I saw a Hollywood movie about relationships and love. In one scene, a man and a woman meet in a department store and strike up a conversation over the cash register which continues till they walk out. Standing on the sidewalk, they talk, like any two strangers who’ve just met, of things that interest the other and ooh and aah over what they have in common. Then, just on the verge of that crucial ‘ask for her number’ moment, the guy shrugs and says,
“I can’t do this. I’m married.”
It struck me right just then. They were following a socially accepted ritual. Then they reached a point where an expression of interest had to be made or not. And it could not be made since he was clearly unavailable. The social mores of their world dictated that he not go any furthur unless he was intending to take it forward seriously.
A few years ago, I was in Europe. After much teasing from my group, about Turkish delights and Greek gods, I returned to report that no man had flirted with me. But my mother, told me of one of our co-passengers had struck up a conversation and told her she was very attractive, adding with a snide look at my dad that he couldn’t say the same about her husband. She was highly surprised till we were told that in some western communities, it was considered polite, practically a social requirement to mock-flirt with a lady and compliment her on her fine form. This especially for a married woman, since it was quite clear that it was in light vein and was not intended to be taken seriously. Quite unlike India where it would be considered highly inappropriate to flirt or compliment a married woman. On the other hand, it was pointed out, that it would be equally inappropriate for the same men to have flirted with me since I was clearly available. Flirting would have been an indication of serious intent, a formal expression of interest.
We are still in a nascent society as far as dating goes. Our parents’ generation invented love marriages in this society; we are the generation that brings in friendship between the sexes as well as socially sanctioned romantic/sexual relationships before marriage. We haven’t quite learnt where to draw the line between friendship-comfort and attraction-commitment. We are still experimenting with how far we go with being funny/cool/charming and where it trespasses into flirtation.
Think about some of the relationship scenarios that are very real to us today. The ‘best friend’ of the opposite sex that makes the girlfriend/boyfriend so uncomfortable. The good friends (sister-brother…this is really the most convoluted one of all) who vehemently decree that other people have dirty minds. The older colleague/father of a friend/friend of father/husband of a friend who are really friendly, but perhaps a little too much sometimes?
Don’t we all know a guy who promises the world to every second girl, believing correctly, that she’ll keep it to herself because, it still isn’t done for a girl to admit that she’s been with a guy? There is nothing to check him from repeating the same over and over again, no one to brand him for the cad he is. Even after the crime is complete and guy is far away, possibly chasing a whole new set of girls or actually married, how many of the women he has wronged are actually going to speak up? How about the committed ones who pass off their behaviour as harmless friendliness? There’s a general ‘kehne mein kya harz hai?’ syndrome working here. The problem is that people do fall in love, hearts get broken, trust is rended and lives are shattered. You can deny those are very real crimes, nasty things that people do to people.
As modern women, we are expected to be ‘okay’ with a certain degree of liberal expression. The question how far does that stretch? It’s okay to know a lot of guys, it’s fine to go out with them, even flirt with them, get into relationships with them. But all of that provided it ends in the institution of marriage or at least a ‘stable, steady relationship’. But from meeting a guy to ending up in that last socially sanctioned comfortable relationship, it’s a long way. We stuff our best-looking side into our public persona and bury our insecurities. We put up with a guy who is ‘comittment-phobic’ for months and months because we don’t want to be nags. We’re okay with the ‘just good friends’ tag. We even tolerate cheating and tell ourselves patience is a virtue. You can be sure a crime of sorts has been committed but who’s going to haul in the offender?
And if you’re thinking this is equally true for women, I agree. With one small exception. Men who have been wronged in this manner can speak up about it and they do. Where else do we get such nasty phrases like slag and tease from? On the other hand, a woman who has been wronged cannot speak up. Liberatedness be damned, when such a social crime is perpetrated, the woman (more often than not) doesn’t dare speak up since even friends would call her stupid for having believed such a guy in the first place. Well, you live, you learn.
We are a society in a state of transition, this is true. Many of us feel like we’re stuck in the stiff rules of conservative India while being seduced by the liberatedness of the West. We navigate our lives through some complicated mixture of the two. But while trying to have the best of both worlds, we have the safety of neither – not the security of a protected society, nor the societal support system of an individualist one. The touts that flourish in any anarchy are well and alive in this one too. Let me end this by just saying that glorious as this rule-free state may be, the very lawlessness of it leaves each of us vulnerable to social crimes.