Valentine's Day in India, despite the commercialisation, is also a way of pushing back
Valentine's Day is one small act of resistance in a country where the right to love must still be fought for, every inch of the way.
As I walk down Park Street, the still glitzy if slightly faded epicenter of cosmopolitan nightlife in Kolkata, I notice the Valentine’s Day billboards outside the restaurants.
One promises a crab and duck special, a live band, surprise gifts for lucky couples and a rose for every lady. I wonder what they would do if the couple happened to be two women. If two men showed up on V-day would neither get a rose? Would they be refused service? Or is all business good business, especially in times of demonetisation?
I had not grown up thinking of Valentine’s Day as anything special. In Kolkata, we joked that Saraswati Puja was the Bengali Valentine’s Day when young men and women sent their text books to be blessed by the Goddess and took advantage of that respite to indulge in a bit of wholesome romance. The western style Valentine’s Day felt cloying, an artificial sweetener sponsored by Archie’s cards, hard-selling some pink cotton-candy version of love. Even Bollywood dance-around-trees felt more authentic than that. It was at least homegrown.
If you were gay, it reminded you even more bluntly that this was a day where heteronormativity was hardcoded in every offer of a “complimentary rose for the lady”. Gay romance was often secretive, hidden away from prying eyes. There was no Valentine’s Day to put it on public display with roses and balloons. Gay romance was romance that was stolen every day and 14 February was no different really.
Years ago, a gay American friend visiting India had been amazed at the number of young men he saw holding hands. It’s like gay Valentine’s Day every day, he marvelled. Of course it was not. Holding hands in a homosocial culture meant nothing homosexual. But it provided cover for the homosexual men who could hold hands and get away with it. That’s changed. Fewer men hold hands in India and certainly the higher you climb on the class ladder, the more hands-off it becomes.
The first time I remember celebrating Valentine’s Day was probably in the United States. I’d embarked on a new relationship. It felt obligatory to celebrate Valentine’s Day, the done thing. I’d booked a restaurant in advance after much research and debate. I called, the man asked me to hold while he checked availability and then said a table for two was available at 8:30. It was a new European restaurant that looked romantic with dim lighting and an intriguing menu. Then on Valentine’s Day there was a freak snowstorm. But we trudged through the snow reassuring ourselves that it was just adding to the romance of it all with some bonus winter wonderland spectacle.
When we reached the restaurant we discovered that it was entirely empty — just waiters milling around aimlessly among tables where candles burned in anticipation of romantic couples who were missing in action. The maître-d made a great show of looking into his ledger for our reservation as if the restaurant was bustling with people. Then he led us with a flourish to our table in a corner. “It’s the snow,” he said apologetically. “So many cancellations because of the snow.” We didn’t believe that everyone had cancelled en masse but we did not contradict him either as we clutched onto the promise of our romantic evening.
But the weight of that empty restaurant crushed all romance out of our dinner. We talked in hushed voices as if we were in a library, nervous that bored waiters were eavesdropping on our conversation. We were acutely aware of the entire waitstaff hanging around waiting to refill our water glass every time we took a sip. Outside the snow was still falling gently, piling up prettily on the sidewalks. Inside, it felt oppressive — as if we were desperately trying to keep the Valentine’s Day spirit from being snuffed out from both the restaurant and our love life. By the time the dessert arrived, we had stopped talking entirely. The emptiness of the restaurant weighed down on us like the heavy velvety drapes at its door. We could not wait to escape.
That night we had our Valentine’s Day fight. I cannot blame it on the restaurant alone but that pressure to have a perfect special Valentine’s Day certainly took its toll. Next year we decided to avoid overpriced restaurants. We went to see a play instead in San Francisco. The theatre was quite full. It was a one woman show by Anna Deveare Smith, an extraordinary performer. We loved it and decided that should be our Valentine’s ritual.
Every couple we felt needs a Valentine’s ritual. Theatre would be ours. The pickings were uneven. Some plays were enthralling. Some were no better than amateur community theatre. Some were so experimental, we understood nothing. Once it was a gay play by some debut playwright, badly-acted and badly staged. Sometimes it was in a grand old playhouse, sometimes in some musty church basement. But at least it was a respite from the monotony of teddy bears and chocolates.
The plays I realise now were actually an act of resistance. It was a resistance to the barrage of marketing gimmicks to “celebrate” Valentine’s Day, the relentless pressure to have a day that would be extra-special and different though it was always the same.
Back in India, I let go of Valentine’s Day rituals but I understood that here too it was an act of resistance in its own way. In a country where hooligans protest cultural imperialism by attacking couples on Valentine’s Day and vandalise storefronts in the name of all-Bharatiya values, Valentine’s Day, commercial as it is, is a way of pushing back. And so if a gay couple walks into a restaurant for that crab-and-duck dinner and demands that complimentary rose, I will not roll my eyes at the tackiness of it all. I will chalk it down as one small act of resistance in a country where the right to love must still be fought for every inch of the way.
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