Love in the time of bigotry

  • Amitava Kumar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 22, 2016 12:10 IST

Consider the recent film


. A young couple has taken a room in a hotel. At first the couple kiss hesitantly and then we see them again under the sheets. There is daylight seeping into the dingy room but it is dark in the cinema hall where we sit as silent participants in this intimate act. Piyush, the young male, stops his exertions in bed because he has heard the knocks but his lover, Devi, is still softly moaning under him. Then she hears it too, the pounding on the door.

The intrusion now takes a violent new form. The police inspector records the couple on his mobile phone and asks his questions before declaring “Tumra life toh kandam ho gaya” (Your life is now a discard).

Knocking on heaven’s door: In the recent film Masaan, a young couple making love in a hotel room hear pounding on the door. The intrusion then takes a violent form. A police inspector records the couple on his mobile phone.

Life imitates art with flat-footed tastelessness. More than 40 couples were arrested in Mumbai in early August: although they were in hotel rooms, and engaged in consensual sex, they were charged with “indecent behavior in public.”

Varun Grover, who wrote the story for


with Neeraj Ghaywan, told me that although such police raids are unfortunately quite common, especially in small towns, there weren’t “many Hindi movies that have tackled or even shown this issue.”

This raised a different question in my mind: Is there a literature of the knock on the door?

In October 1975, a short-story by Nadine Gordimer titled City Lovers was published in

The New Yorker

. There was some irony in that title. The story was set in apartheid-era South Africa. A white geologist, a native of Austria, is working in a South African city. He meets a young working-class woman of mixed race, a coloured, as the official designation would have it, working as a cashier at a supermarket nearby. She begins doing chores for him and then they sleep together.

One night, there is unexpected knocking on the door. “The summons was an imperious banging that clearly would not stop until the door was opened.” The geologist is surprised but his lover is filled with fear. She hurriedly snatches some clothes and rushes to hide inside the built-in wardrobe. The geologist doesn’t want to lock her in. But she knows she has no other choice. “At bay, baring the gap in her teeth, she said in a terrible whisper, ‘I’ll throw myself out of the window!’”

As I said, worse things will happen later. But I’m held by the moment when the knock is heard. It evokes a primal fear, a sudden dread bruised by panic and confusion, a nightmare reality intruding into the dream of desire.

But what happens inside the drama of love? What are dreams made of? And for those who can escape their authoritarian guardians, what fate awaits them? These questions were taken up by a young Belgian photographer, Max Pinckers, whose book

Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty

(2014) is an exploration of love in India.

This is a visual project, with a documentary feel to it, but Pinckers has put into it qualities of fiction. Speaking to me from Brussels, Pinckers explained that he had been taught that “the best way to capture reality was through least manipulation.” But since this is not possible, he prefers to go in the opposite direction, so that what he is doing on the page is “a staging of reality.” Hence, in this project, he uses dramatic, artificial lighting and borrowed tropes from Bollywood films.

In his photographs taken in the shelter run by Love Commandos, the organisation that offers refuge to couples in love, Pinckers shows us people who have fallen in love and, temporarily at least, also fallen on hard times. They smile or stare in small, cramped quarters in Delhi. The blue walls remain the same in the succession of images while the people change, and we can guess the number of couples passing through that shelter. The organisation receives 300 calls daily on its helpline.

A room with a view: For his book,

Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty

, photographer Max Pinckers has used a blue wall as the background to click pictures of couples-in-refuge who have fallen on hard times.

Those photographs reminded me of the brutal killing of two lovers named Manoj and Babli in 2007. Their murder was ordered by the khap panchayat in a Haryana village. The policemen directed by the courts to protect the couple abandoned them to the killers.

I learned about Manoj and Babli through a

Satyamev Jayate

episode but what I remember most is the courage of Manoj’s sister, Seema who fought for justice despite threats and bribes. Seema is also a policewoman. I want to think that unlike the cops, both men and women, who slapped and arrested lovers in Mumbai, Seema would hesitate to lift her hand to knock on a door.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, September 6
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