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Why can't we stay naked?
It's 4pm on Sunday. The Indian Coffee House - a dingy, old-world cafê tucked away on the second floor of a rundown building in Connaught Place - is brimming with professionals and students enjoying their day off. At a rickety wooden table, six men, seemingly ordinary office-goers, are engrossed in conversation over cups of steaming coffee supplied by liveried waiters in tall turbans.
You might imagine these men, mostly middle-aged, are discussing the bearish stock market or cribbing about the truant Delhi weather.
But you'd be surprised. One of them, a 60-plus balding man sporting a grey Lee Cooper sweater, says animatedly. "My wife thinks it is unnatural that I don't wear clothes at home. I keep telling her that it is the most natural thing. We were born naked. Why can't we live naked?" he asks. The others nod sympathetically. "I agree. Look at animals...they don't wear clothes, " adds a middle-aged man.
Welcome to the monthly meeting of the Naturist Indian (Delhi) Meetup Group, a recently launched forum for people who believe in naturism or living in harmony with nature. This lifestyle choice involves consuming natural food, preserving the natural environment and, most importantly, wearing natural clothing (read none).
The naturist (nudist) movement has been popular in the US, UK and Europe since the 1920s and many beaches, resorts and even flights are reserved for its followers. In India, too, certain tribes and religious groups (Digamber Jains and Naga sadhus) have been practising it from ancient times, but the trend seems to have permeated urban society only recently. The Delhi group is the first of its kind in the capital. And though these are early days, it expects to be a catalyst for the spread of naturism in India.
Since the group's launch last September, 29 people, all male, have signed up. On Sunday, the attendees include a marketing manager, a HR professional, a retired engineer and an out-of-work actor. "We hope that some women join the group, too. That will make it complete, " says the 60-something Ramnath Chinappa, who works as a chief administrative officer with a private insurance firm.
The Rohini resident set up the forum to meet like-minded individuals. The group meets once a month to discuss naturist ideology and topics ranging from the hypocrisy of Indian politicians to rights of sex workers and commercialisation of religion.
NOTHING SEXUAL ABOUT IT
During the meeting, Chinappa reminds new members that naturism is a "non-sexual, family affair. " He adds that practitioners are not "interested in seeing others naked or in being seen naked by others";that nudity is a "healthy, natural state";and that "being nude is to be in the purest form. " Chinappa wants the forum to grow but is selective about recruiting new members to weed out perverts. "A potential recruit brought up massages and partner-swapping. I immediately blocked him, " he recounts.
The group is planning nude get-togethers at private places - nudity in public is against Indian law - but only when the members are "mentally prepared". Most of them don't practice nudity yet. Those who do, including Chinappa, stay in the buff only in the privacy of their homes.
It was curiosity that led Chinappa towards naturism. "I had read about nudist beaches abroad so I did some research on them and stumbled upon naturism. I agreed with the concept, " he says.
Chinappa first shed his clothes at home in the 1970s but put them back on after he heard his son (then 4, now in his mid-30 s) ask his wife, "Why is papa naked?" It was only after his two sons had settled abroad, and Chinappa had retired from a public sector insurance firm in 2004 that he decided to take to nudism again. Now, Chinappa takes off his clothes and shoes the moment he reaches home, except when it is too cold or when the domestic help is around. His wife - a devout Catholic - is a trenchant critic but has run out of arguments against nudism. "I can't explain it, but I feel free...free of all bonds and compulsions, " he says. Chinappa believes that it is acceptable to be naked in private places, provided no one present is offended. "It is my fundamental right to be the way I like as long as I don't breach anyone else's right. "
LET US GO BUFF
Of course, Chinappa is not content with roaming naked inside his home. He and other members want the government to earmark certain public places - beaches, parks, cinemas - for "clothes-free" activities. "The Delhi government should allot at least one DDA pool for skinnydipping or have a reserved time slot at all pools, " he says.
Everyone grunts in approval. They argue that the government should take "individual choice and rights" into consideration just like the court did with regard to homosexuality.
NOTHING TO HIDE
The group may have identical views but their reasons for turning to naturism are different. Ramesh Ahuja (45), a superintendent with the Airport Authority of India, became a naturist because he believes in "natural foods". Ahuja quit smoking and consuming meat, milk and all processed foods after his wife died of cancer last year. The father-of-two believes naturism contributes to his living a "healthy, hospital-free" life.
The youngest member, Sunny (28), has become a naturist to see "100 per cent" of the world. "We can see plants and animals in their true form but that's only 66. 6 per cent of the world. Human beings are hidden behind layers of clothing, " says the HR professional. Hailing from a conservative family in Allahabad, Sunny wants to live without rules. "I want to have the freedom to dance, shout, stay naked or have sex, " he says unabashedly. The actor grudges the fact that people "live behind masks" and follow the majority. "We should be exposed, " he adds.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Chinappa has a question for the members before wrapping up the meeting. "What if I hold a nudist meeting at my place? We could enjoy dinner and chat without being bound by clothes, " he suggests. Sunny, Ahuja and the actor immediately confirm their participation. The others seem confused. "I don't want to do anything illegal. I just wanted to become friends with broad-minded people, " says a retired engineer who has lived in the US for 10 years.
The marketing manager, a shy sort, agrees: "I would prefer to wait till the law allows social nudity. " The 35-year-old admits his wife is unaware of his association with the naturist group.
The discussion meanders. Soon, it is 6 pm and time to get back to the world of textilists (those who wear clothes). The retired engineer recites an impromptu couplet: "Tum ne kapadon ko hi character samajh rakha hai. Hum ne character ko kapadon ki tarah pehnaa hai" (You have defined character with clothes. I have worn my character like clothes). "
(Names have been changed to protect identities)
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