Theories of Sweet Nothingness – Written for 14th February

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.”
~Alfred Lord Tennyson

Valentine’s Day is pointless. We all agree. Its not religious. Not from our culture. Not from anyone’s culture. But is still, may I say it, the day of love. Note that – day of love. Not of lovers. Technically, there is a difference. But isn’t love too blind for the study of technique? 

Well, you can’t be serious on Valentine’s Day or about it. Until, of course, you are a businessman (or his daughter).

Until this winter I had never been to the Botanical Gardens in Srinagar. It is apparently a very popular place to go, especially if you are in love. Only in love, some people may protest, but that would be an exaggeration. You need a ten rupees ticket to enter the garden, not a valentine. I had gone there with a friend (not a valentine) when he couldn’t drive all the way up to Pari Mahal because of the snow, and we decided to take a detour to the Botanical gardens instead.

Since everything was covered in snow, it seemed even more beautiful than, I presumed, it would usually look in summer months. The walkways were all covered with trampled snow, and foot marks.  Lot of them going in one direction only, and not coming back.

Since Botanical garden is a showcase of botanical wonders of Kashmir, it is not much of a sight when the flora is gone post-autumn. The trees were all barren except the evergreens and the firs. The beds were covered with snow, and hard to locate. We trampled many, I am sure, but no one could tell. The snow covered them all.

(Note the S and A)

Apart from us there was only one group in the park. They were three, I guess, two women and one man. At one point we heard one of the women shout, “Suno gaaon waalo!” (“Hear O villagers!”). Apart from that there was not a soul. (Except the bored men in the ticketing booth!)

Come spring and the Botanical Gardens are abuzz with star crossed lovers sitting behind hedges and trees, idling their time away. Mostly college and university students who are, in most cases, supposed to be attending classes. “Whisper sweet nothings in my ear, O Beloved.” Infatuated teens who are basically just fooling themselves into believing the love that doesn’t exist. Moving from tree to tree, and hedge to hedge – finding all of them occupied with love birds which came in early to roost, the beloveds take a walk further up towards the hill until they come right up to the boundary wall. There they find solace, away from the noise of parking cars, and from the sights of other lovers, they are free to whisper as many nothings as they wish – or deliver a lecture on the theories of nothingness, if they please.

The lovers’ games are one such sight. The beloved never looks into her lover’s eyes. Or into the eyes of anyone else.  This love is just too much ridden with guilt and shame. She will cover her head, hair and face in hijab when in public, but when alone she will let her hair down for him. (Not that he knows what to do with it.) On roads they will walk together, but a few feet apart. Modestly, pretentiously. In buses they will sit together, one seat apart, and communicate in loud whispers with heads bent.

Overlooking the garden are the many small hutments of the tourism departments. Till recently these were given out to top-notch bureaucrats for their official residences. The scenes the local varieties of Romeo and Juliet play are visible from such huts. I remember a conversation I once had with the wife of one such top-notch bureaucrat. She was giggling within herself while narrating the scenes of lovers in the garden. Like a TV serial. Take a cup of tea, sit back, and watch the daily matinee. Mrs. Bureaucrats obviously don’t have much work to do.

In bigger cities – it would perhaps be better to say in newer (not necessarily modern) cities – on Valentine’s Day, Love is spilled across the streets.Inflated in heart shaped balloons. Heart shaped key chains and car hangings. Heart shaped hairpins. Anything that can be heart-shaped and still be saleable.  And very attractive, very interesting heart-shaped cakes.

Obviously, this has repercussions. Kashmir’s women in black, Dukhtaraan-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith) are famous for their protests against this day and roughing up a good number of girls.

But St. Valentine’s day is losing its reverence slowly. In the Islamic world only, though.  In Uzbekistan Valentine’s Day was banned this year, and instead, a day to celebrate the birth of Mughal Emperor Babur was put in place by the state. In Iran, the people were warned against celebrating this day. Saudi Arab is obviously against the day. To me, personally, the day never held much significance. It never defined romance or love, or anything relevant. Somehow Valentine’s Day never brings up images of love as we know them from epics and literature. Juliet and her Romeo. Laila’s Majnu. In fact, it never brings up any idea except pink teddy bears and Archies cards. 

So what is this thing called love? What is the obsession with 14th February, anyway? And the days preceding it – Rose Day, Promise Day, Teddy Day? What-not-day Day?  If someone were to ask me what heart I would take, it would be this  – a heart of foam on coffee – taken with my friend, the one  from the Botanical Garden, of course.

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