Moral Policing in Indian Hotels

It has been a hectic few weeks of travel. As much as I love to travel, today I will enjoy the comfort of my bed, my quilt and quietness of the city. I do like traveling… the meeting new people, discovering new roads, new food joints, different things about each city… I even like the airports and some times, the bus stations.

The toughest part of traveling currently are the hotels. Real estate in the Indian metro cities is expensive, thereby expensive hotels. Staying in hotels like The Grand Hyatt, Marriot, The Park etc is way out of my budgets. What I can afford would be reasonable, small hotels in clean areas. I do not mind roughing it… all I ask for is a clean bed and a sparkling clean bathroom, and yes, safe.

I’ve done a fair bit of work-related travel in the past few months, with my partner and colleague. Being your own boss means you need to make your own arrangements for everything, and I’ve also grown a little wiser and would rather book rooms ahead of time instead of trying to come up with a place on the fly. Just keeping things simple.

But three times now, in different cities, we have been denied a room for a simple reason – they do not rent rooms to unmarried people. Okay, that’s  not true. They are perfectly happy to rent two rooms but refuse to rent a single room to two people of different genders.

It does not matter if you have a prior booking that clearly states your names. It does not matter if it is a corporate booking. If you are not married, you cannot share a room. For “Security Reasons”.

The first time this happened, we were amused. When we called to book a room for two people, the person on the other end clearly stated they do not rent rooms to ‘unmarried couples’. 

The second time, we were rather indignant. The manager at the hotel in question said the ‘government law’ does not allow unmarried people (a man and woman) to share a room. When asked about unmarried foreign couples renting such rooms, he said the law is not applicable to them. So the government is either trying to protect my chastity or doesn’t give a damn about foreigners getting into trouble. Of course, the manager added, if our parents would call and vouch for us and say it is okay to give us a room, they’d be quite happy to give us a room. My mom is more powerful than the government. 

The third time this happened, we were rather pissed. We were traveling exclusively on work, had a prior confirmation. The hotel, of course, assumed me to be a man. The duty ‘manager’ mumbled and mumbled without giving us any answer about our reservation till we nearly shouted. Then he mumbled that since my last name did not match my partner’s, they could not give us a room. “We do not give a room to couples unless they are married.”

The problem here was he did not even bother to check if we were married. He just assumed since my last name did not match my partner’s, we weren’t married. Or if was “modern” enough not to change my name, I couldn’t get a room. We were furious. But how does one argue with illiterate people manning the desk of what calls itself to be one of the most ‘exclusive corporate hotels’ in the city? 

His idea was that my last name did not match my partner’s. What other proof does one have to show they are married? Your marriage certificate? Your marriage photographs? In today’s world, how many women change their name officially? The number of documents you would need to change your name, and the attestations for each and the time you need to spend on each of it… the mere thought is frightening. Most married women I know wear the mangalsutra only on certain occassions, and rarely everyday. Yet, it seems you need to do change your name. For what? So you do not get insulted and harassed the next time you book a hotel room and the hotel things you are a couple out to have sex in some hotel room, no matter if you are booking the room for a fortnight.

I would have probably let this go, but it happened again. Again with a hotel where we had a confirmed booking. This time, I was traveling with a colleague and it was embarassing for both of us to stand there and have the receptionist tell us “sorry we cannot give you a room since you are not married.” We had requested for a room with two separate beds. Sharing a room saved a lot of costs. The woman claimed that this was for ‘security’ reasons and refused to elaborate. We tried explaining to her that we were here on work and were quite delayed. We offered to get her written / call confirmations / approvals from whoever she needed. Yet, she refused. Because the hotel has ‘security’ issues and they seem more related to the fact that we are not married, we would be sharing a room and oops, we could do something ‘immoral’ like have sex. 

Even if I did want to have “illicit” sex in a hotel room, what concern is it of the hotel management? Why should they care about what happens between two consenting adults? And if the criteria is ‘security’, what is the basis? They are scared the guy might beat up the girl or vice versa? Or they could be involved in a molestation or rape case. 

If that is really your concern,  the hotels shouldn’t be renting rooms to two unrelated men or women. Rape happens even if you are homosexual. Actually, the hotels shouldn’t be renting rooms to two people. Because issues arise even among family members. Yes, even rape. 

So if the hotel is really having security issues, they should not rent rooms out to anybody. Each person gets one room and nobody else is allowed there. That should solve the issues, right? 

Or if the hotel management meant my moral character’s security, that is none of their fucking business. Literally. They provide a service. Of course, they could reserve the right of entry (or however that is phrased) but you cannot cast aspersions on my character and think we are just going to shut up and take it. If you want to do moral policing, declare it on your website. Mention that you do not rent rooms to unmarried couples / people of opposite genders wanting to share a room. And then we’ll see how much business you get.

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Raksha Bandhan

It is Raksha Bandhan tomorrow. The pretty festival which every advertiser is cashing in on – from chocolate manufacturers to insurance companies. Of course, every culture in India has its own version of it – South India has Nagapanchami, Marathis have Bhai Dooj and I just learnt that Bengal has Bhai Phota. And several other such versions which all relate to the sister tying a version of Rakhi to the brother in exchange for protection. Some cultures also say that we pray for the long lives of the brothers, and then there are the gifts.

It is the only festival I guess I find sort of sweet… I perhaps never prayed for the ‘long life’ for any brother but it is wishing them luck and them wishing me luck. Every other festival is about the whole family and it is sort of sweet to celebrate a relationship which largely gets ignored – fraternal.

So I went to pick up a rakhi today during my lunch break. There aren’t too many shops around here but every store – even if it is like a stationery store or a medial shop has a stock of rakhis. Everything I saw this time was bling… shiny red stones, pink stones, blue stones and sequins, shimmery gold material with purple stones. You get the picture. No?

That should give you some idea.

Of course, this is a cartoon but image something a lot more real.

I could imagine my brothers’ reactions to each one of those… so I rejected tray by tray till we reached the last one and looked up in desperation.

Kuch simple sa nahi hai kya?” (Don’t you have anything simple?) I asked the guy.

After indicating thread-like structures hanging out there, he pulled out another box, claiming most people didn’t like such rachis. They were plain, made of velvet, without the “Om” symbols or other gods and all that jazz. The kind that they advertise on TV but so hard to find in real life (in little by-the-road shops).

While I was picking through the boxes, a school girl walked up to pick up some. She was a lot faster than me… given her limited budget too. She picked a slim one, suitable for a 12-year old’s wrist, which cost barely 10 bucks. Her hands hovered at a slightly more elaborate one and I wondered if I should offer to buy it for her.

And then I remembered the other part of the festival – being able to buy it for your brother. Sometimes we ask money from parents. Sometimes from the aforementioned brother itself. But sometimes, we save up… not having that ice-cream for a day. True… most of that occurs when you aren’t old enough to earn, but it is the fun part. And finding a rakhi that fits your budget and your taste is the challenge.

When I was growing up, the local shopping complex would string out boards and boards of rakhis outside the stores. Several sizes and several price ranges… women of all ages would come to bargain.

As the festival is mainly North Indian, you’d seen hordes of women in colorful, thin saris with the loose end half draped over their heads arguing with the vendor over the prices. They would buy these in packs… every cousin would get one, and then there were family friends who were also considered brothers. They celebrated it the traditional way… with the plate filled with sweets, a little lamp, and the multi-colored threads. I never had the patience for such rituals. Nor did my brothers I guess. If he did, he never asked for all the rituals… we were a little embarrassed about all that fuss.

As we grew older, the fact remained that I would remember, even when I wasn’t around or he wasn’t around and he’d get that colorful piece of thread.

And then there were the gifts. Yes. The important part of the festival when we were kids. The ritual from the guy… he would save up and buy something little… unless you had an older brother who was working who was expected to shell out enough money for something pretty.

Funnily enough my brothers were always around except for this festival… “It isn’t our festival” they would claim… so I began calling them up on the nagapanchami day and asking if they would like to celebrate it today. That solved the issue. How does the date matter as long as the thought’s there, right?

I can’t remember when it changed from being a matter of pride of having so many rakhis on your hand in school to “man I hope she doesn’t come at me with a rakhi.”

Those were the fun days. And material for gossip when someone who would’ve probably tied a rakhi a year ago would ‘sort of’ start dating the next year. Or vice versa. Always thought that was a little incestuous but it is what you believe that matters, I guess.

I don’t know how the festival is going now. I am stuck here at office, without those twinkling, sparkling rows of threads. I haven’t seen those women in colorful ghunghats bargaining with the shopkeepers. I haven’t seen them buy the rakhis with their daughters, while the men wait outside. I haven’t seen school girls choose the prettiest ones.

Come to think of it, I missed all of that child-like excitement even on Friendship’s Day, which is probably the only other day when you see all this fuss… got to do something with the bands and the fact that we youngsters can celebrate it too.

I miss those colorful bands around my wrist. Once I was out of school, hence the band-phase, the kids around my house always had some for me. They would ambush me as I stepped out of the house… reminding me a little of the “who will bell the cat” story. The first kid would approach and wish me “happy friendship’s day” and would want to tie a band, usually made of colorful threads knotted together at home. It was prettier and more touching than a store-bought band.

By the time that one finished knotting it around my hand, there would be a bunch of other kids wanting to do the same. I never took off those bands, till they eventually wore off. It was a symbol of innocence we were fast losing.

Many of them still exist in that little box under my bed and surprisingly, I can recall who gave me each of one of those bands – be it those kids or my friends.

Have those bands lost the value now? Do kids celebrate it the same way? There expensive ones out in the market now… the sort I would hesitate to buy, particularly when I had over 10 people as ‘close friends.’ But many don’t hesitate now… or perhaps it is a peer pressure thing. They whine and moan and want the best looking one out there.

Do kids still choose the prettiest and slightly pricey one for the best friend and the rest for the others?

What is it about those bands that band us together – be it rakhi or a friendship band?

Happy Raksha Bandhan.

Link of the day: The people in 20s (this actually should be photo of the day… but hey! bunch of images, can’t be posted. Enjoy the photos and the story that goes with it!)

Marriages

About 10 people I know have gotten married in the past 6 months. I have 5 ‘wedding clothes’ in my wardrobe now. And as more people enter this minefield, I hear  more stories… and more questions…

1. Do you change your surname after your wedding?
I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve heard this question. In the 80s or perhaps earlier, it was accepted that the girl would change her surname. But now, it is a debate… Every time a friend asks what I think about it, I merely shrug. I wouldn’t change my name. But that is what these girls said as well… and now they wonder how it would be considered…

My mother didn’t change her name but years after her marriage, she had to do it because people just assumed that her name was followed by my dad’s name. Rather than deal with the hassle of getting the name on the cheque changed everytime or the legal documents or whatever else, she now goes by both names.

My sister on the other hand, changed her name. I don’t know if she ever did it legally as well but all her email IDs and cards read her name followed by her husband’s name.

Is it really a loss of identity? Or could be considered a changing of identity? In today’s world, should it even be called a changing of identity or merely an addition to the roles you already play?

I hate the thought of changing my name or even my address. I cannot even remember how many places my name and address would have to be changed. Plus, considering my profession, that would be splitting my identity. Oh and not to mention the legal hassles!!!

2. Own place?
I thought this wouldn’t really be an issue anymore… but apparently it still is. Parents are more accepting of this, but only if the house is overcrowded. Indian families hang onto children and everyone else like leeches sometimes. I can see a clear line between those who get their own pad and those who don’t (and are even okay with it).

I just wonder – wouldn’t you want the independence and the fun of having your own place? Yes, it involves cranky maids and waking up at 6 AM to get the milk perhaps but it also involves decorating it in any crazy way you want, having friends over at all crazy hours and without having to explain their craziness to your parents or worse, in-laws;  just that space to breathe…

***

Okay marriage is a minefield and I do not even want to think of all the issues that are involved in it… least till I’m forced to enter that land.

But what about relationships? A new relationship… how much do you let yourself be immersed in it? Can you ignore friends and your life? Would you sit hour after hour with your boyfriend and his friends because you want to spend time with him, when you can’t really follow the conversation and though you love to talk, you can’t talk much because it is stuff you don’t connect with?

How many compromises would you make for a relationship? It is a juggling act, as I’ve been learning… between you, the tug-of-war between what you want, you and him, you and friends and friends and him…

Song of the day: Paint the town red: The Hotcakes

Religion – A Thought? A way of Life?

I’d an interesting conversation with a friend today about religion and different political parties in India.

He is pro-BJP, while I am absolutely against. Perhaps there are some good people in the party but I just don’t like their whole Hindutva policy. I do not  like any party which focusses on religion, which pretty much means all Indian political parties are out. Except, I feel the BJP does it more than anyone else.

But I was a little shocked to realise that this friend – who is educated, well-traveled and belongs to the “upper middle class” section of society – was absolutely pro-BJP. And believes as India is a Hindu nation, the Hindus need to be given more rights. A fact that I absolutely do not agree with.

India is a secular country, which means equal rights to all. And yes, special privileges to some who come from a weaker section of the society.

“A Hindu man, from the day he has his family, works for his family, ensures his children eat no matter what he does, supports them and struggles for them,” the friend said (summarizing). That stopped me.

I figured the lifestyle is dictated by socio-economic conditions rather than religion. I know affluent Muslims and Hindus who live the same way while a poor Hindu and Muslim drink and abuse their families. Islam forbids drinking but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone. Hinduism forbids a lot more things but that doesn’t stop anyone either.

“Babar bought in blood in India. The Aryans lived happily” the friend said.

Why do we pick and choose parts of history that is convenient to us? The Aryans invaded India in the first place, if you really want to trace history. Dravidians were the original inhabitants of India. India’s culture grew with the mixing of various cultures over centuries. There were the Aryans, who bought in the caste system. There were the Parsis, the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians. Each religion came by as it developed, as the world changed. There was Buddhism and Jainism as well… started here in our own country. So on what basis do we say that a country belongs to one culture alone? And how long does a culture need to exist on a piece of land before we accept it as a part of our culture?

The BJP recently tried to pass a bill that bans cow slaughter in Karnataka. I found it ridiculous. It violated several basic rights of an Indian citizen. And this was passed to merely detract people from other problems in the state and win the Hindu vote bank! I thought it didn’t work and was rather pleased to see such strong protest against it. But apparently there were supporters. Cows are gods in the Hindu religion. But then so is nature. That doesn’t seem to stop people from chopping trees, from taking over forests.

Why pick and choose? What gives anyone the right to pick and choose? If we really did that, then the Harijans would still be living as the untouchables, women would still be burnt alive on funeral pyres and widows would be banished to live on river banks, begging for food.

There is a story in Kannada literature of a hunter named Bedara Kannappa. (one version of the story) – Kannappa is a fierce hunter who always gets a game. One day he waits for his prey in a tree… the day passes and no animal goes by. He gets frustrated and while waiting, he slowly pulls off leaves from the tree and drops it on the ground. He does not notice then that there is a Shiva Linga under the tree. Finally, when he looks down and sees the Linga he makes a promise to Shiva that if he gets a game, he will give Shiva a part of it. Right then, a deer comes by, the hunter shoots it, leaves some for the god and goes home. The same things happens over the next several days.

When the priest comes to worship the next time, he is horrified by the meat lying around the temple. He curses whoever ‘defiled’ the temple and cleans it. After a couple of times, the priest loses his temper and hides in a bush nearby to see who is the culprit defiling the temple. He catches Kannappa and yells at him for spoiling the temple. The hunter argues that an offering is an offering and that the God does not have a problem with it. Shiva hears their argument and cries at the priest’s abuse of the hunter. The hunter, seeing tears emerge from the Linga, promises to stem the flow of tears and cuts out his own eyes and offers to God. Shiva is pleased by this final act of devotion, appears in front of him and restores his eyesight and tells him that he is pleased with the devotion Kannappa has shown in all these days.

The story forms a source for the reason why Shiva is worshipped with 101 leaves of a particular tree. However, people now would absolutely frown (like that priest did) at getting meat into the temple. Temples are holy places, temples are not meant for “unclean” people was the consensus which led to people being barred from entering. It was that way of thinking that eventually led to the system of untouchables.

There are several stories of Indian gods doing things that people forbid devotees from doing. Who interprets this religion? The Upanishads and the Vedas, which are considered the basis for several rituals and customs, are also supposed to have chants which were used to kill animals.

Then why is vegetarianism considered the “hindu way of life?”

Religions are interpreted according to the political needs of that time. And religions can co-exist if they adapt to the time as well. The Vedas and the Upanishads also preach co-existance with other cultures and gods. Then why the antagonism against Muslims and Christians?

There are equally rigid Muslims and Christians. There have been Christian people who pose as missionaries and try to convert others. There have been Muslims who preach that their god is the best. I would say shoot them all, regardless of religion.

The RSS, the Shiv Sena are political tools. Their offshoots are no better. What else would you call an organization that would beat up women and children in the name of protecting culture? I remember a time when they came recruiting on my doorstep. It was a wonder that they did, considering they knew how ‘forward’ we were… but they still did. They got chased away. Perhaps it was their opening line – “we are hindus. we need to stick together” that cause the problem. Maybe it was the loud proclamation of how we are the best.

No. I am not satisfied with any religion or anything any of it has to offer. I do not want a god that discriminates by what we eat, what language we speak, what we wear and who are our friends. I don’t believe a real God does that anyway. I don’t believe God cares about what hymns I’m singing, what temple/mosque/church I pray at. I don’t believe God really worries about how many coconuts I’m going to bring him today. I don’t believe God cares about the wine I drink, the people I date. I guess God would just be happy if I didn’t kill anyone, cheat anyone and go do whatever it is I was meant to do.

I am not insulting any religion here. Each one of us require a faith to live. To believe in. I just don’t think that it is related to what a political party wants us to believe or any priest telling us that this is the way to live. I love the confusion of cultures in India.

(These are my own thoughts, borne or reminded from the conversation I had with some people over the last week and today. No offence to anyone, no forcing anyone to come over to my line of thinking. We can all coexist.)

Edit: A friend and someone I deeply respect wrote this article on a website. The timing is interesting because it is about the same topic with a slightly different view about Hindus regard their gods

http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/exegesis/the-moon-is-elsewhere/

Being Indian

There are about 8 different cultures living on my street. There are the Iyers, the Iyengars, the Bramhins, North Indian (something… they don’t interact much with the others), Marathi Bramhins, Shaivaites, something from Mangalore who speak Tulu, and ofcourse my family which is too mixed to explain. One might argue that all these people are pretty much the same and can be grouped under Bramhins and the others. But the mere suggestion of that would meet with glares and arguments about why they are different from each other. They all prize their ‘cultures’ very much.

India’s diversity – which came about from the merging of various cultures – has gotten even more fragmented. Rigid.

We do have a beautiful and diverse culture.  But culture cannot be defined by merely tradition and religion and the set of rituals you follow. It encompasses an entire way of life, dictated by how you define your culture. Officially, for the anthropologists, there are about 150 definitions of culture. And they summarize to include every single thing about our life. The way we decorate our homes, the way we dress, talk, interact with others, the gods we worship and the gods we denounce, the festivals, the food, the footwear, the headgear, the language, the gestures, the looks, the government.

We are complex… sometimes to the point of hypocrisy. Religion has been used as a football so often that most of us do not recognize it. we worship kali as a mother and insult women in the next minute, we go out of our way to be nice to visitors and try to rob them blind the next, we try to help them understand our culture so much but we get insensitive to their culture, we celebrate every little victory in life even when life is a struggle every day. We are a mass of contradictions and it is adorable.

And I love this confusion of being Indian. But you start thinking a little more and cracks appear. There is a fierce resistance to change even as we want all the good things in life. Perhaps that is a wall every culture faces before metamorphosis. And it just gets amplified because of the sheer volume of people behind that wall. Some changes are seeping through. Article 377 decriminalising homosexuality for one,  laws repealing child marriage, allowing live in relationships, giving women more power to make choices…

But I am impatient. I want more. I get extremely frustrated at the way things work here. And this is regardless of a city, a village or a town. If Indian culture were so brilliant and faultless – explain Bihar. Explain the ‘honor’ killings that happen in Punjab. Explain why women are burnt to death in the name of dowry? Explain why a rape victim is made to feel like she is responsible for what happened? Explain why women are beaten up in broad daylight for wearing pants? Why did it take so long for the Muslim board to allow women to be photographed for passports? Explain why Goa is the hub for pedophilia in the world? Why sex is such a taboo subject that we are against sex education as well in schools? That we fear merely mentioning the word sex will send children into having an orgy? And if we were so against sex, why do we have the world’s highest population?

Why is there more hue and cry about a foreign tourist being mugged or murdered or raped and nobody really cares about what happens to the citizens here? Isn’t a life a life, regardless of color, sex or creed?

And then we deny these things happen. Or we shake our heads in sorrow and shake it out of our head. It is not my problem. Our flexibility is our greatest asset and greatest curse.

A friend recently mentioned how call center jobs are moving to Manila because the people there have the same skill sets as in India, are cheaper and can ‘think’. That last adjective stopped me for a minute and my instinctive response was to defend India. But it is true. We like to follow rules, except when it is inconvenient to our own laziness. How many of us have called a call centre and been frustrated with the response? For any query, it is usually “I am sorry ma’am, we cannot help you with it”.

Like my recent experience with Airtel. With my bank, I’ve learnt to directly ask for a supervisor because I get only negative responses from the call centre people. If the supervisor can devise a way to help me out, why can’t the others?

Rules, apparently.

Anyway, back to the original point, we need to clean up our act and stop taking offense at every honest opinion. Anyone who discovers Indian culture, discovers all the cracks along with the good stuff. Why should we expect to be applauded only for the good things (that we were supposed to do in the first place) and ignore the bad stuff?