By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Lodi Garden is not a manicured place. Its ambient vegetation is Delhi’s scrubby woodland, the scrappy growth that springs back after a dose of over-civilization. But there are lawns, too, stubbly grassy expanses to play cricket on, to picnic and lounge on, under a pleasant winter sun. Picture also meandering pathways bordered here and there with Delhi’s favorite cold season flowers—marigolds, calendulas, dahlias. Finally, as if to add a bit of fantasy or morbid reality, there are the elegant tombs that give this delicious garden its anchoring in history, one for Muhammad Shah (1434-45) of the Sayyid dynasty, another for the eponymous Sikander Lodi (1489-1570), not to mention intimate little mosques and a stone bridge that once spanned a Moghul irrigation canal and now ornaments a lake. Very romantic.
So romantic that young lovers lurk everywhere in the gaze-confounding, identity-obscuring dappled shade. They cuddle on well-shaded park benches. They sit side by side, dangling their legs over the lake. They stroll on path and off path. One guide book calls Lodi Garden a lover’s lane, an understatement, if anything.
The system works like this: parents assume their normally well-watched offspring are safely enclosed in classrooms at one of Delhi’s many colleges or universities, but school days are also days of escape from parental control. India’s future doctors, lawyers and teachers, like most students everywhere, are rabid for experience in—ahem!—life as well as book learning. The educational process is subversive in more than one way.
Many Delhi students are commuters, so the pairing up potential drops drastically on weekends, which did not bode well for the romance industry this year. Valentine’s Day would be falling on a Saturday. Sales might be very disappointing. Still an effort had to be made. Red, pink, violet—hearts ballooned and blossomed everywhere. Pasted on windows. Dangling from ceilings. Iced on cakes. Adorning heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Every stationary store featured I-love-you cards and e-cards were no doubt ready for sweethearts’ in-boxes, though I didn’t actually check that out. The modern celebration of St. Valentine’s Day is rooted in Christian tradition, but why shouldn’t the chubby image of Cupid or Eros be welcome in India, and why shouldn’t parks be full of lovers, given the frankly erotic imagery of some Hindu temples? And surely the stories of Krishna and Radha aren’t cherished purely for their spiritual symbolism.
But every culture has its prudes and purists aka fundamentalists who devote themselves to sucking the romance out of life. What’s more, Indian cultural nationalists, such as the Hindu Mahasabha, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena and related groups, refuse to see any agreeable convergences between East and West, which, to their everlasting despair, have indeed met and melded in many ways, bringing yoga and gurus to America, Dominos pizza and Valentine’s Day to India. This year, emboldened perhaps by the religiosity and Hindu extremist origins of the current Prime Minister, mobs of saffron shirts (or should I say kurtas) were determined to snuff out all manifestations of Western decadence. Love isn’t just for a day, they sniffed. It’s for every day, but only for those who are properly married.
How silly! Or was it?
And so, they announced, they’d be forming shaadi or marriage squads tasked with swooping down on unwed hand holders come Valentine’s Day to perform the rite that would legalize their impious amorousness. No kidding! A self-appointed religious police force—and this wasn’t Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. I had flashbacks to my years in Karachi, during which salafist-oriented Islamists often threatened violence to eliminate music and dance as well as Valentine’s Day from the lives of the young. As a result, anything like culture had gone mostly underground. But in cosmopolitan Delhi these threats seemed quite funny. Given the need for a sacred fire and spoonfuls of goopy ghee at traditional Hindu marriages, how the deed would be done? With a cigarette lighter, perhaps?
In fact, the forced marriage threats weren’t funny. They’re part of a very dangerous pattern that’s been emerging since the BJP’s huge parliamentary victory somewhat less than a year ago. The threatened anti-Valentine’s Day brigades in Delhi were one more manifestation of the tolerance for intolerance that has been unleashed since the BJP’s Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.
Reconversion and Church Burning
Reconversion efforts, for instance, are underway. Chalk up the score! So many Christians recovered for Hinduism. So many Buddhists. So many Muslims. All without duress. Supposedly. But no one believes that helpless poor minorities in remote villages are renouncing their deepest religious convictions voluntarily. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians, sporadic in the past, or localized, as in Odisha for spell in the 1990s, have increased, too. In Delhi, in particular, the number of churches looted, vandalized and/or burnt in recent months has been shocking. Worse, it’s a phenomenon that was for months shockingly ignored by top authorities. The newspapers did their job. The incidents were reported. Photos were published. Victims were quoted. But from the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: silence. Modi did not utter a single word condemning the outbreak of dangerous communalism in the nation’s capital. He did nothing to stop it.