How do you initiate a conversation about love, romance and sex when none of these is discussed in most Indian families?

Between the routine vandalism displayed by Hindu fanatical groups like the Bajrang Dal on Valentine’s Day every year and the continuing horror stories emerging from the khap panchayats in Haryana, lies a vast arena of romance, rebellion and repression that is rarely reported. It is the story of many thousands of young women and young men, caught in a time of transition where the old makes no sense and the new is uncharted and frightening.

You get a glimpse of these hidden stories when you read small newspaper items such as the one on February 13 in a New Delhi newspaper. It reported that a 16-year-old girl in Jamia Nagar tried to commit suicide from the roof of her school after being scolded by her teacher and principal. The longer story was that the girl was found to be carrying a “love letter” from her “boyfriend”. For this, her teacher and the school principal reprimanded her. It is not known whether she survived the attempted suicide.

In another story that I heard personally, a 17-year-old girl, daughter of a domestic help, ran away with a man almost 10 years older than her. She came back home three days later only after she persuaded her family not to file charges against the man, who she insisted she loved. She also insisted that he had not persuaded her to leave their home and that she was the one who took the initiative. The mother is understandably angry and confused, not knowing how this could have happened and what she should do next.

These two are not the teenage girls you see in advertisements for mobile phones who seem no different from girls anywhere in the world. They come from conservative families, and yet the world outside their homes appears to assure them that they are “free” to make choices. Technology, by way of mobile phones or the Internet, enhances this sense of choice and freedom.

In fact, mobile phones have effectively created the illusion of privacy. “Secret” conversations are possible. Text messages can be exchanged and erased before they are “discovered”. There is no need for the kind of “love letter” that was found on the unfortunate young girl in Jamia Nagar.

Yet, when these young women pursue their romantic dreams, facilitated by this private world they have created, they end up hitting their heads against the dead weight of tradition and conservatism — traditions that still believe that women have no right to choose who they will marry; traditions that deny the place for romance; traditions that determine that, above all, women must maintain the izzat, the respect, of the clan, the community, the family.

And so millions of our young girls today are being educated, are learning to use new technology, have their heads filled with ideas of romance from television serials and films, but are told none of this is allowed.

How should parents and teachers be dealing with this silent emergency that is all around us? Clearly, scolding, reprimanding, locking up our girls is neither effective nor desired. How do you open up the conversation about love, romance and sex when none of these things is ever discussed in most Indian families? Or for that matter in schools.

The only way is to talk about these issues, to let in the air and the light. It is not possible to shut young people off from influences that are all around us, particularly in urban areas. We are only just beginning to assess the extent to which something like the spread of mobile phones has impacted social relations, including inside families. These processes cannot be reversed.

Yet, if you look at the political discourse in our country, you can see that there is a real effort to do precisely that. Moral policing is only one side of it. By projecting constantly, the lack of safety for women in the public space, for instance, this discourse — in which the media too has a role — is directly and indirectly justifying steps to push women into the four walls of the home, into “safety”. It is upholding the view that young women must be watched and their movements monitored. It is virtually stipulating that the only “choice” for these young women, who have been exposed to ideas and influences vastly different from the world in which their mothers lived, is to quietly accept what the family or the community decides for them.

If an increasing number of young women are literally straining at the leash, it is hardly surprising. It would be tragic if their genuine desire for free choice is repressed and controlled to the point that they will be forced to break out, and sometimes pay a terrible price for such rebellion.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com