On Feb. 14 this year Valentine’s Day was celebrated with much fervor in India. Although some conscience keepers of Hindu culture wanted to celebrate it as Matru- Pitru Diwas (Parents’ Day) young India refused the proposal and went ahead, and even overboard, in celebrating love. But the day ended on a sour note in Kolkata when a group of young people had to be told that all is actually not fair in the name of love.
Before 1990 India didn’t know there was a day called Valentine’s Day and it had to be celebrated with gifts, heart-shaped cards and balloons and dollops of mush.
Much of the credit for popularizing Valentine’s Day in India goes to Archies, who realized the potential of card and gift sales in an Indian market which other companies later latched on to.
I remember as teenagers then we became so obsessed with Valentine’s Day that we quickly sent fillers to boys we liked that if they could give us a card — just a card — on Valentine’s Day we would land up nowhere else but the moon.
I had a friend who had just had a boyfriend and who is her husband now. She promptly set out to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records by buying the largest number of cards for a single Valentine on a single Valentine’s Day, mainly because purchase of five cards came with the offer of a free gift, a chocolate maybe. As far I remember, she gifted him a box of 100 cards and devoured the 20 chocolates that she got in the bargain.
But despite this fervor to celebrate Valentine’s Day if you asked all these love-struck Indian teenagers if they knew what Valentine’s Day was really all about they wouldn’t have been able to answer.
Cut to 2016 — they can’t yet answer the question but they are no longer just satisfied with the simple pleasures of exchanging cards. The consumerist juggernaut has made Valentine’s Day into a day of expensive dinners, solitaires, perfumes and clothes and love probably comes last in the pecking order.
On Feb. 14 morning everywhere I went, from an electronics goods showroom to the largest gold jewelry chain in Kolkata, I was greeted by heart-shaped balloons, huge hollow hearts framing the doors and heart sweets and heart cakes. I wondered if Valentine’s Day is as big in western countries, from where it originated, as it is India now.
The subscribers of Hindutva ideology might have wanted to turn it into a day when parents should be loved, respected and celebrated but going by the fervor I saw on the streets of Kolkata yesterday, all I can say is they failed miserably.
Valentine’s Day was celebrated with as much fervor as would be any other festival like Christmas, Eid or Saraswati puja, which came a day before Valentine’s Day this year.
Till late into the night truckloads of people, biker gangs and groups of men and women went from one end of the city to another blowing into shrill whistles and wishing Happy Valentine’s day to anyone they saw on the street.
But what took the cake was the incident that happened in the evening.
On the evening of Feb. 14 my mother and I spotted a young girl from our balcony on the sidewalk opposite our house, barely able to walk. A guy quickly came up behind her and gave her support so that she would not fall. Then two more men in their early 20s stood with her. They put two glasses of yellow-looking fluid on the top of a random car and started taking selfies with the girl, crushing her in their midst. She kept leaning on one guy or the other and they took turns in picking her up, groping her, touched her wherever possible and all this we kept watching from the balcony with rising fear.
My 75-year-old mother, who reads the newspaper every morning from the first to the last line, and who couldn’t be more clued in on violence against women in India, was alarmed that the intention of the young men was just not right and we should take the initiative to save the girl. “What if they are making an MMS? What if they have given her a date rape drug? What if they plan to rape her?” my mom’s mind went on an overdrive.
I first told her, “For all you know the girl is consenting in this.” But as the minutes ticked by the groping and touching and picking up and photographing continued without a break. I also started getting alarmed.
My parents have been living in the same locality for the past 34 years, and it’s a locality where almost everyone knows everyone. Although a number of new restaurants and stores are coming up in the locality in recent times because of the convenience of the location, the essence of the place continues to be the same.
I noticed from the balcony that all the security guards, of the neighboring buildings and restaurants had also noticed. Some people in the locality stood a distance away and watched but they didn’t know if it was okay to intervene.
At my mother’s behest I finally went down and intervened. I asked the girl her age and she promptly said she was 17 and pointed at the tallest in the group of three men and said, “He is my Bha-lentine and I am in a relationship with him for three years. We are celebrating Valentine’s Day.”
I said, “That’s fine but which Valentine would allow his friends to grope his drunk girlfriend openly? Don’t you think something is wrong here?”
I added, “Are you aware that drinking below 18 is illegal?” pointing at the half finished bottle of whisky that was standing on the footpath next to them.
The girl, who was unable to stand straight for a moment, was suddenly all erect and spoke clearly, without slurring. She said sorry promptly.
I asked for her parents’ phone number and wanted to call them so that they could take her home and told her if she did not hand me the number I would call the police.
The word police had two kinds of effect. While the girl recoiled and said she was immediately going home the boyfriend said, “I am calling the police because you are harassing us.”
I said, “Yes please go ahead we are all waiting for the police. We will all tell them what has been happening here.”
By then a crowd had gathered and the boyfriend realized that they all knew me well and we were together. He decided to step back. “He will drop me home,” the girl said and started walking while the boys followed her.
As I had predicted, the girl knew what she was doing and maybe this was her idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day. I am not being judgmental. At 17 it is only expected that a young girl will be adventurous, will be eager to break the rules but what irked me was she was probably compromising her dignity, her safety by doing what she was doing. And no, she was not on a date rape drug, she was perfectly fine.
As the crowd dispersed it pained me to hear someone say, “This is why girls are violated in India.” Words I absolutely loathe because it shifts the blame on the girl but in this case I did not know how to react, what to say.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.