not against the use of condoms, just that fidelity worked better in preventing AIDS. Condoms cool, Indian culture cooler.
You can stop waving your angry Kama Sutras, Vardhan has hit upon a beautiful, immutable idea — Indian culture as contraceptive.
Much of Indian popular culture, at least, would strenuously suggest this idea. In the Bollywood of the 1990s, it’s Indian values under siege from the West. The chaste Indian heroine in foreign climes must protect her modesty from the Western onslaught, armed with little more than her values — remember Urmila Matondkar in Jaanam Samjha Karo and Mahima Chaudhry in Pardes?
The Western moll, who knows no Hindi and has no values, must be casually thrown over as the hero finds true love and, presumably, safe sex with chaste Indian heroine — pick any Salman Khan starrer.
Virtue triumphs over carnal desire and un-Indian behaviour. If Bollywood has moved on, Balaji Telefilms has kept the flag flying with its army of innocent but high-minded female leads. From calendar goddesses with the face of Hema Malini to idols who look suspiciously like Sridevi, Indian visual culture has been coaxing the lustful to turn their thoughts to the divine for decades now. But if only Indian culture were as tidy and uniform as Vardhan would like it to be.
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Government campaigns to promote the use of condoms, for instance, have often tapped into the familiar and the everyday. What would Vardhan make of the Nirodh advertisements that were aired on Doordarshan in the 1990s? In one ad, a young couple in a lift is keen to do the deed and the man scampers down several flights of stairs to retrieve a packet of condoms. When he bumps into an elderly couple, they stare for a moment and then break into giggles. Everything about the ad, the collapsible gates of the elevator, the umbrellas, the shopping bags, are identifiably Indian middle class. Condoms were bought with the household shopping, it suggests.
And what if Harsh Vardhan met Buladi, agony aunt and HIV campaign mascot? In the 2000s, when the AIDS epidemic in India had reached alarming proportions, funds were poured into a massive public awareness campaign. Much of this campaign was fashioned as gruff, homespun wisdom. In 2004, the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society introduced Buladi, a traditional rag doll, or nyakrar putul, sporting a large bindi and an even larger jhola. She is a cheerful, matronly figure, your favourite aunt, perhaps, or the neighbourhood busybody. As anxious young women crowd around her, she dispenses practical advice — use condoms in conjugal sex, don’t decide on a partner until he has gone through an HIV test.
Buladi has been criticised for several reasons. Some feel the campaign is still trapped in stereotypes, that it imagines its target audience to be self-sacrificing married women who must sensitise and manage their wayward husbands. Some feel there is not enough emphasis on women’s sexual health. Some even accuse Buladi of too much levity.
But Buladi brings an important idea to the discussion on HIV, that married people or those in monogamous relationships can also be at risk, that very Indian behaviour is not always protection against the disease. Does the good doctor have a prophylactic for that?