Captain James Cook, who is said to have seen the whole world first by journeying to Australia, the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand in the 18th Century, also discovered the word “taboo”. In 1777, when he was visiting Friendly Islands, now Tonga, Cook wrote in his journal: “When any thing is forbidden to be eat, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.”
Since then the word has travelled through centuries, through Freud, and has been recognised as the society’s way of protecting itself from a potential threat.
So what is taboo in 21st Century Calcutta' What does the city see as threats'
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, an American who was supposed to marry a Bengali girl and had visited Calcutta on a meet-the-relatives tour had happened to remark that he found even holding hands with his girlfriend difficult in the city — Calcutta was repressive. A remark that she overheard and that led to the cancellation of the marriage. The incident takes place about 10 years ago in the novel. It seems this injunction — and many similar, and some graver — still hold Calcutta life in rein.
The city is very uncomfortable with touch. Forget about kissing; holding hands and walking down the road with your sweetheart instantly invite stares from passers-by. Public Display of Affection may have gained a currency wide enough to become an abbreviation — PDA — but it is not entertained. “PDA is okay on college campuses and in nightclubs, but not in the streets,” says T. S. Sujatha, a web content manager. “Something as innocent as hugging can be taboo,” says Amrita Sinha, a college student.
Up in smoke
Smoking for women is really the limit. It is thought of as a macho act — the fire, the smoke — and a woman doing it violates the observer’s sense of masculinity. Maybe because it’s more genteel, drinking is considered not as great an act of transgression, though there are difficulties, too.
While a man can walk into a bar and chill over a glass of beer, in how many places in the city can a woman do so' “The waiters refused to serve some female friends who walked into a bar as they did not have ‘company’,” complains 24-year-old Pallavi Banerjee. It’s much worse when it comes to smoking. “I used to work in a building where many of us girls would sit and smoke on the stairs. The building housed other offices with employees who would give us dirty looks and mutter comments. I even get glances from the shopkeeper and bystanders while buying cigarettes. They look uneasy,” adds Pallavi.
“People stare and pass remarks if a woman lights up on the streets,” says Munmun Banerjee Ghosh, a university student.
In Mumbai, people don’t always stop to look if a woman is smoking. Neither do they gape at tank tops.
Though nightlife in Calcutta is reported to be booming, coming home late at night remains a big problem, with curious neighbours and imperious landlords keeping a tab on the girl or boy next door. “I usually get home late because of my working hours and sometimes on weekends if I’m out with friends, but this doesn’t go down well with many of my relatives. Neighbours also discuss me,” says Rajesh Pillai, a young advertising professional.
City model Tina, and her parents, had to change apartments after being harassed by their landlord. She had two things working against her — her profession and the late nights involved. “The landlord would lock the main gate and create havoc before letting me in at night. Returning after my show in make-up and costume would tick him off further. It wasn’t the same for others in the building,” says Tina.
Men don’t have a better time always. Neeraj, who has been modelling for nearly four years and has won the Gladrags Manhunt contest in the eastern zone, has failed to convince his father of the worth of his profession. “I come from a conservative joint family. My father is an engineer with a business, which he wanted me to take up. Today, I’m also a fitness instructor and trainer, but he still thinks I’m wasting my time,” says Neeraj.
Being unconventional in appearance also invites scowls. “I was working in a firm in New York. That I had long hair never seemed a problem, till I came back to Calcutta. People would stare and pass comments. I had a piercing under my lip for which some relatives would taunt my parents. I didn’t want them to suffer so I decided to do away with it,” rues Rahul Roy, a model.
Despite so many awareness drives, a man, or a woman, perceived to look “gay” — though the stereotype is more associated with men — can be really made to feel self-conscious. Priya Ray Chaudhuri, who is pursuing a masters degree in psychology at Calcutta University, says: “Homosexuality is taboo because it implies sex for recreation and not procreation.”
Mira Kakkar, secretary of social communication organisation Thoughtshop Foundation, says: “There are many taboos against homosexuals. It is close to impossible for them to easily come out in the open or even disclose their feelings to a good friend.”
If a man looks “meyeli”, or effeminate, he has committed a crime. He could even be doing that through his choice of profession.
Rohan Ganguli gave up his job with an advertising agency to pursue his passion for music and has been explaining himself since. “Most people find it awkward that I’m doing only music,” says Rohan, guitarist for city band Supersonics.
If musicians have such a tough time, what do men who should call themselves stay-at-home husbands face' Is that an option at all'
In good old Calcutta, people simply don’t live-in. Only celebrities are allowed to, but they don’t do it officially. Couples living together are spotted far more frequently in Mumbai and Delhi.
Priyanka Roy, who works in a private bank, says: “I used to live-in with my boyfriend in Delhi. After I moved to Calcutta continuing the relationship was not possible. My parents and other relatives are here.”
Kakkar says: “Calcutta is conservative compared to Mumbai and Delhi. Couples live together without any hassles there. It’s happening in Calcutta too, but under cover. Even single mothers find it difficult to date here, while divorcees are looked upon as easy targets. Women generally suffer from taboos more than men do.”
So, a woman without a child is still described as “banja” or “baanj” (barren). A single woman is still called a spinster. A woman driving still hears occasional gaalis or catcalls. A child outside wedlock' No way.
Someone who has received treatment for mental illness is touched by taboo too. There are many mental patients who can return home, according to doctors, but have no takers. Taking a break between high school and college is not done. Or saying “I will not study beyond high school.” A young single woman wanting to rent a house alone is a problem.
“Taboo has to do with old values, which need to be made more accommodating and open for younger generations to reorient themselves,” says psychoanalyst Nilanjana Sanyal. “People should understand that changes in social behavioral pattern are not necessarily negative.”
This is not to say living together or the tank top is the hallmark of progress. But Calcutta could perhaps open up a little'
Taboos in other societies
• Dogs and insects may be eaten in China but in the western world pets are considered friends and insects are dirty creatures that one would not want to eat
• In Austria, it is not proper to chew gum in public. Hands inside the pocket during conversation or on the lap during a meal is considered rude
• In Turkey, it is impolite to smoke or eat on the street; showing the sole of one’s shoes or crossing one’s arms over the chest is an insult
• In the US, men who hold hands in public are taken to be homosexuals