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Forget Valentine's Day

By Kalpana Sharma

The Hindu
23 February, 2004

"What's the big deal?" asked Nikhil Chinnapa, the MTV VJ during a television discussion. He was rightly questioning the organisers of a discussion on that perennial subject, Valentine's Day and on whether it is against Indian cultural ethos. Have we not heard enough of this, asked Chinnapa. In several respects he was right. Why does the media give credence to a minute minority of people who are raising a ruckus over Valentine's Day and as a result make it more popular? Every newspaper carries photographs of the handful of individuals, under the banner of one of the Sangh Parivar's groups, who go out and burn cards, intimidate shop owners or blacken the faces of hapless young men using the day as an excuse to woo their lady love. Why do such small demonstrations merit so much attention when huge gathering of workers, adivasis and anti-communal or anti-war protestors do not get more than a few lines? The coming together of over one lakh people from all over the world in Mumbai in January for the World Social Forum hardly drew any media attention in comparison to the annual ritual of highlighting the opposition to Valentine's Day.

It is about time the media realised that opposition to Valentine's Day is not news anymore. It is a ritual followed by such a small handful of people as not to merit more than a passing mention. For whether the Sangh Parivar's busy bodies like it or not, and regardless of whether we think V-day has been excessively commercialised or is a videshi import, February 14 has come to stay. It will fade as soon as we stop paying so much attention to it. In any case, the Bajrang Dal does not oppose the selling of birthday cards, the cutting of birthday cakes, and birthday bashes, some as ostentatious as weddings. Since when did this kind of birthday celebration become desi or Indian? Surely, this too is a western import that ought to be opposed. In fact, why have cards at all? Who thought of sending cards for Deepavali? Is that an Indian custom? The argument could be taken to a ridiculous extreme. And that can happen because the entire issue is a non-issue, one that ought to be set aside. The media should take a lead on this by not giving any credence to the two and a half groups carrying forward their annual ritual of opposing Valentine's Day.

There are far more important issues that we do not address. For instance, the Valentine's Day ritual has caught on not just in the metros but also in smaller towns. In the past, there have been reports that this day is used by boys to harass girls in some north Indian cities like Jaipur, much as they would do during Holi. One more occasion has been found to legitimately approach the other sex.

That apart, it is evident that such days, and the general ethos of romance and love conveyed through advertisements, serials and books, is raising aspirations in the young. They dream of a chance to "fall in love" and live "happily ever after". Sadly, that is where the dream ends. For Cupid's arrow, in this country, must land in a preordained space — it must strike a person of the right caste and creed. Otherwise, the love match is rejected. Increasingly, that is the hard reality that thousands of young people, who delude themselves into believing that things are changing and that they will be able to make a choice on the basis of the dictates of their hearts, are being forced to face. They are firmly brought down to earth by families who refuse to accept their right to make a choice. If a couple refuses to fall in line, they must face rejection, ex-communication, and even violence. The happy endings are few and far in-between.

The norm is selection by calculation and not choice by impulse. It is heartening in the face of this to hear stories like the recent one from Chennai where a young woman, A. Jayalakshmi had the courage to reject her bus conductor groom Murugesan at the last minute because of the demands being made for dowry. The family had already given 34 gold sovereigns — but another three were due and the keys to a two-wheeler. If these were not given, the marriage would not take place, the girl's father was told. To her credit, Jayalakshmi decided she would not go ahead with such a match. What is more amazing is that she decided not to waste her father's efforts at putting together the wedding occasion. So she chose another groom, a distant relative who happened to be visiting and had been invited to the wedding! The story is extraordinary and the courage of the young woman has to be lauded. But the real story is the fact that her parents did agree to such atrocious demands in the first place and that the girl clearly did not have a say in the entire arrangement. Here is a southern Nisha Sharma. Perhaps there are more. One hopes that hearing this girl's story, there will be more like her.

Given the experiences of girls like Nisha and Jayalakshmi, this annual brouhaha over Valentine's Day should not obscure the reality of the = trade in girls under the guise of marriage that continues to be the norm in India. In the poorer and lower class families, the dowry giving and taking is blatant. In high society, it is subtler. But the pressure to spend, to show off, to have ostentatious weddings that bear no connection with the reality of people's lives is the real issue we should all be opposing. What can one say, for instance, about the huge and extravagant affair in Lucknow that drew everyone from the Prime Minister to a cricketing hero? Is this a role model for how young people should conduct their affairs in the future?

So my advice to the Sangh Parivar is that they should look within Indian society, pay heed to the evils that reside in it, tackle the manner in which girls continue to be treated and deal with the mockery of marriage that is evident in the tamashas that pass off for wedding ceremonies. Let them spend their energy in righting these wrongs and forget about the apparent threat posed western culture and Valentine's Day.

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