A Valentine's Day like no other

Updated: Feb 16, 2020, 07:54 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

This year, has seen a Valentine's Day like no other, where the language of love demonstrated how political it is.

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita VohraValentine's Day became a contender in India at the dawn of this century. The Shiv Sena immediately attacked it as Western culture. I knew this move was doomed, because in the local trains women were already showing each other their Marathi and Gujarati Valentine's Day cards. Then, Pramod Muthalik of the Ram Sene, undeterred by his lifetime collection of pink chaddis, threatened to marry off Valentiners. Subsequently, the Hindu Mahasabha threatened to make them tie rakhi. Also doomed because, well, the concept of the bhai-friend, which columnist Santosh Desai once described, is as Indian as dahi bhallas. Asaram Bapu —now in prison for child sexual abuse—tried to make it matra pitra worship day. It stopped no one. I doubt (and hope) that the schoolgirls in Amravati being made to pledge to stay away from love will really do so.

Two decades on, it's clear. Valentine's Day was made for India—it involves kitsch, bad poetry and guzzles (as my Bandra friend calls ghazals, which I initially though was some slang for drinking beer), pointless gifts and substantial sentimentality. Now, Valentine's Day is a naturalised Indian citizen, a week of ritual celebration, a bit like dandiya, which includes Rose, Propose and Teddy day.

This year, has seen a Valentine's Day like no other, where the language of love demonstrated how political it is.

Protesters at Shaheen Bagh, now in their third month, stood with pink hearts, inviting the Prime Minister over with a "pyaar se request". Dadis and nanis were on stage with India's biggest reddest teddy bear. People chanted #tumkabaaoge. Some days before an installation of hearts and flowers at the spot had declared, "Yeh hai Dilli mere yaar, yahan goli nahin sirf pyaar" (This Delhi my love, no bullets, only love). Faiz, a truck slogan and Prasoon Joshi, in one place—love creates surprise combos, bridging seemingly certain divides.

Filmi duets were often arguments about love. Commonly, women argued for love's open-ended idealism, its leaps of faith, the possibility of the impossible. Men argued for cynicism, the immutability and stability of existing hierarchies. Sometimes, women swore off love and men as faithless, and men tried to persuade them of its pleasures and their passion. These are conversations not only about specific relationships, but about a way of being in the world.

Love is not a civilising mission that seeks to improve others. At heart it is a liberating language, which seeks a structure of give and take, a practice of ethical engagement, a dance of unity and separateness, disagreement and acceptance, the personal and political, threaded through a relationship.

On the one hand we currently have an extremely masculinist political culture, with the cynicism of electoral calculations and violence as an inevitability, that sees engagement as a form of weakness. On the other, we have a constant proliferation of freedom squares, Shaheen Bagh, Mumbai Bagh, Bilal Bagh—gardens of love built on belief, not certainty.

This embodies a more porous definition of Indian-ness, not by a language of rights alone but relationality and ethics—through biryani and mehman nawazi, pink hearts and installation art, small gestures of love as much as large acts of organisation. A friend told me that another friend flew from Bombay to Shaheen Bagh, carrying brownies and strawberries. Why? Just. That also being a surprise combo we eat on Valentine's Day by the way.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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