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Muthalik and the Mahatma

If nightclubs in New York can hold a ‘bhangra night’, why can’t the nightclubs in Mumbai have a ‘dandiya night’? The Mahatma would be happy — and Muthalik would have one less grouse. Shoba Narayan elaborates.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2009 22:37 IST

I didn’t grow up with Valentine’s Day. And this was the 80s — in sleepy Chennai admittedly, but still, India. This year, I decided to make amends and take the husband out to dinner on February 14. The only problem is that restaurants in Bangalore, where I now live, are jittery about the whole affair Reservations come with warnings of possible cancellations and “we cannot guarantee anything, Madam.”

Seems that Pramod Muthalik wants to ban Valentine’s Day. Karnataka is all in an uproar. Minister Renuka Chowdhury calls it the ‘Talibanisation’ of India. Indian pundits say that these self-styled culture-saviours are the antithesis of the tolerance and assimilation that India stands for. Schools, restaurants, and hotels have been put on high alert in anticipation of the festivities or lack thereof. Pondering this sorry state of affairs over a glass of champagne, I thought, “What would Gandhiji do if he were Pramod Muthalik?” Once the buzz wore off, I got more realistic and realised that Gandhiji could never become Muthalik, even in my dreams. Hence the question: what would he do if he met Muthalik?
I believe that the Mahatma would have taken Muthalik aside, given him a charkha to chill with, and said something along the lines of, “Now that you have the nation’s attention, old man, what are you planning to do about it?”

The trouble with moral policing
Moral policing is a delicious word. Loaded with umbrage and outrage, it has been repeated by mediapersons, women’s rights activists and ministers ad nauseum in the last week, usually in conjunction with the attack on the Mangalore pub the night before Republic Day. As a mother of two daughters, I am horrified by the way those goons treated the girls.

But moral policing is both too nebulous and too complicated a concept to be written off with simple condemnation.

Every issue in which society’s hackles are raised and its passions divided, involves morality and attack. Activists from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals routinely throw dead animals at their opponents, most famously at Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue. Anti-abortion protestors have inflicted damage on the life and property of abortion doctors. Similarly in India, our women and our ‘cultural values’ are lightning rods for protest, ranging from ones against beauty pageants to the current fracas.

Most urban Indians are exposed to nightclubs and pubs. We see nothing wrong in partaking of their pleasures as long as we
are not harming anyone. But we would be living in a bubble if we imagined that pubs are viewed through the same lens in Belgaum as they are in Bangalore. Why go so far?

Talk to anyone elderly walking around Saket about nightclubs and you will sense ambivalence. Grandparents are leery about sending their granddaughters to nightclubs not only because of safety but also because the whole notion of nightclubs is new to them. India’s older generation may condemn the Mangalore attacks; but in the same breath, they will bemoan the westernisation of our culture.

When the twain don’t meet
If the Mahatma met Muthalik, I think he would start by acknowledging that Muthalik operates in this disconnect — between the old and young; rural and urban. While the Mahatma would abhor the methods used by the Shri Rama Sene (SRS) radicals, he would not discount the fact that there exists a clash of cultures within our own country. The same Gandhi who wanted the “cultures of all the lands” to be blown about his house as freely as possible also said that he would not be “blown off his feet by any.”

The sad truth is that in urban India, we have been ‘blown off our feet’ by the West. Our attire, speech and ways of seeking entertainment are copied from the West. Nothing wrong with that, you may say, and I agree. But some part of me is ashamed that we borrow so heavily from the West and they take so little from us. If we look through the cold hard lens of self-examination, we can acknowledge that the pubs and nightclubs we frequent are borrowed from western notions of entertainment.

Nightclubs are an urban phenomenon; an anomaly for a people who are as reserved as we are. Not for us, public displays of affection. Not for us, these Hallmark holidays with their prescriptions for romance on the appointed day. In spite of the hue and cry, Valentine’s Day is not such a big deal in India. My mother sends V-Day cards to her ‘bhabhi’. I would wager that most villagers hadn’t even heard about it till very recently.

The protests against Muthalik and his men have focused on proving them wrong. Tattered copies of the Kamasutra have been brought out to prove that we are, and always have been, a libidinous relaxed society not given to — I hate that phrase — moral policing. Verses from the vedas in which Hindu Gods drank soma liquor have been quoted to prove that hypocrisy of the SRS; that drinking is as much a part of being Hindu as chanting.

Angry young men
Feminists have brought out the arsenal of injustices against Indian women. Rather than trying to protect the bharatiya nari from western pollution, why can’t the sainiks concentrate on female infanticide, child marriages, prostitution, dowry deaths and wife-beatings. But that is not the point; it never was. Mangalore was about perception, not reality.

As a feminist and a mother, I may chafe against the double standards to which Indian women are held. We are placed on a pedestal as the bearers of the cauldron of culture and keepers of the flame of tradition. Most urban women, and certainly the young ones who visit nightclubs want to shrug off that burden.

The youngsters who were at Amnesia were not immoral. They probably did pujas and visited enough temples to gladden the SRS’s heart. They also happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just as the terrorists targeted South Mumbai to get the world’s attention, what happened in Mangalore was nothing more than a cheap grab for attention.
It worked.

Muthalik is hogging headlines. If the Mahatma met him now, he would probably put his arm around the fellow and say, “Pramodbhai, if your grouse is against nightclubs, don’t shut them down. Just figure out a way to make dandiya cool. Then our youngsters can engage in wholesome indigenous entertainment.”

Seriously. If nightclubs in New York can hold ‘bhangra night’, why can’t the nightclubs in Mumbai have a dandiya night? The Mahatma would be happy; Muthalik would have one less grouse. As for the dewy-eyed youth who sway to retro music at Shiro, who knows, they might like dandiya. They may start a whole new trend, that may become a yoga-like rage in the West. For a change, the West will ape us.

But for that to happen, we need to get off our high horse and acknowledge that people like Muthalik have a point of view (if not a point) that is relevant in India; a point of view that Gandhiji would have disapproved of but not dismissed.
What would Gandhi have done if he had met Muthalik? What do you think?

(Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes. She writes the column, ‘The Good Life’ for Mint)