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Encountering Intimacy: Affection and its Configurations on Campus

Dating-app woes overheard near Fuel Zone, couples sharing earphones and subtle smiles in the library, clandestine moments tucked away in stairwells, public exhibitions of affection in the mess lawns — the Ashokan campus is infused with intimacy. Our desires interweave with questions of safety and privacy, inclusivity and diversity, sexuality and gender. They inform our relationship with ourselves, the spaces we work, sleep and live in and eventually, the world beyond our collective bubble. Crush Culture is a series in progress delving into the good, bad and ugly of the crucial role romance, affection and their pursuit play in shaping campus culture.

An interlude of three to four years. A space and a phase designed for transition.

Alongside alien coursepacks and new friends from all over India, Ashoka was an introduction to the startling unfamiliarity of desire choosing not to hide. Over Zoom calls and Google Meets, where tentative new bonds were tested, the bold flirting and conversational attitude towards sex and sexuality almost surprised me into silence.

My family is far from conservative, but both my parents are practical people to whom investment banking is more intriguing than romance. Love, dating and the like were considered too frivolous and intimate to discuss over dinner. Moreover, as a queer teenager, my coming-of-age experiences in the stretched-out, sticky middle and high school years, despite their aching vibrancy, demanded my silence for protection.

Ashoka was in stark contrast. The revolving door of my direct messages left me dizzy with mixed apprehension and anticipation; conversations I previously sealed into my throat, fearing ridicule and reprimand were common parlances. I had prepared for the inevitable educational and social culture shock of liberal arts but didn’t quite anticipate how Ashokans would cultivate the art of liberality into a language to articulate attraction, affection and want.

It was intimidating. It was exhilarating. It was sexy.

Over the last two years, which saw the transition from digiscapes to residence halls, academic blocks and mess lawns, the specificities of campus intimacies have remained fascinating. Within the gated community, couples throng, liberally interspersed in nooks and crannies, bathrooms and commons, outside classrooms and inside lifts. Most of us have grown accustomed to seeing (and participating in) effusive public displays of affection.

Yet, beyond the cement driveway, in the crowds making their way to the tapri or theka, to ASG or Cafe Aroma, it is rare to even find a couple holding hands. In Delhi, on the metro or in restaurants, I’m hesitant to put my head on someone’s shoulder. The ‘bubble’, usually invoked in the context of financial privilege and sociocultural elitism, is literalised in the sphere of intimacy and its demonstration. In circumstances where codes of behaviour are transitory, how do students reconfigure their boundaries of perception on a daily basis to accord with their surroundings?

Socialised into Shame

For most Ashokans from Indian locales — bustling metropolises, small towns or rural villages — holding hands where others can see is a tenuous prospect, with kissing out of the question.

The baseline cultural conservatism in India is intensified by religious polarisation, caste-based discrimination and queerphobia. At home, in school, and on the streets between them, shame, fear and taboo are introduced to the equations of love and desire from childhood.

Mohan, UG ’24, grew up in Kolkata. We commiserate in the library cafe about what queer experiences look like in Kolkata’s predominantly single-sex schooling system, where performing gender roles appropriately is significant.

“I went to an all-boys school,” Mohan says, laughing at my wince. “The type of hyper-masculinity promoted there, both directly and indirectly, through not only the students but also the staff would entail that any amount of physical contact between students, if it wasn't literal punching, would be met with disdain.”

Such suspicious policing leaves a lasting negative impression on vulnerable teenagers. In high school, the teaching staff construed Mohan sharing a classroom with his boyfriend for after-school practices as an illicit sexual affair. The ensuing charade of visits to the Principal’s office and the school counsellor, accompanied by hostility from teachers, was harrowing and remains traumatic.

“Any amount of minimal contact would not be seen as a healthy, platonic, male relationship: it would be sexual, romantic, and gay,” says Mohan. These attitudes from adult authority figures associate touch with desire, desire with sex, and sex with shame. Self-discovery often becomes an exercise in self-hatred, leaving violent aftermath in its wake.

Across India and its demographics, schools have repressive cultures surrounding affection and intimacy.

Aditi, UG ’24, from Bengaluru, says, “If anyone was being physically affectionate in school it would not be an okay thing to do. There was a couple who would hold hands in school and they got caught by the principal; it was just not a positive environment.”

Subjected to such environments, students too imbibe an attitude of mockery towards the vulnerability “crushes'' signify. Atharva*, UG ’24, from Mumbai says, “In my friend circle, no one was explicitly dating because a lot of fun would be made of you if you did date someone. Even if you talk to a girl for anything more than a very casual conversation, the crush jokes and the teasing would start, and that kind of deterred me from it. Why would I open myself to being made fun of like that?”

The current of such conversations is further defined by gender roles. According to Uditi, UG '25, from Kanpur, “Sexual authority rests with the man. Men started talking about sex and intimacy as early as 6th grade and women were shamed for doing that. And the conventional slut shaming started as soon as — I remember this one girl in 7th grade was ostracised for simply making the first move with boys.”

Perhaps part of the culture shock of first exposure to Ashoka is the expectation of its similarity to school. Unaccustomed to other social settings, without recognising the weight and freedom of an isolated residential space and adulthood, we default to what we know. As such, newfound cultural realities take a while to settle in, bringing along unexpected changes.

“If I really wanted to, I could kiss you,” and Other Revelations

“I remember this very specific realisation I had when I first started joining Ashokan WhatsApp groups — not only am I not the only [queer] person but it's almost the norm to be queer. There are so many people like this that me being queer is no longer a statement, and I like it that way,” Mohan says.

For many Ashokans, self-expression and performance in the campus space disavows the experiences generated in impersonal cityscapes where minority communities are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible.

According to Mohan, “For a lot of queer people, when they're first dealing with all this, there’s a sense of loneliness. That you are the only one this is happening to. If I had seen more queer people just being queer out in the open, that would have really helped.”

Expressing and becoming comfortable with affection in an indifferent yet community-focused setting becomes much easier. Mohan explains: “Back home, obviously in public I wouldn't be expressing any sort of affection. When I'm alone with friends, then to some extent we would hold hands, or sit close to each other. We would never really kiss."

"On campus, there was a slow setting in of the awareness that, oh if I really wanted to I could kiss you, and hold hands with you while walking from one class to another.”

The openness of campus culture also opens up avenues of questioning and shifting away from the binaries of identity.

Pulari Baskar, ASP ‘23, from Chennai says: “This was the first time I was seeing non-heterosexual couples display affection. That wasn't a culture shock… but it was almost nice. It also opened up avenues for me to start thinking about my sexuality: I was convinced that I was straight until I came to Ashoka. And I'm not, I don't associate with a particular sexual identity anymore. And that in itself is a big change.”

For others, this sense of relief is long overdue. Uditi says, “One thing I hold very dear that came out of shifting to Ashoka is the convenience when it comes to intimacy, romance, building friendships or even academic connections [as a function of being a residential campus]. As a woman, I had no idea how to comfortably commute for that sort of thing.”

They add, as a contention to our conversation on culture ‘shock’, “That convenience wasn't a shock because I always felt so entitled to it. Queer acceptance, convenience, cross access, being able to make out in public, it never made me think, I'm so lucky to be here. It was just, okay, finally that is out of the way and I can think about other things that I have to fight for.”

Shock also occurs at more personal, individual levels, regardless of background. Pulari comes from a liberal family and was schooled in an alternative school. Yet: “My shock was more personal in the sense that it's not, oh my God, people are doing this, because I knew that people were doing this, but that I could also engage in that sort of public display of affection."

"In my first year, I was friends-with-benefits briefly with two of my friends. And I think for me, the shock was that, okay, I can actually have this sort of physical affection displayed to me in public. It was more like people are willing to do this to me, rather than what's going around.”

Reproducing Discriminatory and Isolating Structures

While the Ashokan campus space is unique in an Indian context in many ways, it isn’t free of oppressive power structures and hierarchies. Uditi says: “When it comes to romantic or sexual roles and dynamics, I see even the brightest and most critical minds settling back to essentialism. There is a difference between a woman branching out and a man branching out. You do not want to be the person who swipes right on everyone, even though every single man is swiping right on everyone else."

"You do not want to be visibly sexual and a woman.”

Sometimes, men will agree to explore non-monogamy with them, but request it be a secret. Male power dynamics are compromised when others find out “their girl” is having sexual relations with others.

Shaking their head, Uditi says, “When it comes to sexual liberation, monogamy, purity culture with respect to women, slut-shaming — that sort of gender dynamic, it is very, very similar. I didn’t expect it to be so similar.”

Gender dynamics and pressures are indeed reproduced in all intimate contexts within Ashoka. Natham*, UG ‘23, from Tamil Nadu says: “When they are looking for partners for dating, boys are kind of very conscious of the [financial] background of girls. They only date people also on aid. They don't really mingle.”

Natham, who is himself on financial aid, empathises. “I mean, the financial background affects everything, right? The way you dress, basically, the person you are.” Even in a residential campus of close contact, clique formation along class-caste-ethnic lines creates segregated dating pools.

Sometimes, depending on cultural background and personal preferences, Ashoka’s atmosphere of openness and self-focus can ricochet to the other end of the spectrum to become pressurising and alienating.

Vedika, UG’ 24, from Pune, says: “Living in this close proximity with the kind of relationships you have with people, especially if you are engaging in romantic or sexual encounters, you are obligated to little bit consider the other person. I think we are so hell-bent on protecting our peace, to the extent that we all keep causing harm and it just becomes a repetitive cycle of damage.”

Mohan adds: “There's a sense of amateurishness, kind of, when it comes to [hookup culture], because I'm so much more inexperienced compared to the other people. It's great that people are so open about it, but it is something I have become more conscious about. I don't feel bad about it. But yeah, I could see how someone could feel about it.”

The Ashokan experience of intimacy will never be a monolith; our experiences overlapping and contradicting each other. Only a reminder, then, to call your friends. To prioritise, in the rush and thrill of connection sparking and fizzing, the ones to cherish. As Atharva said, “There is a world outside Ashoka where things are not like this.” An unprofessional entreaty, really, to make that one a little kinder.

*indicates names that have been changed to protect the interviewee’s privacy.

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