Are we hypocrites or ignoramuses?” Even for Pertie it was an odd way to start a conversation. He likes to shock but this was simply perplexing.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Although my tone may have betrayed my utter incredulity I hope my words sounded no more than curious.
“The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has banned Fashion TV for showing semi-nude or skimpily-clad women sashaying on ramps. What did they expect them to wear? Overcoats and gum boots!”
“Why are you so het-up?” I tried to sound calming. “Surely you don’t watch the channel?”
“That’s not the point.” I could tell I had failed. Pertie was ready for a scrap. “Do you know the reason they’ve given? That it’s against good taste and decency! Tell me, what makes our dhoti-kurtawallahs believe they can identify taste and decency even if it slaps them in the face? For most of us they’re living proof of bad taste and indecent behaviour.”
“Come on Pertie!” It was my last attempt. “The point the Ministry is making is that in India we find it hard to accept such displays of female flesh. You know that’s true. So why are you quarrelling?”
“Because it’s not true, that’s why.” But this time Pertie spoke so softly, albeit confidently, I was silenced by his deliberate control. Clearly he knew what he was about to say and I didn’t dare stop him.
“Look at the temples of Khajuraho. Buy a copy of the Kamasutra and flick through its pages. Just go to the Delhi Museum and see our erotic miniatures. We’ve given the world some of its most graphic, its most striking, representations of the naked female form. Of sex. Of multiple intercourse. And you’re telling me that semi-nude and skimpily-clad women are offensive to Indian taste and decency?”
“That’s cold, inanimate art. Stone sculptures, oil paintings, pictures in a book. Not warm, living human beings.” I thought mine was a good riposte but Pertie clearly disagreed.
“There’s nothing cold and inanimate about Khajuraho or our miniatures,” he shot back. “But I’m making a wider point. Look at the sari and how it’s worn. No other dress so deliberately and so alluringly reveals the female midriff. In fact, it doesn’t cover the stomach at all.”
“What’s the point you’re making?” Actually I suspected I knew but I wanted to hear it from him.
“That the traditional Indian dress for women is designed to accentuate and focus attention on the female form. On the very centre of her body. On that part of it men dream about.” Pertie paused so I could absorb what he had said. “Are you telling me this is an accident? That it’s not part of our wider culture and our way of appreciating female beauty?”
Until then I had never seen the sari as Pertie had spoken of it. Now I couldn’t deny that what he said made sense. But I was flabbergasted that Pertie — Pertie of all people! — should have understood this. Of course, he still had more to say and was anxious to get on with it.
“Why do you believe everyone thinks the sari is so beautiful? Surely not just because of its colours or patterns? The answer is that it frames the female form to perfection. And why do you think foreigners look so awkward in one? Because they’re not used to the amount it reveals. The dress covers and hides. The sari is a window to what lies beneath.”
I can only say I was overwhelmed. I have seen the sari often but I have never seen beyond it. Pertie, to coin a phrase, had seen through it. In fact, it seemed as if he’d seen it not simply as it is but as it’s meant to be.
“But how does this make us hypocrites and ignoramuses?”
Pertie smiled. It was a slow deliberate stretching of the lips as he silently but proudly acknowledged his triumph and simultaneously signaled I was even dumber than he’d assumed.
“Look,” he said, “either the Ministry is denying the truth about India’s cultural fascination with the female form, in which case its hypocrisy, or it’s ignorant of it and that makes them ignoramuses. It’s really as simple as that.”
I was silent with admiration.
“I don’t care about all this tosh regarding democracy and freedom of expression. All governments censor. That India does too is no big deal. But to end up censoring your own values is bizarre! It’s madness.”