Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine’s Day, Bombay-Style

There is a rather droll editorial by Sujata Anandan in today’s Hindustan Times (sadly not available online as of yet) regarding the frothing reaction of some members of the xenophobic Shiv Sena party - whose personal lives are apparently barren, romanceless, joyless husks of existence - to the arrival of that epochal event of whoredom and Western decadence, Valentine’s Day.

Apparently having graduated from days when they dismantled and burned people to burning people’s property and belongings, on Monday, hundreds of “Shiv Sainiks,” as they refer to themselves, ran amok along the Senapati Bapat Road, trashing a shop that sold Valentine’s Day cards and setting much of the merchandise on fire. Later, evidently still high on the adrenaline rush of their good showing in last month’s municipal elections here in Bombay, the saffron-identified gang them moved on to Deccan Square where they pummeled a large billboard put up by the Indian cell phone giant Hutch which advertised Valentine’s Day with a host of balloons.

"Valentine day like celebrations are all western concepts and has been forced on our society for the commercial purpose,” a Sena youth leader was quoted in the times as saying in the paper. “Shiv Sena will never allow the commercialization of Indian feelings.”

This devotion to the tenderest of human emotions might be more convincing were it not coming from a party the built itself on hate rhetoric to rival anything heard in the segregation-era United States. The party exists more or less exclusively to promote the idea that native Maharashtrians (those born in Maharashtra state of which Bombay is a part and speaking the Marathi language) deserved greater rights here than "foreigners," which in this case means basically Muslims and "southerners" (those from south India). Following the 1993 riots here which killed over 2,000 people, the Srikrishna Commission Report on the violence stated plainly that “from January 8, 1993 at least there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several ."
So much for the sacredness of Indian feelings.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that a nation which constructed the 800 year-old erotic temples at Khajuraho as well as composed the Kama Sutra could feel at all threatened by such an innocuous holiday, however commercialized, as Valentines Day and, indeed, virtually no one on the streets today seemed bother, with Bombayite gals in fact looking particularly fetching (or perhaps it was just that the perpetually brown, polluted air had cleared enough so I could see them). So it came as little surprise when, in her column, Anandan reveals that the Sena protests against the Valentine’s Day stem not from some deep-seated belief in the sacredness of Indian traditions, but rather in the fact that the party’s boss, Bal Thackeray, had evidently once approached one of the greeting card companies here to sponsor an event for his daughter-in-law, and was curtly rebuffed. Thackeray, not a man to forget such a slight, swore revenge, and thus we have the yearly protests at Valentine’s Day.

For me, my favorite piece of art themed around the day has nothing to do with amour or even India, but is in fact the Australian director Peter Weir’s fantastic and forbidding Picnic at Hanging Rock, which tells the story of three Australian schoolgirls who disappeared on a school trip to that eponymous geological outcropping on Valentine’s Day, 1900. It was the beginning of a roll of terrific films by Weir, including The Last Wave two years later, Gallipoli in 1981 and The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982. But there remains something uniquely great and strange about Picnic, with its strong undercurrents of euphoria, sexuality, mystery and horror. It remains a film that evokes strong emotions in people even though not all that much actually happens in it and people are often hard put into words exactly why the react they way they do. It is just a sensation. As mystery and the unknown are two of the great drivers of romance, it seems like an appropriate note to close on.

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