Kerala (my home state) has had a love hate relationship with romance since time immemorial. Policeman turned legendary actor Sathyan regularly praised female form and beauty in hit movie songs. Keralites carried him in their hearts forevermore. Unfortunately his successors in that illustrious service have not been as dignified as Sathyan – case in point being some stalwarts of Kerala police who blackmailed young couples travelling together by threatening to ‘expose’ them to their parents and media.
For those of my limited followers who still evince an interest in the Domesticated Kid and have not been blessed enough to have been born in India, here’s a very brief primer to the interesting concept of ‘moral policing’ as practiced here. Imagine you are out with your girlfriend for a romantic stroll along the Juhu beach. It’s 6 in the evening and the sun is setting slowly across the sea, gently bathing the world with its cool orange rays, the dying flickers of yet another glorious day. Aforementioned rays reach out and touch your beloved’s cheeks, embellishing their natural blush and making her appear even more beautiful. She tilts her head, looks you squarely in the eye and lets loose another one of her bewitching smiles, the kind that makes your heart suspend regular operations and go into a sort of frenzied drumbeat, a primitive signal to your brain that something needs to be done immediately to take advantage of the situation. Overcome by emotion, you lean in to kiss her cheeks, happy in the knowledge that she will reciprocate. Suddenly three determined looking individuals of dubious lineage pop up out of the background scenery and demand situational details – including your name, age, & marriage certificate. Failing to deliver these, you and your girlfriend shall be subjected to a visual search, interspersed with choice words and gestures. The purpose of said visual examination is to ascertain your marital status without the aid of documented proof. If your girlfriend is not wearing a saree or salwar suit with bindi and a dash of kumkum on her forehead, the circumstantial evidence is deemed conclusive and you are declared in violation of a perceived moral standard which is flexible and unwritten. These three knights of cultural propriety could very well be (and usually are) a high school dropout who is now an aspiring thief, a college dropout who is now an aspiring politician and a primary school dropout who is now an aspiring friend to the aspiring politician. Their lack of credentials does not matter. For a glorious 15 minutes, the shared inability to understand the difference between ‘morality’ and ‘police state’ unite them in a brilliance of obnoxiousness.
Even though it’s prevalent across India, moral policing in Kerala has a uniquely Malayali twist to it. It is perhaps the only bipartisan issue agreed upon by all the major political parties in Kerala. Additionally, while moral policing is usually practiced by fanatic right wing extremist males in the rest of India, it is a gender neutral, age irrelevant and politically agnostic cultural phenomenon in Kerala – practiced equally fervently by the right wing fanatic Sankarankutty (age 23) from Venjaramoodu and the die-hard Congress member Sosamma (age 69 ) from the Kottayam Catholic community. Separated by a chasm of age, political beliefs and myriad geriatric diseases, they nevertheless come together on the one inviolable rule – no man and woman of marriageable age (18 as per Sankarankutty and 14 as per the venerable grandma) can be seen together for an extended period of time without the social fabric of the state being torn asunder and its naked vulnerability exposed.
A few more words to drive home this unique distinction of Kerala – for it is an important one. Grandma Sosamma was never appointed the guardian of Kerala’s cultural integrity. It’s a duty she has gladly taken on herself. Her motivation is purely selfless, and her reward nothing more tangible than emotional satisfaction. You can see her at weddings, commenting unfavorably on the backless blouse of the bride’s best friend. You can see her at funerals, tut-tuting sadly about the deceased’s son who was seen the previous week with a ‘strange’ girl at the local bus stop. You can hear her shrill voice amid the din of train compartments, complaining loudly about boys and girls travelling together without parental supervision. I too, have seen her – my wife and I ran into her quite recently at a restaurant. She subjected us to a visual search and found us wanting. My wife was not wearing kumkum and I had on a batman T shirt. Without missing a beat in her stride, she turned to my wife, a woman whom she had never before met in her life, and asked “Ivan ninne kettumodi koche” ? (Literal translation – “Are you sure he’ll marry you eventually?” Actual translation – “ I know you think you are having a good time roaming around with him, but wait until something happens (wink, wink) and then he’ll leave you and go to the Gulf , get rich and get married, while you suffer through life as a single mom, the constant butt of societal ridicule. Are you sure you want such a life?)
Sathyan, the legendary “man’s man” of Kerala cinema might have given grandma Sosamma an earful, but I responded by breaking into helpless laughter, much to my wife’s chagrin.