Last week, a video emerged of two people – reportedly, a husband and a wife – who had been embracing in the Sarayu river when onlookers began to hit the man, then dragged them both out of the water. Their affectionate behaviour with one another was considered offensive by the crowd.
The Sarayu is a tributary of the Ganga, considered by many Hindus to be the most sacred of rivers. The incident took place in Ayodhya, a holy and highly contentious location. But no matter where this had happened, the mob’s reaction would be familiar. Moral policing of people’s desires and relationships is not new in India. There is a spectrum of such repressive violence: from right-wing thugs who physically attack couples and women on Valentine’s Day to landlords who refuse tenants who are not married heterosexuals. But even for the latter category: their neighbours are more likely to be offended by sounds of pleasure coming out of their windows than by sounds of battery. Moral policing requires that one interfere and create strife when joy or love are observed, and stay out of it silently when abuse or distress are witnessed.
On some level, it is as though the couple standing in the river – and anyone who has ever been morally policed – was attacked because they displayed something other than unhappiness, and the profound unhappiness at the heart of this society is glimpsed again in that reaction.
This week, some of my father’s ashes will finally be immersed in the Ganga, as per his own wishes. He was among the victims of devastating third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India – believed to be inflicted on the country largely through election campaigning. This is the same river in which, just over a year ago and the height of the pandemic, unclaimed bodies numbering in the hundreds if not more were found floating.
Those corpses had been people who could not have the dignity of final rites, for reasons we can surmise range from penury, to loss or illness of all kin during that brutal collective crisis, to the sheer overwhelm experienced by cremation ground workers. This year, a contradictory narrative has come up: that the burial of bodies near a ghat of the Ganga, and subsequent low water levels that expose them, were the reason for this disturbing phenomenon. This is supposedly an ancient custom, but one which strangely enough was not offered as an explanation in 2021, when macabre visuals were widely shared internationally. Custom alone does not explain the numbers either, even if they are only the officially reported ones. In a time where any narrative can be given mileage if a powerful hand wishes to promote it, true stories are frequently buried or sunk, and take a long time to re-emerge – if ever.
So much worse happens in a holy river than a kiss. How quickly all is forgotten, and forgiven, when it comes to the sins of those in power. Imagine if the moral righteousness that makes people interfere in the personal lives of others – that deep misery that disguises itself as rectitude – was used instead to hold to account the powerful.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.