In western culture, the idea of forbidden intimacy before marriage seems pretty antiquated, but for young adults in India it's the reality they face everyday. While not technically illegal, being physically intimate before marriage is considered immoral by many Indians, and public displays of affection often result in verbal and sometimes physical attacks.
Young couples are forced to jump through hoops just to get a few hours of privacy. "Making love, in our country specifically, has to be very much planned," a young Indian man, who wished to remain anonymous, told Seeker. "You have to pick out a day, you have to pick those four or five hours of the night, cook up a story, like you're going to your friend's place." He and his girlfriend have experienced first hand the headache of trying to get some alone time amongst India's very conservative society.
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The country has seen many instances of self-proclaimed "guardians of Indian culture" carrying out attacks of vandalism in defiance of PDA, and just last year Mulwani police raided a hotel and took more than 40 couples down to the police station. The couples weren't doing anything illegal so they couldn't be arrested, but they were verbally harassed by officers and some of the younger ones were forced to call their parents and explain what they had done.
Sanchit Sethi, a young entrepreneur from Delhi, decided something needed to change. He saw an opportunity to help these couples by creating a full-fledged business. Along with co-founders Blaze Arizanov and Nand Kr. Singh, StayUncle became a reality in 2015. The website connects unmarried couples with hotels that allow them to rent a room in total confidentiality and without risking their safety.
Contrary to what the "moral police" in India want, the founders of StayUncle are trying to make India a place where everyone is free to make their own personal choices. "I prefer living in a society wherein people are doing what they want so it creates a whole kind of happy ecosystem," Sethi told Seeker.
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CMO Blaze Arizanov added that the motivation to start the company really came from hearing all the stories of couples trying to conduct relationships in secret and risking their safety. "The courage came when we saw those almost horror stories which our couples were sharing with us, how they were denied hotel stays at 2 o'clock," he said. "How girls used to cry on the reception window, sleepy receptionists used to ask them, 'Are you a prostitute?' How they were left outside to wander in the middle of the night on dangerous streets because of stupid, silly reasons. We just had to do something about it."
Although StayUncle is doing well, getting the company off the ground was no easy feat. The whole concept goes against the cultural norm of the country, which resulted in a lot of hesitation from hotels at the beginning. Back in April, Sethi told Quartz, "Out of 10 hotels we speak to, only two or three eventually sign up."
Luckily, the business opportunity became too good for most hotels to refuse. Ajit Pandey,
manager of Hotel Gera, told Seeker he now gets 3-4 bookings daily from StayUncle. "We were hesitant here at first when StayUncle approached us, but we weren't worried that we were doing something illegal. So, the next day we called them back and told them that we were ready to work with them," he said.
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But StayUncle isn't totally free of public disapproval yet. There are still many critics who believe they are promoting indecency. Chandra Prakash is the president of Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, one of the oldest political parties in India, and he is very opposed to the idea of physical intimacy before marriage.
"They [StayUncle] have basically turned into a sex industry. There is no love there. You can't call that love. It's just sex. If you love me and I love you, we can just go sit at our home and talk to each other in front of our parents.... If you are truly in love, then get married first," he told Seeker.
It's not so black and white for many unmarried Indian couples, and the success of StayUncle shows that attitudes towards dating are changing in the country. "Romance is all about physical intimacy after a certain level [...] you can be all romantic, but you have to express it, and cards and gestures, you know, there's only so much they can do. So yeah, the physical intimacy is very important," the young Indian man told Seeker.
Although the morality of StayUncle will continue to be debated for the foreseeable future, the service they provide is important for one pretty big reason: safety. They offer a safe place for couples to go without the risk of harassment or shame, and overall that's the biggest concern for couples, hotels and everyone involved in StayUncle.
-- Molly Fosco