Valentine’s Day: Love in the time of strife, dissent and authoritarianism, over the ages – February 14 has become a day of protest and defiance.
The appeal of Valentine’s Day, celebrated on February 14, is increasing as young people celebrate love around the world. This is not about those who think love is expressed through expensive bouquets of flowers or chocolates, but how Valentine’s Day has become a day of protest and defiance.
In 2009, women in Karnataka united under the banner of the ‘Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women’ and launched the ‘Pink Chaddi Campaign’.
The consortium asked women across the country to send pink underwear to Pramod Muthalik, the leader of the Mangaluru-based Hindu extremist organisation Sri Ram Sene. Muthalik and other members of the extremist outfit had in January 2009 attacked women at a pub in Mangaluru.
It was a campaign that caught the imagination of young women across the country.
Now though, instead of sending pink underwear to the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism, perhaps they can be mailed copies of Subhashitavali, an anthology of comic, erotic and other verse translated from Sanskrit by AND Haksar – yes, a distant relative. The book includes poems on many aspects of love, unashamedly erotic, sensuous and even bawdy.
Here is one:
“Where are you going, pretty maid,
In this dark of midnight?”
“Where lives my lover, dear to me
even more than my life”
“Are you not afraid, my girl,
of setting forth alone?’
“A warrior with feathered arrows,
Madana goes with me.”
This is a poem from Amarusataka, an anthology of erotic love poems written – as legend goes – by a Kashmiri king called Amaru in the seventh century, common era. This is just one of the poems from the Amarusataka, ranked as one of the finest lyrical poetry in the annals of Sanskrit literature.
Ninth-century literary critic Anandvardhan declared that ‘a single stanza of the poet Amaru … may provide the taste of love equal to what is found in whole volumes’.
Madana referred to in the poem is the Hindu god of love and is represented as a young, handsome man wielding a bow, made of sugarcane, and arrows decorated with five kinds of fragrant flowers. Praying to him is said to resolve all problems of love and sex, and the prayer is in the form of a mantra: ‘Om Kleem Kamadevaay Namah’.
Then there is the Kama Sutra, a Sanskrit text on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfilment. It also has spiritual or religious significance as illustrated by this verse from the Upanishads:
A fire – that is what a woman is, Gautama.
Her firewood is the vulva,
her smoke is the pubic hair,
her flame is the vagina,
when one penetrates her, that is her embers,
and her sparks are the climax.
In that very fire the gods offer semen,
and from that offering springs a man.
India’s treasure trove of love stories are, as those in so many parts of the world, about lovers from different castes, classes and religion, and that inevitably means society punishes them – often with death.
The most powerful songs about love were from the film Mughal-e-Azam, which had one of the biggest releases for an Indian film up to that time with people waiting in queues all day for tickets. Released on August 5, 1960, Mughal-e-Azam broke box office records in India and was the highest grossing film of all time for 15 years.
Among its popular songs, Aae Mohabbat Zindabad is a personal favourite and its second stanza is especially relevant:
|Mandir mein, masjid mein
|You’re there in temples and in mosques
|Tu aur tu hi hai imaano mein
|You’re there in every faith
|Murali ki taano mein tu aur
|You’re there in the sweet melody of a flute
|Tu hi hai aazaano mein
|You’re there in the prayers
|Tere dam se deen dharam ki duniya hai abaad
|Due to you, the world of religions has flourished
|Long live, long live
|Ae mohabbat zindabad
|Long live love
|Ae mohabbat zindabad
|Long live love
Five years later was another hit film, Jab Jab Phool Khile. It is the story of a poor boatman in Kashmir who falls in love with a rich tourist. The film was a blockbuster and nobody objected to the last scene in which the woman comes running to the railway station and her lover pulls her onto the train – the Kashmiri a Muslim, the woman a Hindu. They were not married. Who cared?
It was a beautiful love story set in Kashmir and the country loved it.
Today, prison walls separate countless Kashmiri wives and husbands – with no charges or trials – and they meet in halls, kept apart by cement and iron bars, not able to hold hands.
It is not only in India that lovers are attacked. In Tehran in Iran, a couple posted a video of themselves dancing to music. The video, which has gone viral online, shows Astiyazh Haghighi and her fiance Amir Mohammad Ahmadi dancing on a roof in front of the Azadi Tower in Tehran. But this was unacceptable to the Iranian government and they were both sentenced to ten years in prison.
This, in a country of poets inspired by love for centuries, a country where people recite Hafiz, the famous Persian poet.
Then there is Afghanistan, with stories of women killed because they dared to love, like the 10th-century legend Rabia Balkhi, the daughter of a powerful ruler of Balkh. Legend goes that she wrote a poem dedicated to her lover Baktash, a commander in the army.
But Rabia’s brother Haris found out about this secret affair through her poetry. Her wrists were slit and she bled to death. Rabia is said to have written her final poem in blood on the wall as she died:
I am captured by your love
trying to escape is not possible
love is an ocean without boundaries
a wise person would not want to swim in it
if you want love until the end
you must accept what is not accepted
welcome hardship with joy
eat poison but call it honey
Afghan journalist and activist Ramim Mazhar’s poem from 2019, I Kiss You Amid the Taliban, has touched the hearts of all those who have heard a young Afghani woman sing it:
Every step, every destination, I love you.
To spite the murderous traditions, I love you.
You are pious, your kisses are your prayer.
You are different, your kisses are your protest.
You are not afraid of love, of hope, of tomorrow.
I kiss you amid the Taliban, you are not afraid.
Love is a challenge to the existence of authoritarian regimes and societies. That is why they separate lovers and pass laws banning marriage between races and religions. Regimes have separated lovers through imprisonment, exile and international borders.
But the act of loving is a challenge to domination, discrimination and authoritarianism. Feminist scholar and writer Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-2021), better known as bell hooks, wrote:
‘Anytime we do the work of love, we are doing the work of ending domination. In a culture of domination, it’s extremely hard to cultivate love or to be loved. At this moment in our nation, there’s so much disrespect afloat. Respect comes from a word meaning to look at. Right now, we are not looking at one another with loving-kindness, with compassion.’
But finally, Valentine’s Day has little to do with love, historically. It began as a feast to celebrate the decapitation of one, perhaps two, third-century Christian martyrs. Somewhere along the way, it became about love. There is no way of knowing for sure – a bit of a mystery like love itself.
First published on Thursday, March 30th 2023.
Also by the same author: This Eid, a wish and a prayer for us all