There are various reasons for this rather odd node. It's going to be part autobiographical- so there will be some digressions, part political and partly about love and all that schmuck. So if you're ready for all that, read on
I grew up in India and lived there for 21 years. I must admit that I had an unusual upbringing- not unusual for people of my social class, but unusual if you look at it in terms of the socio-economic context. For most upper middle class kids growing up in India, their lives mirror those of most 'Western' kids. We watch the same television shows, read the same books, wear the same branded clothes and study pretty much the same thing in school. So when it comes to matters of the heart, we tend to imitate the West there as well.
As a 13-16 year old in a high school in India, Valentine's Day was quite an event. Despite our 'imitation' of the West in so many respects, families and social structures remain quite traditional in India. Most parents would greatly disapprove of romances, especially at that age. My parents are most unusual in that they don't care who I date, as long as I am happy, and are very open about everything. But they are very much the exception. I remember this friend of mine, Divya, who had a crush on this guy who was a family friend. She ventured to tell her parents about it, and as a reward for her honesty, for the next five years was dropped off to school by her mom and picked up when school ended, her phone calls were monitored and she was forbidden from ever seeing him again. This despite the fact that he belonged to the same community and social class that she did, and perhaps had they been much older, an arranged marriage between the two would not have been out of place. But to have a 'crush' on him was completely unthinkable and apparently a sign that there was something wrong with her upbringing that needed to be corrected.
I have digressed into this long account just to give some kind of a platform for some of things I shall say later. My moot point is this: among the upper middle classes and their kids in India, Valentine's Day is 'celebrated' but often amidst a degree of secrecy and subterfuge. Most parents would utterly freak if their kids went on a date on the 14th of February, so all the giving of cards, chocolates and flowers is very much hush hush.
But there is also another element to this: that of peer pressure. While most Indian kids of this social strata (and I keep making this qualification because it is an important one), don't have boyfriends/girlfriends, those who do are uplifted in the eyes of those who don't. It is something to boast about to your friends- the mystery of having a 'girlfriend', of meeting her, of even (if you are very lucky!) kissing her. There is an aura surrounding all this, and this feeds into the Valentine's Day frenzy. So those kids who do have someone to bestow attention upon are treated as royalty, and the poor unfortunate majority seek vicarious pleasure through it all.
Having talked about the situation in India, I want to make a small digression and talk about my experiences in the UK. I came here to study a few years ago, on a scholarship that sends 6 Indians to Oxford every year. I've had a great time both academically and otherwise, but most importantly, I've now found myself a 'boyfriend'. (I use the quote marks because I hate that term...and can't think of an appropriately suitable alternative...suggestions would be welcome). As 14 February approached, I was amused to find that all my Indian friends were most most curious about what we were planning to do, and how we were going to 'celebrate'. Having always been told that Valentine's Day was a 'Western concept' I was amused to find the Indians here more excited about my Valentine's Day plans that anybody else.
This is not to say however (and herein begins the political bit) that Valentine's Day is not fostered by certain forces of corporate globalization both in the UK and in India. In the case of the latter, Valentine's Day only really became a phenomenon when greeting card companies like Hallmark and Archie's promoted it with a vengeance, and in the post liberalisation era where there was an entire middle class flush with money, they found their perfect consumers. I noticed in the UK this year, that Valentine's Day is just as big a deal as it was for kids of my social strata in India- except that it's not kids we are dealing with here, but grown up adults. Again, the pressure of the media, of people around you to 'do something' on Valentine's Day, or to have 'someone' to do that something with is mindboggling.
Im going to cut and paste an email I got today from the Oxford University Japanese Society- it's about some strange new concept (at least for me!) called speed dating (sounds like some F1 variant, if you ask me!):
'Sake and Speed-dating'
Sunday of 4th week, 6pm-8pm
Hertford College Bar
£2 plus free sake!
Single? Combat post-Valentines day blues with 'Sake and Speed-dating''!!
You will get the chance to speed-date twenty members of the opposite sex
with free shots of sake to get you in the mood.
To return to India:
Valentine's Day in India, apart from the commercial aspect, has another disturbing side to it. Hindu fundamentalists have attacked the notion of a 'Valentine's Day' saying that it is 'against Indian ethos and culture' and some of the hooligan brigades of the ruling BJP, such as the Shiv Sena have, in recent years, taken to vandalising shops selling Valentine's Day cards and so on. The Mahila Morcha (Women's Brigade) of the BJP this year, launched an anti V-Day appeal using as their USP the case of this one young girl who had been date raped and killed as an example of what happens when good Indian girls try to ape the West.
I could make a million arguments against what such Hindu nationalists/fascists have to say (and occasionally they are joined by the fundamentalist elements of other religious communities as well....funny how things like this bring about 'religious unity' between the most extreme elements of Indian society). But I will make just one simple point: Are these people trying to say that expression of love is against Indian culture? Umm...for a country whose heritage is rich in some of the most romantic literature ever produced in a variety of regional languages, that is an odd claim. If their opposition is to the marketing and commercial aspects of V-Day, then well...it's your government that has pushed through the liberalisation that has made it possible.
To tie this all up, and this might get a bit repetitive, here's the entry from my blog about Valentine's Day:
I had an amusing conversation with a friend the other day, which I remembered right now. It's about Saturday which is Valentine's day (or as my friend Samit puts it- Wulen-tines Day...and more about Samit to follow). Anyway, so this friend of mine argues with me that I MUST go out and do something on Saturday because of the combined pressure of public opinion (what did you do? what are you doing?), and the fact that it is Saturday night (apart from being Valen/Wulen- tines day). Well, as of now I plan to finish my presentation on the Articles of Confederation- so much for romance and all that! But I was just thinking that the whole notion of a Valentine's Day is quite annoying when you are single and the cause of much social pressure. I remember how in school and more so in college, every Valentine's day would bring forth the usual litany of 'oh i don't have a boyfriend. my life is incomplete' kind of whining. Pathetic as it may sound, along with being Bridget-Jones-ish, it's not that uncommon. But what is scarier is that pretty much everything you see around you- shops, books, the media etc, glorify the notion of 'couplehood' till you feel that being single for whatever reason is an indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with you.
Finally, in sync with the theme of corporate globalization and V-Day that I've been talking about, I'm reading some stuff on how the chocolate industry, which is so key to V-Day celebrations, and makes a huge profit in this period, uses child slavery to sustain itself. I'll node this in detail once I've fully understood the issues at stake, but I think it's a frightening, and somewhat sobering note to end on.