Shortly before Anju Bhargava boarded a flight for India to attend her nephew’s wedding which happens on Valentine’s Day, February 14, she excitedly tells Desi Talk, “It’s going to be very romantic wedding. It’s all about love.”
This declaration would not be so unusual if Bhargava was not an Indian-American Hindu priest. Her nephew and his fiancé consider this day so important that they also chose to have their engagement a year ago on the same day.
The way she sees it, “It’s a festival with a positive message and a way to celebrate love.”
And going by her nephew’s wedding it seems that despite political and religious opposition Valentine’s Day is alive and well in India.
Notably, the concept of Valentine’s Day is not so alien to Indian culture. Hindus celebrate not only Vasant Panchami or Saraswati Puja a few days before Valentine’s Day, but, “It is also traditionally Indian ‘love day’ when Kamdev and his wife Rati are worshipped together,” reminds Archana Adalja, an expert on religion and philosophy, from Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y. “After Kamdev was burned to ashes by Shiva who opened his Third Eye at Kamdev’s interference in his ‘tapa’, Rati observed a month of vrata and then Shiva brought back Kamdev to life on Vasant Panchami day. Which is why it is observed as Rati and Kamdev day,” Adalja explained.
And Indian-Americans point out, like Diwali and Holi are gaining global acceptance, so Valentine’s Day could be seen spreading in India and among Indian-Americans here.
Age No Bar
According to the U.S. National Retail Federation, fewer people celebrate Valentine’s Day today than they did ten years ago when 60 percent of adults planned to celebrate. At the same time, spending for the holiday continues to rise, NSF says and is estimated for this year at around $20 billion. Despite reduced numbers, those who are celebrating are spending more.
For a certain generation of Indian-Americans here, exposed to weeks of all-things-Valentine, it is a matter of cultural adaptation.
According to Shobhna Patel, part-owner with Albert Jassani, of Royal Albert’s Palace banquet hall in Fords, N.J., and restaurant establishments, “Most of our clients are husbands and wives and kids, holding Valentine’s Day celebrations for their parents and grandparents,” she told Desi Talk. “Even whole community groups reserve places for Valentine’s Day parties,” said Patel, who was also the first woman-president of the Federation of Indian Associations in the tri-state area in 2008-2009.
People of all ages are creating more special memories for this day. Those Indian-Americans who are single, divorced or otherwise widowed, have formed groups that celebrate and enjoy in meet-up groups, to celebrate Valentines. One of them is Desi Singles Again, of which Bhargava is a member. “I love it as somebody who can identify with the issues in this support group,” said Bhargava, adding, “Age is no bar to celebrating this Valentine festival.”
While the festival may not have been a part of Indian immigrant culture, for their children it is part of growing up, noted those interviewed.
It is a warm feeling to get Valentine cards from their school-going children, they say. And typically, once you have children, celebrating the day changes.
But a national trend in Valentine’s Day celebrations may be mirrored within the Indian community. According to the NSF, in 2009, 72 percent of adults aged 18-34 and 65 percent of those 35-54, considered, “prime ages for young romance” said they planned to celebrate Valentine’s Day. In the most recent survey, little more than half of those under 55 plan to celebrate this year, and the reason may lie in over-commercialization of the festival, or even because they don’t have anyone to celebrate with, a 2017 survey showed.
“How we celebrate Valentine’s changes year-to-year,” notes Mandira Banerjee, who works at the University of Michigan. She and husband Aswin had romantic ones until the children arrived. “Now we want to make sure they are part of the day even though they have their own Valentine rituals at school,” she says. The family is going to enjoy the UMich basketball game on Feb. 14.
“After we had our daughter we committed to celebrating Valentine’s Day as a family and include her too in the fun. It’s a day to celebrate love, and doing it as a family of three is more important to us,” says Charmi Shah of Seattle, Washington. “I cook our family-favorite meal and eat a candle lit dinner. My daughter is 12 now so she likes decorating and will decorate the table and the mantle with some handmade decor that she’s made over the years and I’ve saved. We end the night by playing Ticket to Ride, our favorite board game, Shah says.
Aarohi Thapar of Belle Mead, N.J., does not give it that priority. “Don’t really believe too much! Celebrated sometimes in the past when we were younger and had too much time then,” she messaged.
“My daughter just had a baby so for them it will be a family affair,” said Bhargava.
“I’m the wrong person to ask about Valentine’s Day, ” laughs Ann Kalayil, a political activist living in Chicago. “My father and mother were very practical people,” she says, “So for Valentine’s Day if we asked – ‘Oh Dad, what are you going to give Mom!’, Mom would roll her eyes, and Dad would tell us to research the massacre that happened on that day,” says Kalayil referring to the 1929 “Valentine’s Day Massacre” when 7 members of the North Side Gang in Chicago were murdered.
But Henah Parikh who was born and raised in New Jersey, plans to celebrate the anniversary o her relationship with her boyfriend, which falls just after Valentine’s Day, skipping Feb. 14, for a nice time with him a few days later. While growing up, she says her family did not celebrate the festival much outside of the classroom treats in elementary school.
“Now, I’ve been in a relationship for 4 years and we also are not big on Valentine’s Day. Our anniversary is the following week so we celebrate our relationship then,” Parikh said. Otherwise, it feels very commercialized, she contends.
“The one thing I do get excited about is Galentine’s Day, made popular from the TV show Parks & Recreation, where we can celebrate with our closest girl friends and empower one another,” Parikh said. “I work with a non-profit (She’s the First) that supports girls’ education worldwide including India and Nepal in South Asia, and so Galentine’s Day is a fun office holiday for us too, to celebrate the power of girls.”