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Dying for love

Romeo and Juliet, Salim and Anarkali ... there are many such tragic love stories. And the moral police continue their stern watch. Yet there are some bright spots, writes GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN.

SOMEONE told me long ago, "All the world loves a lover". That person must have been terribly nave or hopelessly romantic, at least in a certain sense. The part of the world I live in hardly loves a lover.

A friend, barely 24 but with a plum job, cannot meet or marry his sweetheart. They do not belong to different religions or castes or speak different tongues — reasons usually touted to separate two people — but the woman's father has an ego instead of a head on his shoulders.

But things could be nastier: in central or northern India, caste prejudices lead to cold-blooded murders. Teenage girls and boys are killed or hanged because they have dared to cross man-made boundaries for love. Often, the killers are relatives, and they carry no remorse or guilt long after they have buried or burnt hope and passion.

In neighbouring Afghanistan, "honour killings" are the rule of the day. If a woman were to let her heart run away, the punishment is frightening. She has to die, for she had marred the family name. Her lover could, well, face the same end.

Of course, lovers never had it easy: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet paid with their lives only because their families quarrelled. Akbar was broadminded. He even created a new religion that borrowed from other faiths, even Hinduism. Yet, when it came to Anarkali, he was selfish and brutal. He could not see Salim's love for a court dancer blossom. Literature and history are full of such stories.

Sadly, the same state of affairs prevails today. Shiv Sena's moral policing in Maharashtra has left a trail of shocking casualties. The political party has even tried to stop girls and boys from exchanging Valentine's Day cards and gifts. The practice was "Western", so alien and deleterious to our culture. It went many steps further when it ruled, "no holding hands in the park".

In such a depressing scenario, three theatres in Mumbai have set aside a dozen seats each. Termed "Close-up Corners", they come at no additional cost, but allow couples to cuddle up. The concept may seem radical today, but is by no means novel.

Decades ago, there was at least one theatre in Kolkata which offered this privilege. Whether it still exists is not known, but Mumbai's delightful plan is only to be welcomed in a country where privacy from prying eyes comes at a massive premium.

Whether it is Chennai's beachfront, New Delhi's Lodhi Gardens, Kolkata's Victoria Memorial lawns or Mumbai's Bandstand, there is little protection for a couple out to enjoy a few moments of togetherness. If it is not harassment by vendors, it is the cops. Worse, if they fail to drop the right names or the right denominations of currency notes, they could be hauled to the police station and charged with breaking some non-existent laws. Contrast this picture with, say, one in Paris. In summer, the banks of the Seine are full of courting couples, engrossed and immersed in themselves.

Literature plays a part as well, though not necessarily in the French capital. Every July, in Denver, the "'Romance Writers of America" recapture the age of innocence, and set out to recreate the magic of P.G. Wodehouse's "Honeysuckle Cottage". This club of penpushers, founded in 1980, has 8,000 members, each determined to woo readers through the pages of their literary works. About $ 1.5 billion-worth of romantic books were sold in the U.S. last year, which is a third of all the fiction passing through the cash counters in that country.

Admittedly, the style has largely changed from the one Dame Barbara Cartland and her ilk popularised. The classical hero is no longer a brooding rich aristocrat who meets, during a visit to his ailing aunt, a virginal 19-year-old damsel. Fictional men and women are very different today. The heroines could be divorcees with even a child or two, and the men they admire and seek to be with need not always be playboys on the prowl.

But some traditions live on. Sex has to be within a relationship, and the endings happy. The Denver conference resolved to strengthen this line, and cut out the rough from romantic writing. Every writer may not agree to this. But, the fact is, love endures beyond a storyteller's words of whims and fancies. And, love often finds a way to bloom either on the cosy cushioned comfort of Mumbai's darkened auditoriums or even by the waves of Chennai. Men and their bigotry cannot hope to stop Cupid.

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