Every Valentine’s Day, I pretend I don’t care. Like many of us, I say I don’t want the flowers or chocolates or a homemade card. How cheesy. I pretend that it’s over-the-top to want the person you like to make you a ridiculously nice dinner, or do some showy gesture, ala John Cusack with the boombox in “Say Anything.”
And yet, I sometimes wonder about an alternate universe in which things are different.
In an age of Tinder, of “the cool girl,” and of being ironic, instead of hating on Valentine’s Day, I’d rather revert back to a trend writer David Foster Wallace repopularized in the 1990s: “the new sincerity movement.” As he described in a essay, new sincerity celebrates not people who pretend to be restrained or cool, but those who dare to do the opposite:
“Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
I first began thinking about this back in 2008, when I moved to Mumbai, India after college. My father had just gotten divorced for the third time, and I was in search of answers about love and marriage. In Mumbai, I found, people practiced a showy, demonstrative kind of love, one unafraid of affection or emotion.
It seemed to me then — and does now — a perfect antidote to the fatigue of a marriage. A way to cut through the mundane.
India has a long history with devotional, even obsessive love, be it for a personal god or for your lover. You can read it in the poems of the bhakti movement (which literally means “devotion”) or of the Sufis, Muslim mystics in search of divine love. (Start with popular Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, who writes that to love is to “fly toward a secret sky.”) Another long tradition in India: embracing the spectacle of love. For proof, watch nearly any Bollywood film, or listen to old Hindi songs, which imaginatively compare the heart to almost anything. A madman, a child, a thief in love.
While I lived in Mumbai, I began interviewing three Indian couples, who I ended up following for nearly a decade. Over that time, their relationships and marriages waxed and waned. But they never gave up the over-the-top gestures. It seemed to me then — and does now — a perfect antidote to the fatigue of a marriage. A way to cut through the mundane.
One woman I followed sent her lover, who often traveled, flowers in every city. She ordered through local vendors, to make sure the flowers were always fresh. She also researched and sent him local desserts, with layers of butter and sugar or cashew sweetness. She once sent to his office a three-tier, 35-pound cake, which cost her 14,000 rupees. (About $200 now and more then.) He sent her back photos of himself with every gift.
More recently, back in the U.S. I began asking people if they had ever been the recipient or initiator of an extravagant gesture, and how that felt. One woman I met told me she once asked a man whom she hadn’t dated long, but felt deeply for, to move across the world to be with her in Kenya. He listened, went on a run, came back and said: “I’m going to come.” They dated for two years.
Meanwhile a male friend told me that in high school he once homemade a fortune cookie to ask a girl to prom, via the slip of paper inside. He thought she’d be impressed, but they barely danced that night. He said she probably knew then that he was gay. But he told me he never regretted it. This Valentine’s Day, he sent me a photo of a garland of heart-shaped ivy that he’d gotten for his long-term boyfriend. “Going for stupidly goofy this year,” he texted.
Showy displays of love don’t come naturally to everyone. They don’t come naturally to me. They also come with a risk: a risk of rejection, being made to feel silly, or making yourself into a spectacle. This Valentine’s Day, I’m going to take Mumbai’s big displays of love to heart — and maybe, with a showy gesture, tell the person I love just how I feel.
Editor’s Note: PBS NewsHour’s Elizabeth Flock writes about love and marriage in India in her new book, “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai,” released on February 6, 2018. Read an excerpt of the prologue to the book, or watch an interview about it online.