My Voice - 2020


Valentine’s Day the Desi Parent Way

By Shivani Tripathi

In midst of the cold, pale winter…

In-between the excitement of New Years and the joy of springtime, there is a tradition that infuses color into our surroundings: Valentine's Day!

School children handing out colorful valentines to classmates, ladies wearing red scarves or heart-shaped brooches to the office, grocery and drugstores greeting customers with cards, candies and cakes in shades of pink are just a few ways in which the day dedicated to love is observed in America. Yet there are plenty of cynics who decry the holiday as nothing more than a money-making ploy by guilting people into buying gifts for their partner. And of course, there are the single folks who wish they had someone special in their life to share a romantic dinner with, or receive a bouquet of beautiful blooms from. Valentine's Day can certainly prove to be a day of mixed emotions!

The origin of Valentine's Day traces back to Saint Valentine, a third century Roman priest who was beheaded for marrying a couple in secret, but celebrating Valentine's Day in the United States, in a way similar to today, dates back to the 18th century. India, too, has a very long history of celebrating romance and proof can be found in many cultural facets from ancient literature to architecture, folk music and modern cinema. Kalidas' Sanskrit play, Shakuntala, the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal, and regional folk songs celebrating couples uniting in marriage are a few examples.

Filmdom is replete with lovely instances, with one of the most iconic images from Hindi cinema being of actors Raj Kapoor and Nargis sharing romantic glances underneath an umbrella in a rainstorm in Shree 420, singing about the bittersweet nature of falling in love while imagining a life together with children in tow. One doesn't have to search too hard to see that Indian culture is filled with impressive odes to love. But real-life romance in the Desi community isn't as easy to spot. Perhaps one can attribute this to arranged marriages and dharma, the idea of performing one's duty, which makes it easy for a marriage to become just that — a duty. Often at 25th wedding anniversary parties, usually at the insistence of guests, the married couple gives each other a hug and/or says “I love you" with the crowd erupting in applause. Such occasions provide the rare opportunity of celebrating mature couplehood and for a generation to openly express romantic love.

But what about the generation born and/or growing up in the States who are unlikely to have an arranged marriage? American Desi children are often exposed to incredibly dreamy images and music from Indian films but are mostly forbidden from paying attention to anything not associated with academic excellence. Dating is discouraged but once the child has entered the gates of a university, parents ask not-so-subtle questions such as “Have you made Indian friends? Are these Indian boys/girls good-looking? Are you friends with any of the nice, good-looking boys/girls?". And it wasn't that long ago that the same parents were making statements similar to “You know why Pooja didn't get a perfect ACT score? She was dating a boy!".

On popular social platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, plenty of videos and memes are shared of Desi teens casually hanging out with the opposite sex in a public place and having fun until they're spotted by a community elder. Situations usually unfold similar to this: a member of the informal “Aunty Spy Network" who witnesses the youth quickly informs the mother of a teen. Once the kid is home the mother reprimands, possibly punishes, her child for enjoying iced coffee and then goes back to viewing her favorite teleserial, Ishq Ka Rang Safed (The Color of Love is White). Aunty is discouraging any possible romance yet takes great pleasure in watching a chivalrous gentleman woo a damsel with his considerate gestures. Uncle might be informed about the “coffee shop incident" but when the situation looks like it has been resolved (“Beta, just study at the library. Too much distraction at Starbucks"), he goes back to listening to romantic ballads sung by Kishore Kumar on his Saregama Carvaan music player.

The irony in all this is that the parents themselves are romantics at heart but are never show each other any tenderness! But mixed messages are drilled onto their offspring until the path of least resistance translates into dating on the sly. Such a scenario on social media wouldn't be as hilarious if there wasn't some truth in the storytelling.

What if Desi parents had conversations with their child about what comprises meaningful relationships rather than dictating terms and conditions to them? Would such conversations possibly lead to young adults asking for guidance and sharing more of their personal life with parents, rather than hiding it from them? Couldn't a balanced dialog on courtship help children grow up to cultivate a strong, affectionate relationship of their own? And wouldn't practicing greater intimacy potentially lead to parents having a greater appreciation of each other? Parents being real life examples of a healthy, amorous, and equal partnership is much more impactful and special than romantic tales in reel life. Valentine's Day just might be the perfect excuse for Desi parents to be the ones holding hands at a cafe.

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Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510