On 7 February upon entering the canteen for breakfast, many of the students greeted me with a smile and a handshake saying, “Happy Rose Day, Di*!” After I asked them about Rose Day, they proceeded to explain to me that Valentine’s Day has been expanded. 7-13 February each have their own “day” related to love: Rose Day (7), Propose Day (8), Chocolate Day (9), Teddy Day (10), Promise Day (11), Hug Day (12) & Kiss Day (13), culminating in Valentine’s Day. But, it doesn’t end there! After Valentine’s Day, a second week begins to celebrate the darker side of love: Slap Day (15), Gift Return Day (16), Kick Day (17), Quarrel Day (18), Try to Convince Day (19), Breakup Day (20), & Find Another one Day (21). A true whirlwind of emotions in the style of a Bollywood melodrama would ensue if anyone decided to earnestly celebrate these days. Turning Valentine’s Day into a two-week What’sApp greeting image-filled** extravaganza is a true Indianization of the holiday. All that I had previously heard about the celebration of Valentine’s Day in India was that some conservative people saw it as an imposition of Western immorality and protested it by burning Valentine’s Day cards and the like. Therefore, I was amused to find not only that Valentine’s Day has survived these attacks, but has flourished!
Due to the young adult ages of the people with whom I have been spending most of my time here, I have been learning quite a bit about love among today’s Indian youth. For instance, the first time someone told me that they “proposed” to someone, I was shocked because I assumed they meant they proposed marriage to them. I then learned that “proposing,” means telling someone you love them. However, I was shocked again because I discovered that quite unlike popular American dating customs, a proposal, i.e. declaration of love, is required at the very beginning of a relationship to establish someone as your boyfriend or girlfriend. While in arranged marriages, marriage takes place before falling in love, in the Indian dating scene, love is supposed to happen before dating even begins. Relationships are largely conducted via phone calls and text messages with occasional public meetings. These days, many parents allow their children to choose their own marriage partner, but pre-marital relationships are usually under near constant surveillance if they are disclosed.
I have come to appreciate how much marriage has faded in importance in America by the contrast of how truly central marriage remains here in India. Women I have just met on the bus or in a shop will ask me, “Shadi ho gayi? (Has your marriage happened?)” before even asking my name. Another common question, “when is your marriage?” often proves difficult to answer. I have been definitively told that I absolutely must marry before age 30 even if my studies aren’t yet completed. If I explain that I might not have anyone to marry since even if I don’t find anyone myself, my parents won’t arrange it, people shake their head in dismay at the sorry state of American society and I am told that someone simply must find me an Indian boy. “Why don’t people in your country marry?” I have been asked more than once. To which I reply, “marriage isn’t as important in America.” “Yes that’s good,” people will say, but will then reflect on the horrors of ‘live-in arrangements’ or ‘love before marriage.’ While my initial American response to these moralizations is variously frustration or amusement, in the end I remember that in India, love often leads to danger. Certainly, across cultures love can easily lead to danger, and I do not mean to diminish the very real risks that people take for love that goes against their familial or cultural norms in America. But in my conversations here in India about love, murder and suicide almost invariably come up as very present risks of falling in love outside of marriage, across caste or religious lines, or against heteronormativity. It is startling how many people have a story about a friend who has committed suicide because of a love affair gone wrong.
While we often idealistically claim that love knows no boundaries and crosses all barriers, I have found that conversations about love, dating and marriage often leave me feeling the least prepared to respond and the most culture shocked. My American ‘individualism’ creeps up on me in these moments and my internal monologue is something along the lines of: “We should love whoever we want wherever we want! And who needs marriage anyway?!” But what I have come to realize through these conversations is that the word ‘love’ means something different in India than it does in America – it comes with a whole set of connotations, associations, cultural systems, and ideals. To any anthropology student this isn’t a shock, but to me I must admit, it has been sometimes shocking to experience it, even as I can intellectually understand it. Love is universal in the sense that all humans love other humans, animals, places, things, etc. – we all have the capacity to love. But how we express love, think about love, and maybe even how we feel love is different.
Here at Nagaloka, every day the residents perform Maitreya Bhavana (friendship-love feeling) meditation, the last stage of which is to try to feel love for every person in the whole world. This is an undeniably beautiful way to end each day and a reminder that no matter how many different shapes and shades that love has, we can all recognize the capacity to love and be loved in every fellow human being.
So, I suppose I will end by taking this opportunity to wish everyone a most happy Kick Day!
*Di – short for Didi, meaning older sister
**What’sApp – for those who have not experienced it, What’sApp is an instant messaging program which is extremely popular among all Indians with data plans on their smartphones. A popular practice among all age groups is to send greeting card style images to one’s friends. For instance, on “Chocolate Day” I received a What’sApp message from a woman that included an image of a basket filled with Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars with the phrase “Happy Chocolate Day” written across it.