"Happy New Year Eve's"

January 5, 2008

I spent New Year's Eve at the Clark Shiraz hotel in Agra. Our guide described the Shiraz as a "five-star" hotel, but only by Indian standards I suspect. Actually, it felt more like a wedding reception than traditional New Year's. The hotel hosted the event in a giant tent with tables for the guests interspersed with heat lamps. There were waiters serving appetizers and drinks, and sprawling buffet tables with Indian, Western, and Chinese food. But the entertainment was strictly Bollywood. A light, lovely professional-looking Indian woman kicked off the event smartly dressed in a sari and dancing to pop music to get the crowd enervated.

"Are you ready to get naaaaw-ty?" she yelled in her crisp English accent. And then, of course, backtracked, explaining through some convoluted logic that although this was a family affair, we could all still be really edgy and crazy for the New Year. The crowd looked bored and unresponsive, but undeterred she continued to implore them flirtatiously as waiters eagerly served Tandoori cooked cheese curd and kabob.

Indian sexual politics is complicated, resembling something like that of a shy, horny teenager. In so much Bollywood there is overt flirtatiousness and slinky dancing, but only up to the point of suggestiveness in which case it gets sort of shy and apologetic. It is strictly PG-13 at best and the idea that women behave demurely seems to pervade all aspects of society. I couldn't imagine a situation, for instance, in which it would have been okay for me to just begin talking to a young Indian woman, nor her to me. Short of some kind of business transaction, any correspondence with a stranger, much less a foreigner seems improper. Women ride demurely sidesaddle on the backs of motor scooters and keep to themselves unless in some kind of sanctioned social space. I have heard there are dance clubs in Delhi now appealing to the middle class, but imagine they are populated largely with men, possibly women in groups which would be fairly progressive.

I saw no condoms being sold anywhere which, in light of the need for population control, seems to be an issue that Indian sexual mores needs to come to terms with. Bertrand Russell writing in the 1930s in Marriage and Morals advocated a complete outing of sex including a sound sexual education that he thought would go a long way toward creating equality between the sexes. While we have largely seen this happen over the last 50 years in America, we have also seen the commercialization of sex resulting in an explosion of pornography, exploitation, and increasing normalization of deviancy that, as long as the market persists, sees no legitimate end. Even more extreme, we find a kind of cultural hegemony in which young women are actually turned on by their own subserviency. So I don't know the answer to the Indian sexual dilemma, except that some kind of population control is direly lacking.

New Year's was pretty surreal. It included a number of dance numbers where men in tight leather jumpsuits and long shaggy hair would dance suggestively around b-list Bollywood singers crooning lovely Hindi songs. Laser light shows and smoke machines added to the 1980s look and feel, but it really got the Indians out on the floor. By the end of the night the floor was crowded with fathers putting their little girls on their shoulders to see the show. In between dance numbers the hotel would raffle off vacation stays at hotels in other Indian cities. There were exactly two Western songs performed -- ABBA and The Carpenters -- but the crowd was really grooving to the Hindi music.

Jean went to bed early leaving me amongst the Bollywood revellers. It was the first New Year's I can ever remember in which I utterly knew no one, but not bad as New Year's go. My expectations for them are fairly low anyway and I had a pretty amazing scene playing itself out in front of me, as well as all of the crappiest Indian gin I could hold down. I also had a waiter that seemed delighted that I was downing his crappy gin so fast and kept them coming accordingly. i tipped him well in what I hope is an auspicious beginning to the New Year.


Unknown said...

You could begin the sexual revolution in India next time you go by importing suitcases of condoms and leaving them in public spaces. Do you really think women get of on their own subservience? Methinks this is true only of some of the women you have dated.... who may not be representative of American women...

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis said...

It's a significant portion, no doubt.

I went to a very progressive leftist school when I was 15 and living in Pune -- we had "sex ed", virtually unknown in India. To familiarize us with condoms, the teacher passed out some that the Indian govt. had issued. They were exactly what you'd expect: dry, flimsy, cracked.

The teacher also wanted us to get used to touching each other. He had us stand in a conga line, alternating boys & girls, each of us putting our hands on the shoulders in front of us. I'm not clear what he was trying to accomplish. I do know that, barring siblings, these teenage boys & girls had hardly ever touched each other, even on the shoulders. I was the only white student -- I wanted to disappear.

I asked the teacher, privately, if India had much of an HIV problem. He said the only HIV-positive people in India were a few dozen foreign homosexuals, held in hospitals in Bombay and Delhi.