February 2014: Despite the criticisms in the Indian context, I explain why I’m a huge fan of the day of love.
Call me a romantic fool, but I love Valentine’s Day. In college in New Delhi, I’d laugh and say, “Why not? It’s just another excuse to celebrate and get presents!” Now, 10 years, awareness and much consumer fatigue since, it isn’t about the gift economy at all. For days before, love is literally in the air (and on the airwaves, TV and everywhere). Consciously ignoring advertising suggestions of what we should be giving-receiving, where we should be going, what we should be doing, Sahil and I celebrate without spending. Last year, we just cooked for each other over music and laughter; this year, we’re planning a party. I also wish my mother, family and friends.
When I speak of my love for Valentine’s, it tends to spark debate with a whole range of people. I’ve had the religious and cultural traditionalists play the ‘Against Hinduism/Islam’ (India’s two major religions) and/or ‘Against Indian Culture’ Card, say it is a cultural contamination from the West. Friends who are nonconformists and anti-consumerism are, well, anti its consumerism, the nauseating marketing blitz and the pigeonholing.
And the many arguments of those coming from a postcolonial perspective are best summed up on Wiki:
“The holiday is regarded as a front for ‘Western imperialism’, 'neocolonialism' and ‘the exploitation of working classes through commercialism by multinational corporations’ (Satya Sharma in ‘The Cultural Costs of a Globalized Economy for India’, Dialectical Anthropology). Studies have shown that Valentine's Day promotes and exacerbates income inequality in India, and aids in the creation of a pseudo-Westernised middle class. As a result, the working classes and rural poor become more disconnected socially, politically and geographically from the hegemonic capitalist power structure. They also criticise mainstream media attacks on Indians opposed to Valentine's Day as a form of demonisation that is designed and derived to further the Valentine's Day agenda.”
And, surprisingly, I agree with most of these criticisms.
The Religion & Culture Card
I agree that this day, the Feast of St Valentine, which originates in ancient Roman and Christian theology, does not come from Hinduism or Islam. Though it is stripped of religious significance in its current avatar, one can understand why purists would see it as celebrating another religions’ festival. However, I see this broadening of horizons, loosening of religious strangleholds and cultural cross-pollination as a positive way forward towards a liberal, melting-pot world.
What’s worse, this is a festival celebrating love—the dizzying, crazy-making romantic and/or sexual variety that is condemned by Islam and Hinduism, in its current Victorian-prudery-infused avatar far removed from Kamadeva, Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra.
Now, most traditional societies and religions don’t like love. Love is blind, and deaf to reason, ‘honour’, society, status, money, norms. It beckons their young (daughters, in particular) away from their fold, un-enslaves them from ‘mummy-daddy’, and makes them—gasp—free-willed. It breeds in young, reckless minds and hearts, and feeds on Bollywood happily-ever-afters, romantic notions and lust. It grows in the generation gap like an insidious sapling in a wall crack. It is a subversive, idealistic idea that disregards social, political, economic, religious, caste barriers like no preaching, media or education can achieve. Age-old systems—arranged marriages, joint families, stay-at-home wives and mothers, divorce-free not-so-happily-ever-afters with (legally sanctioned) marital rape, dowry and other patriarchal traditions—fall in its wake. This too is a good thing, methinks, particularly from a feminist perspective.
A separate issue is the sex (or any physical contact), pre-marital to boot, that is a consequence of the love and its expression that Valentine’s Day propagates. Some activists claim they are not against love, just against its ‘vulgar’ exhibition in public—a definition that could include merely holding hands in the more conservative parts of the country. This cultural obsession with and repression of sex (controlling who can do what with whom, when, where, why and how much), and hypocrisy about sex (we’re clearly having a lot of it, just not talking healthily about it) is hugely problematic.
So, for the past few years, in various parts of the country, moral police from religio-political groups like the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti have been burning cards, red-coloured gifts and roses, and beating up, or threatening to beat up and forcibly marry, couples who are found on dates on Valentine’s. (Through the year, they also target bars, music concerts and women’s sartorial choices, other Western corruptions.) Yet, we don’t lament the irony of being more comfortable with Public Displays of Anger than with Public Displays of Affection. “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight,” said Lennon all those years ago.
(More by me on culture and love in India in Governance Now.)
Just like the stand against consensual homosexuality, the stand against Valentine’s Day unites traditionalists across religions, cultural positioning and political affiliations across the country. However, in that case, as this, the governance and legal systems should prioritise individual choice over this tyranny, a their-size-fits-all. After all, if right-wingers are allowed to live a patriarchal lifestyle that is offensive to certain demographic groups in a democracy, others should be afforded the same respect.
Love sells, I agree. It sells roses, cards and lingerie, dinners, diamonds and holiday packages.
Valentine’s entered the Indian mainstream with the advent of satellite TV in ’92. The first music channels, MTV and Channel V, carrying strong influences of American pop culture, hyped it as a peg for contests, dedications, love-song countdowns, on-the-ground events and early-day reality TV, to enthuse their teen audiences, and generate marketing and advertising revenue. For Indians, this alien festival was manufactured in the media, through content as well as advertising campaigns for mushy cards, chocolates, teddy bears, etc. It has since established the rituals—not only have we been told that we must celebrate this day of love, but how and how much we should spend on it. The more you love, the more you should be willing to spend, it says, inextricably linking the two in the manner of American capitalists.
I’ve been on the other side of the fence, and I’d know. Come January and the PR agents are at it, sending out press releases about Valentine’s Day offers from the companies they represent. They hope you will feature these in the next issue of your monthly magazine (on homes, with a female target audience), which they assume has a love theme. And you do, because it does.
Though it is advertising bucks and brouhaha that sustains this festival of love, although it is with an intention to get people to buy, buy, buy and not altruistic, the optimist in me rejoices the very fact that there is a day for romantic love. Men and women alike are being conditioned to expect, express and prioritise this happy, powerful emotion.
My octogenarian grandparents from small-town India, married since 1951, tell me that, though “Valentine’s Day didn’t exist” in their youth, they now celebrate it by going out for coffee. Through all the marketing din, I’m sure the nonconformists can separate the message from the madness.
I agree with the argument that Valentine’s Day is a part of Western cultural imperialism. Notwithstanding the Chicken Tikka Masala-Britain example, the extent of the influx and acceptance of the Anglosphere’s culture in India and Asia is far greater than the reverse. The growing urban Indian middle class, exposed to what passes as ‘global’ culture through TV and/or the internet, knows America’s movie and pop stars, celebrates Halloween, and loved 'Friends' and 'Breaking Bad' and 'Dexter'. We are adopting, and being conditioned to adopt, its mores. The hegemony of American culture (and English, food, design, fashion, etc) continues to be cemented around the world, aiding and being aided by its economic might and business globalisation… the very definition of neocolonialism.
But, culture has never been linear or fixed, and has always evolved and adjusted—a British ball game remained here after the Raj, to become the Subcontinent’s religion. In the age of communication, knowledge and travel, cultures are evolving more rapidly than ever before anyway, with or without Valentine’s! I believe people have a right to tap in to ‘global’ culture, assess their cultural influences, and pick and choose their individual beliefs.
Some of us have become what Wiki refers to as the “pseudo-Westernised middle class”, whose acceptance of a few aspects of new culture does not mean a complete break from the old. At the numerous weddings I’ve attended in the past year (yup, it’s that life-stage), all couples, without fail, personalised their ceremonies, appropriating and incorporating things they like from other cultures and abandoning some aspects from their own. From tattooed rings to bachelorettes and buddymoons… at our own wedding two years ago, Sahil and I skipped the most important Hindu wedding ritual, taking seven circles around the sacred fire to the droning of an unintelligible priest, in favour of exchanging vows. Individuals should be allowed to negotiate their own cultural positioning, whatever it may be.
It is also true that Valentine’s Day and its commercialism widen the pre-existing cultural and economic gap between this class, and the working classes and rural poor. Economic inequality, the gap between the landed and nouveau riche, and the poor in India, is growing and becoming increasingly apparent every day. In his latest book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard, discusses the dangers of what he calls “the sky boxification of life”—the growing separation between rich and poor in the ordinary activities and common spaces of daily life owing to rampant marketization. In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, he asserts this is damaging to democracy, because “it erodes the sense of belonging, the shared identity that democracy requires.” Neither do the ‘masses’ understand or subscribe to a culture that understands and permits a day of love, nor can they afford to join the celebration.
An unfortunate fallout of these disparate cultural influences regarding Valentine’s Day on the masses is that it leads to the sexual harassment of women by Roadside Romeos across India. Valentine’s Day propaganda and Bollywood expose these men to the idea of and desire for romantic love, at odds with their conservative cultural environments. Love, according to older Bollywood plot lines, happens at first sight, and comes to fruition and marriage once the hero has followed and convinced the girl. Starry-eyed boys ‘eve teasing’ and harassing the girls they ‘love’ becomes a pandemic during February. Growing up in North India, I’ve had letters flung at me and a stalker from a different city end up at my doorstep to hand me a teddy bear!
The depression, loneliness and suicide around the Christmas holiday in America among those who cannot partake in the celebration and spending is well documented, and may indicate an upcoming trend vis-à-vis the Indian population and Valentine’s Day. Though statistics are not yet available, incidents of jilted lovers seeking revenge are thought to be higher during the month of love.
Valentine’s Day is clearly not the only place where this cultural and economic chasm is obvious—it’s in housing, Bollywood, clothing, lifestyle, food, etc, and even in the consumerist gluttony encouraged at Indian weddings and festivals. A daylong love festival, one that has many positive sociocultural consequences, is, in my opinion, less deadly that the sustained disparateness on display throughout the year.
The intellectuals’ contention, however, that mainstream media attacks on Indians opposed to Valentine's Day is a form of demonisation that is designed and derived to further the Valentine's Day agenda is a tad simplistic. For one, the English media is not, in the strictest sense of the word, the mainstream media of India: vernacular and Hindi media have a much more pervasive reach, and they continue to be religious and cultural mouthpieces. For the most part, the English media, run by people from the “pseudo-Westernised middle class”, is liberal leaning and pro-West. Its ability to provide sustained cultural critique from a liberal point of view is important to counter the rampant patriarchy, religious intolerance and complexity of Indian culture, and it is often seen taking politicians to task for the misogynistic statements that invariably follow every sensational rape.
The pro-Valentine’s agenda of the English media derives not only from commercial interests, but also from the intrinsic cultural positioning of those in it. The English versus Hindi and vernacular languages divide is not merely linguistic, but also promotes and exacerbates a deep cultural chasm with thin middle ground.
Love, Life & Laughter
India is in a hyperactive state of sociocultural flux, between the old and the new cultures and religions, between the have and the have nots, between rural and urban realities, those educated and those not, those who speak English and those who don’t, men and women. It is and will continue to be interesting to watch how we negotiate these dynamics as a nation, particularly in respect to love, sexuality and Valentine’s Day.
I’m clearly on the side of love, and choose to see Valentine’s as much-needed reminder and celebration of the emotion that makes—or should make—the world go round.
This column appeared on 3QD in February 2014.