Valentine's Day finds a fickle lover in a divided India

Even as many Indians plan a day of roses, hard-line Hindus encourage attacks on merchants who profit from the Western-influenced holiday.

The fashionable Basant Lok market doesn't look like the front lines of a culture war.

Here you see young Indians sitting in coffee shops, shopping for Benetton sweaters, poring over the latest Western novels, and, this weekend, buying Valentine's Day cards for their sweethearts.

For the hard-line Hindu-pride group Shiv Sena it's all a sign that Hindu culture is under assault from an aggressive West. This weekend, the group - which is part of the pro-Hindu coalition of parties that rule India - has encouraged activists to carry out attacks on businesses that sell Valentine's Day products, from red roses to chocolates to greeting cards and even perfumes. One Shiv Sena leader has promised to blacken the faces of young lovers with handfuls of charcoal powder.

These threats are no joke. In the past, Shiv Sena activists have ransacked and burned shops carrying Valentine's Day cards.

"We have sent directives to all our district units, asking them to strongly oppose anyone who is found participating in Valentine celebrations," Vijay Tiwari, a Shiv Sena leader in Lucknow told the Asian Age newspaper. "We cannot reveal our strategy," he added, but "we need to discourage such events in order to preserve our cultural heritage."

Welcome to the clash of civilizations, Indian style.

Cupid may seem an unlikely enemy for a nation with 1 billion citizens and a 5,000-year history. But across the country, in India's increasingly prosperous and Westernized metropolitan areas, such as Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Bangalore, Valentine's Day has become a serious issue. Shopkeepers who benefit from it, including florists, stationery shops, and perfumeries, say that the Western holiday is harmless and lucrative. Traditionalists say the holiday is yet another attempt of Western civilization to destroy Hindu culture. Caught in between are many educated Indians, who simply want the right to express themselves how they see fit.

Anxiety over Valentine's Day is not merely a Hindu right-wing sentiment, says Ashish Nandy, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. "Even for modern, educated, middle-class Westernized Indian families, there is something odd about saying 'I love you' in such a public way. It's seen as not quite done, somewhat down-market."

Even so, there is a big market these days for the down market. Newspapers carry full-page ads from local shops advertising Valentine's Day specials. In every major city, you'll find the usual Valentine's Day assembly of bonbons, Teddy bears, flowers, and Hallmark cards. There's even a local juice company that has come up with its own swadeshi (indigenous) Valentine's Day line of special mocktails, such as the "Sultry Sigh" and the "Italian Smooch."

Every year, Indian youth increasingly adopt the clothing, gadgetry, and attitudes of their Western peers, as seen on MTV, in fashion magazines, and, oddly enough, in the Hindi- language films made in Bombay. But while Bollywood films are perfectly happy showing more and more skin, modesty prevents them from showing that ultimate expression of affection - the kiss.

In her decidedly posh and upmarket florist shop in Basant Lok, store manager Neelu (who, like other shopkeepers the Monitor spoke to, refuses to give a last name) says that Valentine's Day has grown over the past five years into her biggest day of sales. It's a sign to her of a massive cultural change, as her main customers - young men and women ranging from age 15 to 35 - adopt such revolutionary and Western notions as falling in love, choosing one's own mate, and expressing public affection.

"Giving a flower on Valentine's Day shows that they are able to openly show affection and love," she says, as employees hurriedly prepare yet another bouquet of red roses for delivery to a nearby home. But even such revolutionaries are unwilling to take the risk of holding hands in public, kissing, or worse, rejecting the time-honored practice of allowing their parents to choose their spouses.

"It's not like you have it in the West, they don't take it that far." She laughs. "That will take another 10 years."

Over by the local cinema, where only Hollywood movies are on the marquee, college student Bawa Sokhi and friends watch the young and fashionable walk by.

Valentine's Day is coming, they say, and that means one thing: flowers. Bawa expects he'll be getting many flowers, because, as his friend Sunny Jattna explains, Bawa has many girlfriends.

"He doesn't give flowers, he gets flowers," laughs Sunny, counting off Bawa's girlfriends. "He has one in Ludhiana, three in Delhi, one in Amritsar." Bawa's friends are laughing. Suddenly, they stop. And Sunny stops counting. One of Bawa's three Delhi girlfriends has just arrived.

"Valentine's Day is a disgusting day," fumes the girlfriend, a lithe engineering student named Sonia Matheru. "You see, he has so many girlfriends. If I bought something for him, it would be a total waste of money."

Sonia's friend, Asha Chauhan, agrees. "My view is, if you want to celebrate Valentine's Day, that is fine. But then, if you love someone, then every day should be Valentine's Day, every day should be a day of roses."

Bawa, the object of six women's affection, breaks his silence. "Our pockets can't afford such a philosophy."

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