* (This essay was originally written on February 4, 2012 and most arguments advanced here based on my limited reading seem too naïve to me a year after. In spite of it I think this is worthy a piece to share with friends laugh at my past eccentricities.)
Valentine’s Day is arguably the most commercialized ritual in Kathmandu among the youths. On the account that it is devoid of any popular cultural roots whatsoever in this part of the world, it can also be called an event that sprang from the top (tuppa bata palaeko). Roles of post 1990 mass media and its counterpart neo-liberalism cannot be neglected for a “proper” and “pop” understanding of it. This writer knew about the existence of such a day from Nepal television and “pop songs” it broadcasted. “Love” was the privileged discourse in the private boarding school amongst those of us who grew up and grew old with the parliamentary multiparty democracy after the so called end of history and ideology in some part of the world. As we grew up we were educated more about “love” and Valentine’s Day (so difficult this word was to pronounce) but were we taught what really was or what actually sells? .
History of “love”
“Love” or “exclusive love” as is popular today is a cultural by-product of capitalism. A clear difference can be deciphered in the pattern of relationships between men and women over the long period of humans’ social evolution.
When feudalism was the prevailing organizing principle and production mode, society revolved around caste, clan, and kinship and other forces of ascription. “Love” between individuals before marriage was therefore almost non existent. After marriage too, obligations and rituals governed conjugal relationship. As feudal society’s values emphasized honor and loyalty, relations between individuals were hardly “free” and at best women were men’s desirable object to “do love”. “Love” in feudal society could not originate without fertile ground for individualism.
Caste, race and ethnicity as barriers obstructing human intercourse are characteristically feudal. In most cases individual’s life was limited to the place of his birth, within his caste or ethnic group and livelihood dependent upon ancestral property. Relationship initiative without the consent of family and group was extremely radical and could lead to expulsion.
Marriages which were and still are the formalization of relationship between a man and a woman was motivated by the political economic interest of the family. This was almost a norm amongst aristocracies. Prithivi Narayan Shah too used marriage as a diplomatic weapon in the “unification” campaign where outright conquest was not viable.
With capitalism came the unprecedented economic, political and social upheaval. Individuals were “freed” not just from means of production but also from community, family, caste and ethnic group were created to meet the labor and consumption demand of the society. Migration from rural to urban areas became rapid and competition became more ruthless then ever. So “love” became the psychological solace for such “free”, alienated and individualized beings. Professor Chaitanya Mishra (in Pujibad ra Nepal) calls “love marriage” the natural mode of marriage for the free, independent and self-responsible individual. Only individuals who can break away from what professor Mishra calls “anchors of ascription” can engage themselves in “love”, so romanticized by the open society.
Love and culture of consumer capitalism
“One of the ways in which market forces transform patterns of social interaction is by promoting commodities that act as bridges or channels between persons,” writes Mark Liechty in his book ‘Out Here in Kathmandu’. “Performing love” or “acting in love” has over taken “being in love” or “falling in love” in contemporary Kathmandu. As consumerism is devoted to “you are what you own” maxim, love now is measured in terms of the “standard” of goods, cards and gifts that are exchanged between couple in relationship.
Both “feeling” and “acting” domain of love are progressively turning into a mass mediated affair. “Feelings” are compared to those felt by actors in Bollywood, Hollywood and Korean romances (e.g. sleepless nights). Liechty suggests the phenomena of “doing love” in terms of the “commercial life style of ‘free’ consumption.” Commercial mass media associates freedom to “do love” inseparably with freedom to consume fashionable goods that apparently elevates the “feeling of love”.
When Liechty was conducting his research in the early 1990s, consumerism was relatively very young and “dating” was inappropriate for Kathmandu’s middle class. “Dating” is essential for survival of “love” these days. “First date” and “First love” are now not just individual experiences but commercial events and mediators are available aplenty. Mass media and the world of commerce tell us Valentine’s Day the “prime time” for “doing love”. “Standard” Restaurants, cafes and multiplexes present themselves as venues for doing “true and deep love”. Anthropology Suresh Dhakal wrote in Kantipur about year ago: “The depth of love and the optimum of emotion, defined by lovers’ economic status now differ according to commodities available in the market.” Dhakal calls such conditioning as the “commodification of romantic love”.
Tensions and troubles embedded in love too are also now rendered solvable under the mediation of commercial mass media while girls and boys incapable to “attract” are looked down upon. “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” is the question that matters most to Kathmandu’s fashion conscious and unmistakably politics bashing “facebook generation” than anything. “Doing Love” is like Liechty identified two decades ago “…as practically the social obligation of the modern youth.” Liechty also found that in Kathmandu “’doing love’ and ‘doing fashion’ were both fundamental aspects of ‘learning to be modern’.”
Wordsworth lamented, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” but one is practically expelled from the coveted class of modern youths if one cannot get and then spend to “do love, fashion” and “be modern.” The nouveau goddess of consumerism Sheila sums it all up by only singing. “Paisa, Gadi, Mehenga ghar. I need a man who can give me all that. Jebein khali fattichar. No, No I don’t like it like that.”
(Paper ready for Guest Lecture Series II, 14 February, 2013)
MA in Sociology 2012-14
Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology