Corporeal Punishment, English & Homosocial Tactility

On September 16, 2012 by admin

Niladri R. Chatterjee





There is a story I had once heard somewhere about a Western woman visiting Calcutta.  This was her second visit.  The first visit was in the 1970s when she was a teenager.  The next was in the 21st century when she was in her late thirties.  After going around the city for a few days, on her second visit, she asked her Bengali friends, “Aren’t there any gays in Calcutta anymore?”  The friends were puzzled and asked her to explain her question. She said, “Well, the last time I was here, I often saw men walking down the street holding hands. Surely they were gay. Why don’t I see such gay couples around anymore?”  There are several ways in which one can read the story. But its most accessible reading would be as an example of cultural incomprehension. Because in her native culture two men holding hands could univocally mean that they were in a homosexual relationship, she had assumed that manual tactility between men in all societies can mean only one thing. She was the native of a society where English was the most commonly spoken language.  The story has stayed with me all these years because somewhere in that story I detected a relationship between language/ culture and the body which I thought intriguing. Looking at myself I find that my reduced use of English is inversely proportional to the increase in my sense of security. When I was younger I spoke in English far more than I do now. I was also aware of the reason for this. I felt English was a language which was protecting me from visceral emotional self-exposure. I felt English was a mask which would de-emotionalize even an emotional statement that I may make. I felt protected by the language. This protection also brought in its wake a certain emotional frigidity and unavailability that I acquired which can be used to explain that when I was younger I was far lonelier than I am now, when I do not speak English as much as I used to. This paper is an attempt at exploring how and why the male body in Bengal functions in a certain way when the owner of that body speaks in his native tongue and in quite another way when he speaks in English.

I have often noticed that there is a marked difference between the way men in Bengal who speak English think of their bodies and the way those who do not speak English think or do not think of theirs.  The holding of hands becomes the touchstone method of telling apart those who do not speak English from those who do.  I have repeatedly observed that those men who are obviously employed in blue collar professions, or are even daily wage earners, and therefore almost certainly not in possession of English, show a far greater level of tactility among themselves than those who are white collar workers and are not entirely unlettered in English. Men or boys who do not speak English embrace each other a lot more, even kiss each other on the cheek far more frequently than those who can speak English. In fact, in my own English-speaking circle of friends I have noticed a particular horror of physical contact among male friends, and an inversely proportional lack of corporeal self-consciousness among those who do not speak English. Is it a mere coincidence? Would it be entirely erroneous to speculate whether the English language in any way straitjackets the male body and prohibits same-sex tactility beyond the ‘firm’ handshake? Is the firmness of the handshake an indicator and a performance of hegemonic masculinity? Is the handshake the only kind of same-sex tactility that has been sanctioned and approved as a physical gesture that carries no risk of endangering the heteronormativity of a patriarchal society?

English was formally introduced as the preferred language of instruction, business and government in Bengal in the later part of the 18th century, Calcutta having been settled by the East India Company towards the end of the 17th century. Lord Macaulay’s notorious Minute on Indian Education was written in 1835.  As Gauri Vishwathan says, English education was introduced to solve the conflict between the proselytising goal of the missionaries and the policy of religious neutrality adopted by the British Government (Vishwanathan 38). So, as I say elsewhere, English and Christianity were being discreetly conflated by smuggling in Christianity under the cover of English literature (Chatterjee 38-9). Foucault tells us that in the 19th century in the West in general and in England in particular the human body, and especially the male body was being pathologized, sexualized, classified and medicojuridically disciplined, with active support from Christianity.  There are two famous instances of homosocial tactility in the Bible and both carry negative valence. Judas identifies Christ for the Roman police by kissing him. Thomas doubts the reality of Christ’s resurrection by inserting a finger into one of the wounds received by Christ on the cross. There is only one instance of homosocial tactility in the Bible with positive valence.  This is that of St. John the Beloved – not to be confused with St. John the Baptist – who was in the habit of rest his head on Christ’s shoulder.  There are statues in Germany dating from 1300 where this instance of homosocial tactility in the Bible is iconised.  The fact that these statues are not very well known points to the marginalisation of positive homosocial tactility in the Bible.  The only way in which the story of John the Beloved resting his head on Christ’s chest has travelled into English literature is through its homosexualization by Christopher Marlowe when he declared that John the Beloved had a homosexual relationship with Christ.  So, that apparently asexual and positive instance of Biblical homosocial tactility was appropriated by Marlowe and therefore reinserted into the criminalising Christian discourse on homosexuality.  Therefore all the three instances of Christian homosocial tactility become associative of crime. It is interesting, however, that doubting Thomas was allowed to poke a finger into one of Christ’s wounds, but Mary Magdalen was asked not to touch. Titian’s painting Noli Me Tangere (1508) immortalises the moment when the resurrected Christ told Magdalen gently but firmly, “Touch me not.” The tactility refused in this painting can be seen in contrast to the tactility implied in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (1510) painted two years later. But ‘Noli me Tangere’ seems to hover over Christianity like a dictat. I was struck by how uncomfortable men and women standing on either side of me at a church in Austin, Texas were when at the end of the Midnight Mass on Christmas Day the congregation was asked to give the person standing next to them the sign of peace.  As the sign of peace, I noticed, most men shook each other’s hand. By contrast, men embracing each other after prayers is sanctioned in both Islam and Hinduism.  In Islam men embrace each other after Eid prayers. In Hinduism men embrace each other on Bijoya Dashami, after Goddess Durga and Her Children have returned back to Their home in the Himalayas after the three-day Durga Puja. Painted a decade or two after Creation of Adam, a page from the Bhagavad Purana traced to the Delhi-Agra area shows the embrace of Nanda and Vasudeva (1520-30). Such a representation of two male bodies would be unthinkable at that time in Europe.

So the pathologisation and sexualisation of the male body gets underway in England at the same time that the teaching and dissemination of English becomes public policy for the British Government in Bengal. In order to understand how English was affecting the body of the Bengali male one need not look any further than the bodies of Vivekananda and his spiritual master Ramakrishna, two men living in 19th century Bengal; one fluent in English, the other completely unlettered in the language. If one looks at the photographs of the two men it becomes obvious that they had almost hygienically opposite attitudes towards their own bodies.  While Vivekananda’s most commonly reproduced posture shows him with his arms cross-locked against his chest, Ramakrishna’s hands are either loosely, limply resting near his folded feet, fingers loosely meshed into each other or his left hand is at his chest while the right hand is raised in ecstasy, with two fingers pointing heavenward. As Jeffrey Kripal points out in his book, there are no photographs available of Ramakrishna where he is in control of his body. His body seems to have no importance to him at all.  Vivekananda, on the other hand, is always conscious of his corporeality. Ramakrishna was often known to dance with his disciples.  There are no recorded instances of Vivekananda dancing. Vivekananda’s generation was the first in Bengal to be put through an education imparted in the English language. Ramakrishna did not know English. In his attitude towards the body, nay the gendered male body, Vivekananda was totally interpellated in the British ontology. Hardly surprising that the privately racist Anglo-American Vedantist and novelist Christopher Isherwood found Vivekananda far easier to like and understand that he did the ‘too Oriental’ Ramakrishna. In History of Sexuality Foucault catalogues the ways in which the schoolboy’s sexuality started being put under constant surveillance in the 19th century, lest it swerves away from the strict path of hegemonic masculinity and thereby endanger Britain’s status as an imperial power.

It is this masculinity which gets transmitted to the natives of Bengal when they are educated in the language which discursively produces the imperial masters. With the language come the clothes. It is physically difficult, if not impossible, to be as corporeally mobile in a suit as it is to be when one is wearing only a dhoti or a thin short cotton shirt over the dhoti.  The male body has greater freedom in traditional Bengali clothes than it does in severely cut two-piece or three-piece suits.  So, language brings with it its own sartorial culture which the learners of the language find themselves subliminally pressured to adopt. So, the body is clothed in a way which restricts its mobility, the kind of mobility it had when it was garbed in native ‘Oriental’ clothes. If masquerade is an important aspect of acquiring an identity, then there is also the chance of the mask growing into the face, so that the face and the mask become organically inseperable. Such an osmosis happens in the case of the Bengali male’s attitude towards his own body once he starts to speak in English. The stronger fluid of English seeps into the weaker fluid of Bengali culture in the nineteenth century, changing the latter so profoundly that its presence can still be detected in the Bengali psyche even today, sixty three years after Independence. English and its notions of gender and sexuality continue to wield power in contemporary Bengali society where homophobia, for example, can be cited as an obvious result of the Englishing of Bengal. These prejudices regarding gender and sexuality have proven to be so powerful that they have seeped into the consciousness of even those who may have only a passing or tenuous relationship with English.

In our colleges, when we start to learn about the history of the English language and philology, the language is presented to us firmly gendered as masculine. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that English is a masculine language. We ingest this gendering of English without any feminist contestation or criticism. What we do not realize is that in declaring English a masculine language a few other gendered associations are being smuggled into our consciousness. In receiving English as a masculine language we are also accepting English as a disciplined, ordered, scientific language cleansed of any feminizing emotional contagion.

Homosocial tactility should be studied in a way that takes into account the site of its performance and the class of subjects performing. If one looks at PDA – Public Display of Affection – one notices that the concept unproblematically conflates affection with erotic or romantic desires.  It is as if affection can only be sexual.  Is not a mother kissing her child in public a public display of affection?  Why is that acceptable and why is not the sight of two lovers or even a married couple kissing acceptable? What kind of affection therefore is heteronormatively assumed to exist between two men holding hands or embracing in public, depending on the site of that performance being Western or Eastern?  Here I propose to use English as a verb; to English, to be Englished. In a non-Englished context, the holding of hands, the embracing and even kissing between two men may be assumed to be ‘brotherly,’ ‘friendly,’ and therefore unproblematically and uncomplicatedly asexual. In an Englished context two men holding hands, embracing and kissing will be assumed to be unproblematically and unequivocally sexual. In Isherwood’s novel A Meeting by the River there is a scene where the first person singular narrator hopes that people at the airport in Los Angeles who saw his male lover give him a big kiss on the mouth assume that it is just two Southern European brothers bidding each other a fond, Mediterranean farewell.  We are aware, of course, that German and English cultures have frequently regarded Southern European societies as being the Orient of the West, as opposed to the real Orient which consists of countries like China, Japan and India.  So, Southern Europe is the East to Northern Europe’s West! It is not surprising that one of the iconic images of homosocial tactility comes from Southern Europe – ‘Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo. The finger of Adam almost meeting the finger of God may be said to dramatise the conflicted attitude to male-male touch within Christianity. So, the geographical location of the homosocial tactility needs to be factored into the reading of a performance of homosocial affection in public.

The other variable that needs to be factored in is class. As I have mentioned above, blue-collar professionals tend to be less worried about the dangerous messages their being homosocially tactile may send out.

As in any other construction of the Lacanian Imaginary, the imaginary of homosocial tactility is also produced on the silver screen or on the small screen of television. It would be interesting to see how the hero of a Bengali film, for example, performs his friendship with his male friends. How tactile is he? Has the level and nature of tactility changed post-globalisation, where English words have infiltrated into colloquial Bengali and is increasingly audible in Bengali movies. Does the Bengali hero of today touch his male friends more or less than the Bengali hero of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s? Even on the screen does the nature and extent of homosocial tactility depend on whether the hero knows English or not? And even if the hero himself does not know English, does the director’s knowledge of English proscribe the hero’s homosocial tactility? Is the director excising any possibility of the homoerotic by keeping the hero’s hands far away from the bodies of his male friends? It is not surprising that Englished director Anjan Dutta should have a scene in his film Byomkesh Bakshi where he has Byomkesh kiss his assistant Anil on the cheek.  Apparently, it was done to suggest that the relationship between Byomkesh and Anil was not entirely asexual. It is interesting that the presence of the erotic has to be signified by a physical gesture. So a strange binarisation seems to be active here. Tactile is equated with sexual, non-tactile with the asexual.  This is how the colonial legacy continues to operate in the Bengali consciousness once it has been colonised by the English language.

There is an absence of homosocial tactility in art produced in Bengal.  As far Indian art is concerned the only artist who deals with man-to-man tactility is Bhupen Khakhar, but the tactility represented in his paintings are redolent of overt or covert homosexuality, which is the result of his knowledge of English, of course. In My Dear Friend (1983) the two male lovers hold hands, but in private. In his most famous painting Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976) there are homosocial groups towards the right of the central figure, but even in these groups there is no touching. There is touching in Seva (1986),

How and why is rampant, enthusiastic homosocial tactility culturally acceptable in the realm of sport? The uninhibited embracing of a goal-scorer by his teammates is not regarded as being problematic because the football field has been so discursively sanitised and declared innocent of the homoerotic that the post-goal homosocial tactility among the members of a team is not seen as posing any kind of threat to the unimpeachable heterosexual nature of the football field. The football field, or indeed any other sporting site is assumed to be hegemonically and eternally masculine. So homosocial tactility is not seen as a threat to its ontology.  But even here it has been noted that non-English teams are much more homosocially tactile than the English team. Irani Chatterjee is a dietitian to sportspersons and she regularly associates with personal trainers across India. She says that she notices a distinct difference between the ways in which English-spoken and non-English-spoken gym trainers interact with their clients. Those who speak in English will only speak out their instructions and they try to keep their physical contact with clients to the bare minimum. Whereas those who instruct in, say Bengali or Hindi, think nothing of establishing repeated physical contact with their clients.

In her book The Body: The Key Concepts (2008) Lisa Blackman speaks of two ways in which the body can be theorised in sociology: microperspectives and macroperspectives.   According to her, microperspectives concentrate on the way in which the self is identified and invented through talk. Microperspectives reify conversational activity and the body is submerged.  Macroperspectives, on the other hand, see the body as the effect of power and discourse, the way in which Michel Foucault theorises the production of identities by power. But is there that much of a difference between the two ways of examining identity formation? And even if there is, I believe that there can be conjunctures where conversational activity and talk can very well be the way through which power covertly produces the ‘docile’ body as theorised by Foucault in his Discipline and Punish (1976). I believe that English exerts a disciplinary power over the male body in Bengal. If, as Foucault says, power produces us by instituting internal forms of self-monitoring and self-regulation and if these forms are inculcated as particular body techniques and practices, then English is one such form.

The English language puts at abeyance the spontaneous tactility of the male in Bengal and institutes itself inside the body of the speaker as a mechanism which ensures that the body is regulated from within, not without. So, the language becomes like an electronic tag that prisoners out on parole wear around their ankles.  Surveillance of the body is embedded in the body.  Over time the body gets used to the mechanism and ceases to regard it as anything other than organic to its existence, something ‘natural.’ In this case the mechanism is English. It was so easy to implant because it promised social, political, cultural and economic empowerment.  But it took away with one hand what it seemingly gave with another.  In return for socio-economic empowerment, the body had to lose its spontaneous tactility, its delight in the human touch.

There is, therefore, a certain astringent quality to the English language that not only starches an identity into stiff non-tactility, but it also introduces an element of cold asexuality, even a fear of sexuality.  Which is why it has been reported that when non-native speakers make love, they prefer the dirty talk to be in a non-English language. It is access to the non-English language which revives the erotic in the verbal. One has heard about the decolonisation of the mind.  The assumption is that the mind can be decolonised through discourse, just as the body has been decolonised through tangible, concrete political actions.  This assumption needs to be complicated, because discourse colonises the body too. Language can colonise the body, disciplining it in a certain way alien to the body’s native culture. Over a period of time the body forgets the physical freedom it had when its verbal expression was in the native language. The body learns to regard as ‘natural’ the restrictions that the imposed or acquired language has sanctioned. The mask grows into the face as it were rendering the two inseperable.  It is this inseperability which is regarded as an essential assumption by those who practice the syncretic school of postcolonial theory, such as Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin and Gareth Griffith. I wish to see how this syncretically formed postcolonial consciousness effects the way one body touches another, especially when both the bodies in question are intelligibly male and living in Bengal. Is inseperability absolutely impossible? Or can that separation be effected only occasionally and is unsustainable indefinitely?


Niladri R. Chatterjee is Associate Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Kalyani. He is the co-editor of The Muffled Heart: Stories of the Disempowered Male (New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2005).

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