Ever since I was 14, Valentine’s Day has always been interesting for me, and not necessarily in just good ways. I grew up in Madras, a city not particularly known for its sense of romance. As school kids, Valentine’s day was spoken in hushed whispers and was an urban legend that only some chosen seniors had a clue about. The whole idea of expressing your love for someone to that very someone was a fantasy that had no existence outside of Tamil movies (and the occasional Hindi movie at Melody theater).
So when I found myself in Delhi, surrounded by classmates who had smoked actual cigarettes and spoke of multiple girlfriends like they were pairs of jeans, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. What was even more of a shock was the very existence of girls whose response to non-study related male conversation was not a tear-filled visit to the principal’s office and a subsequent visit by the girls’ parents to one’s home, horoscope in hand, and a “your son spoke to my daughter so they must get married” proposal.
But my teenage mind took to the whole Valentine’s day thing in Delhi with alacrity. I mean, if you were a gawky, socially maladjusted kid (as all South Indian kids are in the capital) with a thousand crushes assaulting you from every direction in school, the only way to deal with it was to focus all your attention on that one day when it is marginally acceptable to express your feelings. I sure as hell couldn’t go and tell every girl I had a crush on that I had a crush on her on a daily basis. That wasn’t going to happen because I would have died several small deaths everyday. Instead I put my bet on being tragically and massively rejected just on that one day instead of going through several mini-rejections.
I approached the problem with an engineer’s mindset, which might explain the substantial rate of failure back then, but I stuck at it nonetheless. I first tried to find out what manner of magical things boys did that made girls not want to go crying to the principal’s office. I noticed flowers were involved. And Archies cards. I then paid a visit to that store. There were essentially 2 kinds of cards. Cards with cloying images of flowers in an orgy of pink and cards with snarky American humour that I wasn’t sure wouldn’t work. I found the former clichéd and the latter designed solely for display in a store than for actual giving to a girl one has a crush on. Honestly I didn’t think any Indian kid would ever take the risk of giving a girl a card that made jokes about cleavage. Where I came from, doing that usually entailed the dispatching of several goon-laden Scorpios to deal with the situation.
So I didn’t like any of those cards. Honestly I felt that if the female of my species had heartmelts reading the soul-sapping inanity on those cards, the future of humanity was quite dim. So that’s when I decided to make my own cards. Unlike now, I had passable sketching skills back in the day. I drew a violin eating a hearty meal telling the reader of the card “Hey, I’m your violin. Dine?”. It was contrived but I was 14 ok?
Now when the day actually arrived, despite being vegetarian, I chickened out. I couldn’t muster enough brave rebel neurons to convince me to put my name on the card. All of that Madras upbringing came roaring at me like an MTC bus on GST road and I painfully turned ASHOK into ANONYMOUS (ps: the top bit of the S extended to the bottom left of the H which was completely thickened into one line and the K was made N-like with just an extra line on the right) before leaving the card in the girl’s schoolbag just before lunch break was over.
So that was how it all began. An anonymous self-drawn card with a cheesily un-grammatical pun. If Darwin was watching, he’d have put very few odds on me. But within that year, I had my first real crush, and when I say real, I mean “Ashok’s academic performance has slipped as he seems quite distracted” on the report-card kind of real, if you know what I mean. And I realized that hand-drawn musical instruments with appetites was not the sort of thing that might appeal to this girl. So I went all literary and starting churning out poems. But by the time my first V-Day with this crush came, I was nervous again. I couldn’t just tell the girl I loved her in rhyme. This time, Madras upbringing formed a coalition with Engineering mindset and went wrote a cryptographic election manifesto.
I wrote a long and rambling poem about nothing specific and made the first letter of every line spell “<GIRL NAME>, YOU HAVE AN UTTERLY BEAUTIFUL SMILE”. Even with all the steganographical chicanery, I still couldn’t get myself to tell her what I really felt. The girl didn’t get it. I asked her a few days later if she got the hidden message. She gave me a “Should I go the principal’s office” kind of dubious look but when I did tell her how to um..extract the message, she was all smiles and said it was very sweet.
You know, the problem with the “It’s very sweet” compliment when one is 15 is that it is almost always misinterpreted. Well, I did end up interpreting this miss quite wrongly and it eventually ended a year later with me watching the Rakhi horror picture show, if you know what I mean.
Once I left high school, I did end up studying to be an engineer with all of that mindset business I was speaking of before, so quite expectedly, there was a 4 year break in Valentine’s day activities and I was back in action only when I got a job in IT.
Now that I had a salary, my outlook towards V-Day changed. I felt that I could buy expensive jewellery, roses and those sorts of things instead of doing what I used to before, which was actually taking a personal effort to do something special for someone, no matter how cheesy, corny or low-quality it turned out to be. It took me a while to realize that women value the time and effort taken to make them feel special more than the actual gift itself. I went through the “romantic candle-lit dinner at the Taj” phase but in retrospect the only characteristic I ended up displaying to the girl was financial imprudence.
Once I was in the US, I think I learned quite a lot about life in general. No, not women. Life. Anyone who claims that he understands 3.5 billion human beings is likely lying. About the only thing I have learnt is that every stereotype for an entire gender likely came out of the nether regions of a bull. On the contrary, I prefer to listen to personal anecdotes for what they are, personal anecdotes and sometimes, they turn out to be useful.For e.g, I find myself asking the girl in my life “What’s wrong? Why are you looking dull?” and I always remember a bit of advice I got from an old chap I had met a long time ago, who was married to a French woman. He told me that there’s a reason it’s called a mood swing and I felt that his advice was best captured by a visual
His point was that as men, we sometimes act selfishly by even assuming that we are the only problem and then annoy the hell out of the girl with some shameful displays of self-loathing.One just needs to let go sometimes and things will be back to normal.
While I was in the US, I realized how American men were an order of magnitude more romantic than the average Indian man. Perhaps their women expected more from them than Indian women do, but all the same, within a year, I decided that dinners at Olive Garden had to stop. I started learning to cook and while my first Valentine’s day special dinners were quite unpalatable (I used to follow the “with-enough-oil-and-masala-any-dish-tastes-nice” approach) , I eventually got better and once even made Tandoori kebabs in my apartment’s oven. Well, the leasing office slapped me with a $100 fine for destroying the oven but it was the most satisfying fine I had ever paid in my life till that point.
To the girl I eventually married, for our first V-Day, I wrote and composed an unbelievably cheesy song, recorded it amateurishly on Garageband, burnt a CD, hand-drew a label and even used a calligraphic pen to write lyrics inside the sleeve. I don’t know if that sealed the deal, but she did accept the Cubic Zirconia ring I gave her a few months later (I was cash strapped at that point ok?)
Looking back, I think if I learnt anything profound from all my V-Day experiences, it’s that nothing makes one more creative than being insanely in love with someone. I have learned musical instruments, picked up sketching and cooking skills and found more creative ways to be productive at work (in order to find time to do all of the former) while pursuing a mad desire to do something special for someone on Valentine’s Day. It hasn’t always worked, but I have always ended up enriched no matter what happened.