Sunday, February 14, 2016

Srijana Mitra Das - The importance of being amorous: Why Valentine's Day, kissing and PDA mean revolution in India // Ipsita Chakravarty - Romance as sedition: Something new to try this Valentine's Day

In the mid-1990s, middle-class India awoke to the strange foreign festival of 'Valuntyne Day'. Considerably diluted from its medieval European rituals of dancing couples and May Poles, the festival in India meant glittery cards, 'heart-wala' balloons, moony ceramic statuettes, fluffy bears, perfumes that smelt confusingly like sweat, dinner dates and cinema seats, spa massages and boozy brunches - the flotsam and jetsam of low capitalism, which high culture in India, reared on ragas, Rabindranath and Renoir, elegantly sneered at.

But Valentine's Day brought one more gift - a revolutionary one, wrapped in schmaltzy ribbons maybe, but still revolutionary.

Saying 'I love you' - with a kiss.

The implications were explosive.

In pre-liberalisation India, saying 'I love you' was almost as dangerous as saying, 'I hate Indira Gandhi'. Love, the kind between two people, not two clans, is inherently dangerous. In its power and idiocy, its madness and single-mindedness, its desire and despair, love dissolves identities. Love makes lovers only aware of each other, miraculously free of Papa-Mummy, chacha-tayi, maama-bhanja, et al. Love makes you selfish - and self-aware.

Such love - passionate, personal and unpredictable - was highly dangerous for pre-liberalisation India lived with a Misery Mindset, anticipating gloom, not bloom. In that India, it was actually considered ok to spend a lifetime with low expectations, labouring under not just shortfalls but the expectation of catastrophe, the anticipation of disaster - crops failing, famine hitting, license revoking - foreboding times of hardship and pain that would entail families clinging closer, falling on communal resources, group labour, stored gold, dynasty dowries.

But if people fell in love and rode off into the sunset instead, how could family resources be consolidated? Instead, these would splinter, like an achy-breaky heart, leaving families to cope with disasters as shrunken units in stormy seas.

Hence, the importance of not being amorous gripped the Indian psyche.

Making love was not, as Celine Dion so breathily sings, for fun - it was for family, protecting, preserving and procreating family. In that context grew Freud's 'virginity taboo' and the idea that sex wasn't pleasure but work (and anyone having fun was immoral). Holding hands was pointless. Kissing was a waste of time - and even caused seditious notions for the kiss is among love's most dangerous plays.

It is with the French kiss particularly - lips touch, tongues tango - that lovers understand love. The French kiss teaches us love is passion. It teaches us that love is tender respect. It teaches us love isn't domination. Love is a thrillingly equal awareness. Love is experiencing another's being - and suddenly realising your own.

Unsurprisingly, this comes from the land of the greatest revolution in political thought.

France emphasised everyone deserved to be free, to live, to love as they please, bringing curtains - or a guillotine - down on feudalism's choke-hold, celebrating freedom with a big fat kiss.

The nervousness this kiss aroused is why Indian censors insisted on screen passion defined by flowers in pollen-coated desire, never real people experiencing a kiss. This is why our censor board still thinks it's fine to shred James Bond's kisses - otherwise, how do you stop young people from thinking love-making is free of social duty? If young people think like that, they won't behave like old people.

And then, the sky will most certainly fall.

In this worldview, any public display of affection causes panic. PDA, treated with passing bemusement elsewhere, becomes explosively violent in India. PDA gives families sleepless nights - and gives the state oil to grimly massage into its stick. PDA actually annoys the state so much, it launches 'Operation Majnu', cops brutally assaulting lovers, or perversely demanding bribes. Indeed, PDA is a problem for a state which sees itself as top pitaji in a pyramid of paternalistic power - if young people defy their own dad today, the day is not far when Big Daddy will be challenged too.

Yet, despite hard lathis, forced rakhis and angry hack-tivists, lovers persist. See the timorous, yet amorous PDA in cafes and cinema halls, discos and malls - and in those antique haunts of the passionate Indian heart, the crumbly tomb, the sandy nook, the public garden bush - and you'll see how, despite emotional and other atyachaars, more Indians are holding hands, even kissing, as they murmur to each other - I love you.

And, in that moment, understand that I love me. And life is too short to fear bullies and catastrophe, to not cross lines, to not take unknown turns. More young Indians are realising it's ok to love and live - and more young Indians are asking why it's not ok to let live. That is possibly, despite chubby teddies and weird perfume, the greatest gift of Valuntyne Day.

Ipsita Chakravarty - Romance as sedition: Something new to try this Valentine's Day
February 14 is Parent Worship Day or "Matru Pitru Diwas". It is also the culmination of a "balidan saptah" or Sacrifice Week to commemorate martyrs like Bhagat Singh. If you were going around thinking it's Valentine's Day, you can get your mind out of the gutter. Or the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad will get it out for you.

True to form, assorted saffron groups in Andhra Pradesh have called for the government to ban Valentine's Day. In Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu Mahasabha will crack down on people involved in seditious activities such as holding hands, hugging or clutching red roses. It will also march amorous couples to the nearest temple and marry them off. So will the Bajrang Dal in Jharkhand. Because that is the Indian way, says Hindu Mahasabha president Chandra Prakash Kaushik. Only foreigners "give birth to kids and part ways". What's worse, they are public about it.

To gently wean you away from such anti-national practices and instil some proper Indian values, there is Asaram Bapu, currently in jail on charges of sexual assault. Some of the posters for Matru Pitru Diwas show the god man in floral headgear, looking into the distance while children garland their parents and touch their feet. Others posters show Asaram, still in floral headgear, but this time accompanied by Shaktimaan, superhero and saint.

If the gentle Asaram cannot persuade you, there is always Bollywood. Karan Johar said it years ago with Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham – "It's all about loving your parents". And remember Baghban? Three hours of people quite strenuously not loving their parents and coming to grief for it. Then there is that age-old clincher: "Mere paas maa hai". 

It is remarkable how the powers of Asaram, Shaktimaan and Bollywood combined have turned a fairly natural instinct – being attached to your progenitors – into a tedious cultural duty. It is also not clear why you cannot continue loving your parents while, say, draining a glass of chardonnay with your date for the evening.

Anti-national candy: What is even more remarkable is how the ululations of the saffron crew have turned a mawkish, commercialised ritual into something freighted with political significance. The hearts and cupids of Valentine's Day were not meant to bear this ideological weight. 

Poor Saint Valentine, desperately scribbling one last letter to his lover before he gets the chop, has little to do with the celebrations on February 14. It is no secret that the rise of Valentine's Day in the last decades of the 20th century had more to do with the fact that a lot of people made a lot of money out of it – greeting card companies churning out copious amounts of pink, producers releasing movies on the day, restaurants offering romantic dinners for two. Righteous bristling about capitalism aside, the objection to Valentine's Day could also be one of taste.

But we live in the times of sedition and anti-nationals, if the government is to be believed. When a small number of people have appropriated what it means to be Indian and are going about enforcing it, with or without violence. Valentine's Day certainly does not fit into this idea.

It has been drawing the wrath of fringe Hindutva groups for years. Though the Bajrang Dal has promised not to resort to violence this year, it has enthusiastically beaten up young couples in the past. The VHP has not been above throwing rotten tomatoes and ransacking shops on February 14. Even the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bhartiya Janata Party, has joined in. Apart from the usual thrashing and ransacking, ABVP activists have been known to enjoy blackening the faces of young men who dare to celebrate Valentine's Day.

This crackdown on public displays of affection has generated its own counter current. In Kerala, in 2014, students gathered on the streets for the "Kiss of Love" protests. In Mumbai and in Delhi, the #ParkMeinPDA campaign was launched to reclaim public spaces from the moral policing of the conservative mob. Acting on your natural, hormonal impulses has been forced to become a political act in India.

This year, the choice to celebrate Valentine's Day could be unexpectedly radical, because the government itself seems to have come out in support of the groups that would shut it down. In Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula was suspended from university for twin offences – "anti-national" protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon and allegedly assaulting an ABVP member – and the human resources development ministry itself seemed to take an interest in how the student was dealt with. In Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, dissenting students have been booked for sedition on a complaint filed by a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament and members of the ABVP.

The sickly sweet cupids and roses of Valentine's Day are suddenly allied with these other dissensions, in the collection of habits and cultural expressions that are un-Indian. So if you find yourself face-to-face with a heart-shaped box of chocolates, you might be tempted to pick one up and taste it. It's delicious. It's seditious.