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Richard, Shilpa & young Mr Gandhi

india Updated: Apr 22, 2007 00:25 IST

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If the lady who gets kissed doesn’t mind — and, for all we know, she may even have welcomed it — do the rest of us have any right to complain? I don’t know about you but I would say no. Actually, I would say it loudly, unequivocally publicly and repeatedly. And I hope the Shiv Sena as well as the more shrill brethren of the Sangh Parivar are hearing.
So if Richard Gere should choose to embrace Shilpa Shetty and kiss her — once, twice or several times — and Shilpa accepts then, as far as I’m concerned, you and I have no role to play. It’s legal and it’s moral. The question whether it’s decent is for individuals to decide for themselves. There ought not to be a collective view of the matter. Certainly it’s a lot less indecent than what Indian men do in public — be it scratching their genitals, urinating or defecating. And let’s not even mention what they do in crowded buses to unwilling women who have little choice but to grit their teeth and put up with it.

However let’s for a moment become a little technical. First, what sort of a kiss was it? As far as I could tell, it was on the cheek, friendly but neither intimate nor sexual and accompanied by a warm embrace. Was it embarrassing for others to witness? Would it have been unbecoming in front of children? Might it have been distressing for the elderly to see? No, no, no — unless, of course, you’re determined to take offence. If you are, the 21st century is not for you. It’s not Richard and Shilpa who are out of place but yourself.

But hold on a moment. Before you take recourse to Indian history — or culture — be warned. The India of the Khajuraho temples, Konark or the Kama Sutra — I wonder why they all begin with K? — is definitely not the sanctuary you are seeking. If I’ve read the book correctly, the Kama Sutra is in part a manual on the art of kissing. Apparently you can do it in 300 different ways. Alas, I’m only proficient in one of them! But if theory is not enough, Khajuraho and Konark show how it’s done in practice. So clearly our ancestors — peace be upon all of them — not only enjoyed kissing but adorned their temples with statues to immortalise the act.

I was in London and Milan when the brouhaha hit the newspaper front pages and television headlines. The only other story from India to merit similar attention was Rahul Gandhi’s boast that his family deserved credit for taking India into the 21st century. The combination had my nephews chortling with laughter.

“Obviously the Gandhis didn’t do as good a job as little Rahul thinks,” was Siddo’s comment. “Perhaps he should add a codicil the next time he addresses the good people of UP. The Shiv Sena and Sangh Parivar are still stranded in the middle ages.”

“Or India’s slid back!” Vikram retorted. “Remember his claim that if the Gandhis had been in power the Masjid would still be there? Well now he can add that because the Gandhis aren’t India’s dropped out of the 21st century!”

Which leads me to Gladstone and Disraeli. In the 1880s they were political rivals. The former was obsessed with helping fallen women, the latter was known for his clever turn of phrase. In the middle of one of the many tightly contested elections they fought, Disraeli was informed there were rumours Gladstone had succumbed to temptation. In ministering to the women he’d allegedly fallen for their wiles. Shouldn’t the Conservatives use this to nail the Liberals, Disraeli was asked?

“On the contrary, not a whisper about it,” the worldly-wise politician shot back. “If word gets out he’s had an affair he’ll probably win the election. The voters would conclude he’s human after all!”

This late Victorian story may be apocryphal but for me its more 21st century than the rantings of the Shiv Sena and the Sangh Parivar. They’re only of our age by accident of birth. Conversely, if young Mr Gandhi means what he says — and understands what he means — I’d like to see him speak out in favour of R&S. Not Rajiv and Sonia but Richard and Shilpa. Otherwise his silence might suggest that he too is struggling to cross the millennium. He might have the intelligence but does he have the guts and conviction that characterise the 21st century?