If you must look for Love, especially in the time of elections, one place to try would be Chennai, most specifically in the neighborhood of Kodambakkam.
Seen from the sky, Chennai seems like a dreamland. The houses are painted in deep colors that glow despite the harsh summer light – deep midnight blue, thick grape-juice purple, insouciant bubble-gum pink, mother-goddess red, deep peppermint green and concentrated turmeric yellow. Once in the streets, colors are all around you in well-defined swathes – atop temples, inside autorickshaws, people’s maroon shirts, in heaps of fat saffron mangoes and lime green bananas and orange gajra flowers on carts, in pink bougainvillea bursting inquisitively over walls.
It is through a Kodambakkam street quite like this that I scurry after a wiry man called B Kumar Sri Sri, the Founder and President of the Indian Lovers Party, who is contesting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from the South Chennai constituency. Kumar is a thin 36-year old man with warm ebony skin, high cheekbones, earnest eyes and energetically springy hair. Like any man with a mission, he walks very fast – through the basti lanes, past the women filling neon-coloured pots at Sintex water tanks plastered with posters wishing Dr Ambedkar for his birthday towards the party office.
The office of the Indian Lovers Party is an airless 4x6ft backroom in the slum. Neatly labeled files sit beside an old computer. The toothpaste-green walls are covered with posters that list the party’s goals alongside B Kumar Sri Sri’s smiling face.
Kumar talks as fast as he walks. He pulls out leaflets with the manifesto on them, earlier circulars, a public interest litigation he has filed against the Chennai police for hassling couples in public parks and on beaches. On this pro-lover platform, he has already contested Vidhan Sabha elections where, he informs me, he garnered 3,061 votes. “Now I am preparing to take the party to a bigger level,” he says passionately.
Born and brought up in a family with a small amount of land in in Andhra Pradesh’s Nalgonda district, Kumar ran away from home in 1999. “I wanted to become a film actor. It didn’t work out. No problem, ok. I learned make-up work and became a make-up man. Then I shifted to this neighborhood and Mangha Devi, who is my wife now, she lived nearby. We would see each other, we began talking, then we fell in love.”
Like most lovers in Indian cities, they had no privacy in their home neighborhoods and like many other couples, sought this privacy on the very public Marina Beach. It is usual for couples to escape the scrutiny of families, neighbors and communities by going to public spaces like parks and beaches that are far from home. And also free.
“But every day I’d see police are beating lovers, chasing them away. And I thought – why like that? Are they doing anything illegal? On top of that when I wanted to get married my family opposed the match. They said nako nako to this girl. Why? Because she was poorer, could not give dowry.”
Kumar and Mangha Devi married in a temple. Children followed and then reconciliation with the family. “But I could not stop thinking about the issue of lovers, you know. Just because my love story has worked out, should I stop caring about others?”
So in 2008, he decided to start the Indian Lovers Party. The goal of the party would be to help provide legal protection to persecuted lovers – especially from the increasing activities of moral policing groups – but also facilities like housing, jobs and free education for the children of love marriages and investigation and punishment in the case of honor killings.
“My bank balance was only 5000 rupees.” He laughs with delight at his own absurd situation. “So, ok, no problem, I spent 3000 rupees on posters and put them up on bus stops everywhere. A reporter from Deccan Chronicle saw it, called me – I had put my number on the poster, you see – and today, here you are talking to me,” he finishes with a flourish.
The first public action the ILP began to take was to distribute sweets to Marina beach couples on Valentine’s Day. This genial move did not go unopposed. I ask Kumar about the Hindu Makkal Katchi, (Hindu People’s Party) an organization that has reportedly opposed them. “Oh, have you met those fellows? They see me and something starts happening to them! The blood rushes to their heads, they go mad.” He laughs sardonically.
The Hindu Makkal Katchi is based out of Coimbatore, and like a number of similar organizations, is active on the moral policing front.
“See, they hate Valentine’s Day. They say it is Western. They fear love will make Hindus corrupt. As if! I want to ask them – how did Diwali come? Because a man killed another man for the woman he loved. That too in Sri Lanka! But we celebrate it no? Muslims can have Eid, Christians can have Christmas so then why can’t lovers have Valentine’s Day? I mean since there is man on this earth, there is love – so then why like this? Who is going to speak for the lovers?” In Hindi he calls them ‘pyaarayon’, which is really ‘the loved ones’.
The concept of lovers as a different community altogether is intriguing. Lovers after all exist in every community and walk of life – so can one really see it as a separate identity? From Kumar’s description it feels as if he imagines them as people who follow the common sense of the heart in a constantly churning society, rather than cling to older ideas of identity.
“There is a party for every caste. But love is the only way to end caste, to end communal clashes, to end religious strife. And to make women equal – I want to make a world in which no one dares to tell a woman what to do and what not to do. People like Hindu Makkal Katchi and Ram Sene go around saying girls should not wear jeans and stuff. Arre what is it to them? Those children’s parents gave them money to buy what they want to wear, isn’t it? Why should they interfere. This is India, they better understand that. India means all kinds of people are there. They don’t know that or what?”
Kumar’s passion and idealism are sincere. But one cannot help wondering if they are also naïve. How does a man with no money, no networks and an issue that has little political traction expect to, well, make it? There seems to be a ramshackle feeling to the enterprise as borne out by the fact that Dorairaja, who was to be the ILP candidate from Chennai North, was disqualified because he did not fill in his form correctly. “What can I do – I can’t be everywhere” Kumar puffs in a harassed voice.
Why not work on these same issues as part of another party then? But Kumar feels parties will not be committed to these issues. They may pay lip service but always postpone them for what they consider more urgent ‘social’ issues.
“All the political parties around us are always saying destroy this, destroy that. Who is saying let us make something? Look at the Taj Mahal – it was made because of love and it still lives!”
The Taj Mahal is very special to Kumar. “It is the ultimate symbol of love.”
What is love, I ask him. He does not fudge, hesitate or speak vaguely.
“Love is the thing that helps you overcome all gaps. Most importantly it is lifelong application of this idea. Pyaar matlab – understanding the other person. I’ll tell you what is not love – loving, leaving, loving, leaving – this philandering is not love. Leaving a woman after she’s 40, for someone younger. Treating other people badly is not love.” In fact this is part of the party’s manifesto – to punish people who seduce others with false promises.
I ponder this and ask how he feels then, about the fact that when Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz Mahal, by implication he dissed his other four wives.
The voluble flow of the interview falters. He looks at me searchingly. “Shah Jahan had five wives? No.” He shakes his head decisively. “I have never read this.”
I nod my head, sad to be the bearer of insalubrious tidings. Both of us look down at my smartphone recording his interview, then each other. “Ok, show me on your internet,” he says with bravado. I whip out the Wikipedia entry on Shah Jahan and go over all the wives. Kumar looks a little put out at his idol’s matrimonial history.
Then he rallies. I can almost hear him say, ‘ok, no problem’ in his mind. “I don’t know what Shah Jahan did. But I love the Taj Mahal. And all Indians are proud of it. What does that tell us? Indians believe in love!”
It is for this reason that when the party goes national, Kumar has decided its symbol will be a heart with an arrow through it, with the Taj Mahal in the center. He proudly shows me the party flag where the symbol sits atop magenta, red and green strips. A colorful flag for a colorful individualist.
Currently he does not get to choose the symbol. At first he was given ice-cream cup. Which seemed somewhat appropriate given the number of lovers who line Chennai beaches eating ice cream. “But now one fellow from the BJP, he complained that it is too similar to his symbol. So the Election Commission has given me briefcase.”
We both look at the squat and slightly suggestive-of-corruption briefcase on the leaflet. I look sympathetic. He grins. “It’s ok, no problem. People are not going to vote looking at that. They will be voting for my name and my party no?”
Kumar claims he has Rs 3 crore and 7 lakh supporters. It turns out that’s the number of page visits his Facebook page has had. He claims to have helped a number of people get married and promises to connect me to them – “But after the elections madam. Right now too much work!”
Sweeping numerical assertions are a part of Kumar’s confidence in his path. “There are 7 crore voters in Chennai. 1.5 crore will vote for DMK, 1.5 crore will vote for Anna DMK. How to garner the remaining 4 crore votes towards me – that is the task,” he says busily. I do not ask him what these calculations are based on, because I know the conversation will go the Shah Jahan way.
And yet, perhaps the question should be put not to him, but to ourselves: is politics all about the numbers. Is it all about the “vote for the party (insert ideological preference) most likely to win?” Is there no room in or political life for simply supporting an idea, a politics per se?
It’s not that Kumar is not aware of these things. He shows me his record of election expenses: the amounts are touchingly small – 246, 1400, 835. “I know that to achieve my goals I need money. That’s a very big problem for me, I need money somehow. So I have applied to RBI for a payment gateway online – that’s how AAP are doing it. I’ve been told I’ll get it in a month. I have many supporters abroad.”
It is easy to laugh – or at best be charmed by this single-minded passion, to see it as an excessive hobby. But that would also be a stock reaction on our part – taking for granted, the notion that love is minor personal matter and not intrinsically political. But, if were in fact to change the way we look at someone like Kumar, might he offer us a chance to change the way we see politics itself, however half-articulated this might be?
In 2005 in something called Operation Majnoo, the Meerut police accompanied by TV news cameras rounded up, thrashed and even arrested young people out in a public park for ‘vulgarity.’ Images of this violence played out in a loop on every national news channel, causing one of the young couples to run away in fear of their parents’ reaction. It set off a trend of such moral policing via the greedy cycle of breaking news.
In 2009 the Sri Ram Sene, a Mangalore-based Hindu organization barged into a pub to beat up young men and women out at a bar. Since the early 2000s, the Mumbai-based Shiv Sena has been vandalizing shops and protesting against Valentine’s Day, and the Sri Ram Sene followed up their Mangalore pub violence that year by threatening to forcibly marry any couple out on a Valentine’s Day date. Their assaults resulted in the suicide of a young woman.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that khaps, which frequently decree honor killings in the case of inter-caste unions, were illegal – but khaps, honor killings and social boycotts of lovers continue.
Just this January, in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, a tribal council ordered 12 men to gang-rape a woman who had fallen in love with a man outside her community.
The typical liberal response is to categorize these incidents under the label of crazy Hindu fundamentalism. But when you add it all up, it seems a very insufficient response to the issue of the country’s intimate life. It’s as if there is a difficulty in reassessing the rather outdated divisions of what is personal and what is political.
Perhaps, in this context, Kumar’s intervention offers a perspective quite free of ideological baggage, an invitation to a fresh ideological discussion. It makes one wonder what other political articulations simmer below the radar of large, mainstream political formations in that clump called “Independents” – Kumar is one of 42 candidates contesting elections from Chennai South. The majority of these are independents.
The next evening Kumar is to canvass on Marina Beach. He arrives with two colleagues. K Jagannathan, vice chairman of the party since its inception, works in a timber mart in Vellore district. He has come up to Chennai for ten days to help with the last bout of canvassing before election day, which is April 24. When I wish him good luck for the elections he smiles shyly, happily, as lovers do. He also looks excited and hopeful. V Manigandan, vice secretary, a shopkeeper’s assistant, is a thin, serious youth who never looks me in the eye.
Kumar indicates with a sweep of his hand his entire potential constituency. Young couples dot the beach, watching the sea, eating peanuts, raw mango, tapioca chips and of course, ice-cream.
“Actually, youth is our main target,” says Kumar. “But the ironic thing is, the maximum messages we get are from older people. Some of them cry. They say, where was your party when I was young and had to give up my love to family opposition. It has come now, when my life is past.” Manigandan suddenly speaks up animatedly. Kumar translates for me with enjoyment. “He’s saying this morning he was canvassing in a park and one elder got so agitated telling him about his love-failure in youth, he poked a hole in the leaflet!”
With this he trots off at high speed across the sands. Couple after couple, he bows with folded hands, asks for their vote and hands them his leaflet. I ask one, Sujata and Vijay, if they will vote for him. They giggle. Probably not, they say, but maybe also.
By the time they’re ready for a break, the light has turned a deep rose-gold. Sitting next to us, a couple eats ice-cream and throws the wrappers on the ground. I suggest maybe he should also tell lovers not to litter. He rolls his eyes. “Madam, they are throwing away my party leaflet only, what will I tell them about ice cream wrappers!”
Kumar’s ability to laugh at himself is accompanied by a realistic assessment of his fate at the polls. “No vote also no problem,” he says of the lukewarm response the canvassing has elicited. “My aim is to build a party on ideas right now.”
Nevertheless, it is hard not to feel that Kumar is an impractical idealist. At most, a part of the new entrepreneurial, middle-class Indian who feels they can make a place for themselves in the world through the seductive democracies of technology, media and increasingly, electoral politics à la AAP.
I ask him what he does in his free time. “I read my Facebook messages,” he says, cheering up. “I feel happy so many people know me everywhere now.” I hesitantly ask – are you doing this to be famous?
He laughs as if I am so ignorant. “Google has already made me famous. I didn’t make it in movies. Today movie directors are asking me for the rights to my life story.” He grins. “I don’t mind if they keep my story as a sub-plot also. No problem.”
And perhaps that is what Kumar and many like him are – an important sub-plot in the story of Indian political life. The idealists, who, as they learn the ropes, will be changed by the pragmatism of the central plot, but who may also modify the central narrative somehow, eventually.
When Kumar was a child, he wanted to be a communist, he tells me. “I would wear red, roam around with a red flag. Everyone used to laugh at me. Now also they do. But – every cause I’ve supported has seen success. I worked for the cause of Telangana – went and put up posters and stuff for them, that is why Chandrashekhar Rao is supporting me today. I sat on a fast in support of Anna Hazare and the Jan Lok Pal. It’s happening. So, why should I believe this will not happen? It will happen.”
He dusts sand off his hands and says goodbye. I watch them, the make-up man, the timber mart worker and the shopboy, chief office bearers of the Indian Lovers Party, till their flags are magenta specks on the burnished beach.
The sulfur lamps come on. The crowds thicken, laughter and chatter mixing with the clatter of merry-go-rounds. The evening breeze is heady with the smell of mogras and jasmines, sweet and sharp as love-pain.
An old man arranges himself on the pavement. He starts, magically enough, playing the mandolin. As I walk along the beach in time to his music I can see all around me, lovers, couples, pyareyan. Sitting with shoulders soft against each other, walking hand in hand, with sequined dupattas winking. Sitting on bikes canoodling. Reclining on the bonnets of Ambassadors and Marutis, chatting. There are so many!
I think of one of Kumar’s confident numerical assertions. “See, 75 percent or, well, at least 50 percent people, they love. So there are 120 crore people in India. It means about 60 crore have loved and many would have been thwarted, about 35 crores? What is happening for them? Some time or other they will vote for me no?”
Who knows what might happen – sometime or the other.
Paromita Vohra is a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work focuses on gender, desire, urban life and popular culture. She is currently working on a book about love in contemporary India. More at www.parodevi.com and less @parodevi.