Ads recently went up in Delhi Metro stations urging young lovers to reject Valentine’s Day and instead devote February 14 to celebrating their parents. To get the point across, the ads show dutiful children kneeling before their parents as well as another, slightly less loving, picture of a couple being “punished” by the police.
The ad is apparently inspired by Asaram Bapu, whose graceful face looms above, like a judgemental spectre, all the more weird because he is currently in jail in connection with the alleged rape of a minor. This is a perfect encapsulation of the way in which South Asia greets Valentine’s Day: That is, with slight confusion.
On the one hand, young couples choosing their own matches and celebrating their love in public are still seen as transgressive in the more conservative (and I think bitter) portions of society. For societies like those in South Asia that place so huge a premium on weddings (but curiously not on marriage) that they form month-long festivities and can cost millions, it seems natural that a day that celebrates coupling should be the biggest holiday of the year. But this isn’t the case. Younger people in India are getting comfortable declaring coupledom in public. The one takeaway I had from the time I lived in Mumbai was seeing a long line of couples on Marine Drive gazing out at the ocean as their lips interlocked in hormonal abandon.
So why then is there still something against Valentine’s Day? One of the more popular arguments is that it is a Western imposition against the value systems indigenous to South Asia. That never really made sense since we are postcolonial and no matter what people say, shops will start selling red hearts and obese teddy bears come February. In Pakistan, Valentine’s Day has become an increasingly festive time, which may surprise you as much as it does us. But I speak the truth: Shops begin dripping with red balloons and pillows shaped like lips embroidered with phrases like “I Wuv You”, restaurants begin to advertise their pre-fix menus adorned with cupids for Valentine’s Night several weeks before V Day, flower shops go on steroids, and event managers, who I personally think are second only to heads of state in terms of their social capital in the 21st century, are knee-deep in preparations for “Valentine’s Night Balls”.
Much like in India, there will inevitably be a loveless man going on about how un-Islamic the whole thing is but the fact is Valentine’s Day is now a global event and, more importantly, big business. That it has not always been so in our parts doesn’t really matter. Neither was spandex, but you get used to things. The fete is as much a part of global culture as New Year’s Eve.
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This decade has brought on lots of awareness of cultural appropriation. What is authentic, what is imported, what is real, what is not. Last week, there was an international furore over Coldplay’s music video set in India. It, too, was accused of cultural appropriation and insensitivity by trigger-happy liberals in the West and even some in India. The video, in case you haven’t seen, has images of Holi and orange skies reflected in temple pools while Beyoncé occasionally appears merrily dancing in a choli. It’s not offensive. It exoticised India, of course, but no more so than The Darjeeling Limited and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or, indeed, Indian tourism campaigns themselves. If you feel bad about it, don’t. You have it easy.
Consider what Pakistanis have to put up with by comparison: Zero Dark Thirty and racist Homeland episodes where we all apparently speak Arabic. (Sad thing is, I really liked Claire Danes before this.) A dancing Beyoncé does not seem so bad anymore, does it? Also, that a black woman was playing a Bollywood dancer is far more thought-provoking than offensive in a place that believes fair equals lovely.
The video also showed some desi kids breakdancing, a dance pioneered by African Americans in urban cities in the States but that bit escaped accusatory op-eds. Cultures can, should and do borrow from each other to grow. This is a good thing. Be it breakdancing or yoga or Valentine’s Day.
So, go ahead, tell them — your parents, your friends, your special someone — that you love them. Do it not because of a holiday based on a martyred Christian saint and propagated by the greeting card industry but because love exists in all our cultures and a celebration of that is never a bad thing. God knows Bollywood keeps going on about it.