No Smoking, No Bikini, No Kissing

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 1225955713|%B %d

We’ve known that public kissing in India is faux pas, but we didn’t know it was illegal.

Sarah and I are, by nature, law-abiding, ethically upstanding, and generally thoughtful about issues of cultural sensitivity. We have tried to keep our displays of affection to a minimum, and be discrete and considerate about what little signals of love we share in public spaces. So when, taken by the peace and the magic of the beach, we stole a forbidden kiss, we first scanned around to make sure that no one was around, and no one was watching.

What we didn’t look for was a policeman hiding in the bushes.

I’m not sure why he was hiding in the bushes. I have to wonder why the police aren’t busy enforcing more useful laws, like the speed limit. He must have caught a glimpse of our first little kiss earlier that afternoon and he positioned himself to catch us in the act.

At any rate, it was quite shocking to hear a voice hailing us from the bushes as we got up to leave a moment later. “Hello!” he called. He was definitely an intimidating presence, in his green and khaki uniform, smart beret, and slick moustache.

“Come,” he said, “Sit.” With a long rod in his hand, he indicated that we should join him in his bushy hide out. He wore an extraordinarily somber expression on his face.

I really had no idea what was going on. I certainly didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong, and even though his first call to us had come right on the heels of a little smooch, I couldn’t imagine that such a casual act would attract his attention. Being summoned by a figure of apparent authority caused my heart to skip a beat, but it wasn’t until we had made a few rounds of small talk that I had any idea of what we might have done to offend him.

“What are you doing here on beach?” he asked us.

“We were reading,” we said, frankly. We had, in fact, just come from the used bookstore.

“Reading?” he seemed perplexed. “What is reading?” I wonder if he was expecting a more scandalous answer.

“You know,” Sarah clarified, “from a book.”

“You kiss how many times?” he asked.

“Just twice,” I answered, “Once just then, and once earlier.”

THAT much is clear.
THAT much is clear.

“I see you kiss three times!” he insisted, “Three times!” So he was spying on us. Still, my count for our quiet afternoon of reading was only two kisses, but I didn’t bother to contradict him.

At this point he launched into a long monologue about the sacredness of the Ganges and the inappropriateness of public kissing (which he referred to as “open sex”).

Sarah and I were very apologetic. “We did not know,” I said. “We see the signs, ‘No swimming, no smoking, no bikini,’ but we did not know no kissing. Now we know, and we will not do again.”

That didn’t quite seem to appease him. I’m not sure if he understood. He repeated elements of his monologue, and I said again that we were very sorry.

“You agree you do wrong?” he asked us.

“Yes,” I said.

He turned to Sarah. “You?”

“Yes,” she said.

There was an awkward silence.

In one sense, I am not convinced that we did anything wrong. I can’t think of any natural or supernatural reason that public kissing should be so stringently forbidden. Indeed, in an American context, I imagine our open affection to be beautiful and prophetic. Standards have changed in America, and not all for the better. There’s plenty of public affection these days, but it sensationalized in such a way that it doesn’t usually happen between married people. Our culture needs to know that the fire of love doesn’t suddenly extinguish after the honeymoon; that married people can be deeply, actively in love.

Of course, I recognize that a big part of this is cultural. We brought our actions with us, but their meaning does not necessarily translate. I do regret that we were not more conscious of and sensitive to such differences. By no means were we intending to engage in “open sex.” I feel horrible about inadvertently reinforcing the stereotype of the “loose” Westerner. This was certainly by no means what we intended to do in coming to India. In that respect, what we did was indeed unquestionably amiss.

“What do you want to do?” he asked us. Sarah and I didn’t quite understand what he was asking us. The reality that bribes are a common way of dealing with the police in the developing world was at the back of both of our minds. Was he asking for one? Being good Americans, we certainly weren’t going to offer it.

“You go to police station, you have big problem. I must call my senior officer.” He pulled out his cell phone, and paused. “Understand? OK?”

“OK,” Sarah and I said, worriedly. So far as we were concerned, if we broke the law, even we didn’t know it, or understand or agree with it, we would have to take the consequences. All we could do is reiterate our apologies and assure everyone that we meant no offense and wouldn’t do it again.

Apparently that wasn’t the answer he was hoping for, as he put his cell phone down and began to lecture us again on how bad it would be for us to go to the police station, and then he asked us again if we thought that we had done wrong.

After a few more confusing rounds similar to this one, he told us that he would be willing to let us off with a “fine” of 500 rupees, which he took and hastily pocketed.

We were OK with this. In retrospect, we really had no way of knowing if kissing on the beach was indeed illegal, or even if the man who confronted us was in fact a policeman. Rafting down the same corridor, we witnessed several dozen foreign women sunbathing in bikinis only a few hundred meters upstream. An intrepid gentleman with a police uniform who takes enforcing local moral scruples into his own hands could probably make a mint off of “fines” from foreign tourists.

But all the same, we were deeply sorry to be a stumbling block, even to one spying “policeman,” and we weren’t too upset about parting with ten-odd bucks to demonstrate it.

As we left, I invoked my politest Hindi in one last attempt to make amends. “Krpaya, hame maf kijie, sahib.” (Please forgive us, sir.) This at last seemed to satisfy him: the look of deep anxiety melted from his face, and he smiled at us.

“OK,” he answered in Hindi, “I will forgive you. But in the future, please do not do such things.”

And of course we won’t! We’ve learned this lesson the hard way. We left the beach, not knowing whether to cry or to laugh. We were shaken by our encounter, but grateful that today such cultural misunderstandings are handled with lectures and fines, rather than lynch mobs.

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