(For the Kolkata Telegraph, December 2005)

In Nepal, by the Pokhra lake, the locals will nod at the benches strewn around and explain cheerfully that these are for courting couples. You see them everywhere, young boys and girls looking into each other’s eyes, or just quietly conversing. There’s an unspoken line that doesn’t seem to be crossed: no passionate kissing, no fumbling at clothes. But they’re content. “Even in public, we need some space for ourselves, madam,” one boy explains.

Galle in Sri Lanka is famous for its “umbrella lovers”; courting couples discreetly shielded by umbrellas, scattered all over the ramparts of the fort. The height of the umbrella is a good indicator of the intensity of the relationship: in the more private nooks and crannies, the umbrellas will be slung low, affording a measure of privacy to couples who can’t keep their hands off each other. If the lovemaking proceeds too far, someone will gently tell off the boy and the girl, but otherwise locals turn a blind eye to small gestures of intimacy. “Your blood sings that way only when you’re young, no? Good to let them sing, but not too loud.”

You don’t have to look to the West if you’re looking for sanction for young love. The Nepal tradition of courting couples is borrowed, locals admit, at least partly from “foreign films”—but that “foreign” label includes Bollywood cinema. Galle sets its limits, or relaxes them, according to prevailing Lankan—not Western—norms of morality. It’s only in India that we refuse to look at our own traditions clearly and dismiss the entire idea of public displays of affection as a Western import.

This week, the Meerut police triumphantly carried out Operation Majnu—”cleaning up” parks and public spaces by pouncing on hapless young couples (defined as any boy and girl seen together who weren’t actually blood relatives) and slapping them around in the name of morality. Operation Majnu has been denounced by almost everyone—including some of the supposedly “conservative” parents of those traumatized teenagers.

But ask most Indians what they consider acceptable romantic behaviour for any couple, adolescent or middle-aged, and watch the confusion. In many urban circles, friends will greet each other quite casually with a hug or a kiss. In many of our supposedly cosmopolitan cities, though, even a middle-aged couple holding hands on the road might face disapproval or lewd comment. Chennai has recently adopted a Quakerish disapproval of dancing—what, people touching each other in public, and enjoying themselves?

So what’s publicly acceptable behaviour? Shaking hands, yes; a hug between two people of opposite genders, no? Is it all right for married couples to kiss in public, provided they have attested copies of the marriage certificate at hand to flourish at guardians of morality? Would engaged couples be allowed a peck on the cheek in public so long as they refrained from locking lips? If it was considered inappropriate for unmarried men and women to exchange a hug, would a gay-hetero embrace be exempt from moral scrutiny?

Operations like Majnu teach teenagers nothing except that they need to sneak around more and that they don’t deserve privacy. We should have been teaching these young adults that respect for themselves and their partners is as much part of love as is passion and raging hormones; instead, we’re teaching them that love itself is a dirty word.