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The Rediff Valentine Special/Shishir Bhate
February 11, 2004
It does not really make for a very happy beginning to a love story when you happen to be craning your neck while standing precariously balanced on a brittle flower pot, on the tips of your toes, trying to peep into the room of that oh-so-pretty neighbour, and a big, gnarled hand taps you on the shoulder and its owner demands to know what you are up to.
It's rather difficult to come up with a convincing answer in such a situation, if you get my drift. And when the girl's livid father is conducting the inquisition, even as he simultaneously tries to unscrew your ear off your only head, all attempts at an intelligent reply fail. All that emerges is an unintelligible wail. Trust me. Been there, endured that.
Till then, I had laboured under the illusion that it was Cupid who had perched on my shoulder and was guiding my way, darting his gentle love arrows all around. By the time I realised it wasn't the musical twang of Cupid's bow that I had heard, but the jarring thud of Thor's hammer, it was too late.
Cupid took flight the moment the girl's pater appeared on the scene and latched on to my ear as if his life depended on it. He marched to me to my house and sought the presence of my father who was apprised of my deeds. For all my troubles, all I got was glares from Dad, sniggers from the kid sister, a tight slap from Mom and the company of the four walls of my room for a week.
That was many moons ago.
Back then, Cupid was rather low-tech. Not that he lacked any of his unbounded energy. His quiver hadn't run out of ammunition. Nor were there a lack of attractive 'items' to fall for. It was just that the tech and marketing whizkids had yet to get their act together. Cupid, cool guy that he is, had no public relations agency to help him succeed in his chosen mission.
Back then, in the small central Indian town I hail from, there was just the radio. The idiot box then still donned its stifling, de-sexed, socialist garb. Greeting cards had fewer themes to discuss. The Internet had not even been conceived. No marketing chap had discovered the power of love. Newspapers had little time for lovey-dovey missives. Parents had none.
Back then, the smartest trick in town to get a-hold of a pretty girl was a variation of borrowing her 'practical notebook' and then slowly -- to the accompaniment of a wildly throbbing heart -- slipping in an unsigned letter before returning it. Or finding a common, preferably lady, friend to play the courier (or Cupid, if you may) as you passed those messages full of sweet nothings. I have also fleeced many a sulking soul, making them buy me expensive cigarettes before writing letters for them to their 'girls.'
Back then, I knew of a grand total of eight days: Monday to Sunday and birthday. I mean, who had heard of anything but those? They were enough for us to get by on. Enough to enjoy, enough to grieve, enough to plan your life in, enough to fall in love... Enough, period.
Love flourished in individual bosoms with as much fervour then as it does today. It translated into a range of emotions: joy, heartache, thrill, fear -- everything except money to keep the wheels of commerce well-oiled. Then some bright marketing chap came along with the idea of turning St Valentine's Day into a commercial jamboree. And, boy, did he succeed!
When I first heard of St Valentine, I thought it was a new school coming up in town. We at St Francis de Sales High School thought we were to have another rival after St John's, St Joseph's and St Michael's and the rest of the New Testament.
But slowly, with help from some more evolved souls in school, the fog thickened further. St Valentine's name was to be whispered with an accompanying snigger or two. Most of didn't know why. We only 'knew' it was something to do with girls and probably even the birds and the bees. So shhhhh!
It wasn't until late in college that things were put into perspective. A couple of girls, bred on a heavy diet of Mills and Boon, made me aware of the significance of the brouhaha. It's the day when you greet your loved one, they proclaimed.
Yet, it seemed too alien concept for me to readily latch on to. It involved a lot of smuggling of flowers to and fro, furtive conversations on the phone, the constant need to come up with a novel, plausible excuse for Dad, and extra pocket money.
It was much later that I got to learn the story of St Valentine. This Valentine bloke lived some 1,700 years ago, in the times of Claudius II, the then Roman emperor. But the head that wore the olive crown lay uneasy. His soldiers hated to go on long military expeditions as they missed their wives and children. So Claudius simply banned all marriages.
But the Valentine chap cared two hoots. He started marrying off couples on the sly, till Claudius got wise and decreed that old Val be sent to reside with the stars. While he waited for the guillotine to do its work, he gathered a big fan club. These devotees visited him in prison, bearing letters and flowers. Finally, on February 14 -- 269 AD (so says the Internet) -- Valentine was put to death. Then some 1,500 years ago, the martyr's name was immortalised by Pope Gelasius who set aside February 14 to honour him as a saint and observe the day as a lovers' day. The marketing guy took 15 centuries to crack that one.
I am not too much of a romantic. When I was dating my would-be wife, I don't remember giving her flowers save on her birthday. And the Valentine guy was totally off my radar. But fatherhood changed that. The daughter's not yet 12, but
'St Valentine's Day' has her excited as can be. Preparations are being undertaken on a war footing -- cards are being designed, I have already been informed about how many flowers are needed and I even see her draw small hearts with arrows through them. Had my father seen me do that, he'd have shuffled off his mortal coil in a lesser time than you could say 'Vally'.
But then, times have changed, especially in the past decade and half: newspapers allow reams of newsprint for lovers -- meek, bold, aspiring, jilted, novice, amorous, -- to express their love to their object(s) of adoration; greeting card companies rake in tons of money through their V-Day cards (I have actually seen a grinning lady friend of mine buy at least six – each of which said, 'To my one and only love'); the electronic media is out to grab its share of the spoils; heart-shaped balloons throng the skies, cellphone messages fly hither and thither; parties abound; revelry rules; and parents have become more malleable.
Love is blossoming like nobody's business. Cupid was never busier.
I wonder though if one needs just one particular day to express one's love. Don't get me wrong: there's nothing the matter with setting aside a day for lovers. But don't they do that all year long? Or is it that the stupor the season of love produces, which makes the other sex more welcoming, more willing? I wonder.
Will ask my daughter.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh