Kalpana Sharma

Those who speak of morality and the corrupting influences of Valentine's Day seem to have no problem with the real corruption of consumerism gone out of control.

THESE ARE confusing times if you are an average Mumbai citizen. And no other day exemplifies the confused politics of this city, and indeed of Maharashtra as a whole, than February 14, Valentine's Day. Much can be said and written about this day including its crass commercialism and its introduction into our lives devoid of any context or reference to its original meaning. Ask anyone on the street whether they know the origins of Valentine's Day and you can bet that only the rare person will have the answer.

But that apart, the politics of the Shiv Sena has been integral to opposition to celebration of Valentine's Day for several years. Shops selling cards and merchandise for this day, restaurants and hotels that charge exorbitant prices for special dinners for two, and courting couples are forced to be on the alert on February 14. The opposition is fairly predictable, but its fierceness varies from year to year.

This year once again, in the presence of press photographers, a clutch of Shiv Sainiks attacked some flower shops, tore down heart-shaped decorations, and asserted their opposition to Valentine's Day. But apart from a few fairly minor actions like these, nothing much happened and the day passed off peacefully.

One reason for the Sena's low key response this year could have been the confusion in its ranks, caused not just by the split following Raj Thackeray's exit from the party, but some of the advice carried in the party mouthpiece, Saamna. On February 9, Saamna carried an article headlined "As spring blossoms in hearts" with suggestions on where and what people could buy as gifts for Valentine's Day. When the editor of the paper was asked whether this meant the Sena was changing its stance, he asked everyone to wait. Sure enough, on the eve of Valentine's Day, Sena chief Bal Thackeray restated the party's opposition to Valentine's Day. "It has nothing to do with India's culture. It is being promoted so that shopping malls can make some business," he wrote in an editorial in Saamna.

Meanwhile Raj Thackeray, whose Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS), the student wing of the Sena, used to be the most vociferous in its attacks during Valentine's Day, announced that he neither supported nor opposed such celebrations. As the majority of the BVS has followed Raj Thackeray out of the party, the Sena did not have the cadres to mount an opposition to celebrations this year, even if it had wanted to do so.

In any case, the Sena's opposition to Valentine's Day merchandise does not extend to the building of new shopping malls. For even as the Sena chief stated his views on shopping malls promoting Valentine's Day, one of his close confidantes was involved in a venture that will construct a shopping mall right next to the Sena's headquarters in Dadar in central Mumbai. Last year, Kohinoor Mill No 3, a now closed textile mill that once belonged to the National Textile Corporation, was bought for Rs.421 crore by Matoshree Realtors and Kohinoor Consolidated Transport Network Ltd. Both former Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi and Raj Thackeray have an interest in these companies. And despite the split in the Sena after Raj's departure, the two continue their business arrangement.

The proposed redevelopment plan for the mill land, that is due to get under way in a month's time pending environmental clearance, consists of building a fancy shopping mall. Yet after the sale of the mill was finalised, Mr. Joshi justified the high price paid saying the site would be used to construct low cost housing for Sainiks. That plan seems to have been put on the back burner. The developer, Rajan Shirodkar, told the press, "We didn't buy the mill to do social work."

If Sainiks are confused about what their party stands for, Maharashtra's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) members must be equally puzzled. The NCP might be a breakaway from the Congress but it appears to have more in common with the Shiv Sena than its parent party. For instance, in the matter of protecting Shivaji's name and reputation, the NCP has tried to outdo the Shiv Sena on several occasions.

The Sambhaji Brigade, which attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune in January 2004 because it helped American scholar James Laine in the research for his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, is reportedly close to the NCP. Last month, the Maharashtra Government, at the behest of NCP members, banned another book by Laine, The Epic of Shivaji.

Leading the NCP's moral brigade is Maharashtra's Home Minister R.R. Patil. He has appointed himself Mumbai's moral policeman by leading the way first with the ban on dance bars and following it up more recently with the decision to turn off the lights of discotheques at 1.30 a.m. For a city that boasts that it never sleeps, this has come as a blow to the party crowd although it makes little difference to the majority of Mumbai's residents.

Yet even as Mr. Patil makes disapproving noises about drinking alcohol and dancing, and their corrupting influence, the supremo of his party, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has been recommending that wine be sold in grocery stores to give a fillip to the State's nascent wine industry. And this year NCP members in Mumbai enthusiastically promoted Valentine's Day, telling college students to go out and enjoy the day.

Now with Mr. Pawar having invited Raj Thackeray to join hands with the NCP although the latter has turned down the offer and with Shiv Sainiks joining the ranks of the Congress in the wake of the defection last year by Minister Narayan Rane, one wonders what the future colour of politics in Maharashtra will be.

On one point all these parties seem united. For even as the Sena and the NCP speak of morality and the corrupting influences of Valentine's Day or dance bars, they seem to have no problem with the real corruption of consumerism that has gone out of all control. If proof were needed, one only had to read the newspapers on the day after Republic Day. There were reports of a mini-riot in one part of the city. This was not between Hindus and Muslims, or between Shiv Sainiks and others, or between Dalits and the police. The scuffles were between security guards and thousands of people trying to force their way into a shopping mall that had announced huge discounts to celebrate Republic Day. Who would have imagined that 56 years after becoming a republic, the day would be reduced to a maha-sale.

Protectors of "Indian culture"

The other aspect that stares you in the face is the ostensible desire of all these political groups to protect "Indian culture." Each party seems to want to outdo itself to protect some imagined "real" Indian culture when all around us we are being reduced to a culture of uniformity and sameness a culture of malls, fast food and mass entertainment. Ironically, none of these parties opposes a pattern of modernisation that actively eliminates all other "cultures" that have survived and that differentiate one city from another and within cities, one locality from another.

In fact, even as Valentine's Day was being celebrated in some parts of Mumbai, in a suburb of the city, the first performance of Ramu Ramnathan's play Cotton 56 Polyester 84: The city that was Mumbai... was being staged. Based on Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon's remarkable book, "One hundred years, One hundred voices. The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History" (Seagull Books), the play reminds us of the vibrant and secular culture that flourished through song, dance, and theatre in Girangaon, Mumbai's textile mill lands. Lakhs of workers drawn from all parts of India and different communities lived in chawls, worked long hours at exploitative wages, and recorded their stories through these songs. It is this very culture that is today being flattened by a universalised, globalised culture.

"Welcome to Girangaon, the village of girnis," states the pamphlet on the play. "The township of cotton textile mills. Parel, Byculla, Lalbaug once the centre of Mumbai, one of the greatest cities in the world, the foundation of its prosperity and growth, its cosmopolitan character, and its rich culture. The story of Girangaon is the story of Mumbai." How true. Girangaon today is vanishing before our eyes. Chimneys are being pulled down brick by brick, and plans are being finalised for structures completely disconnected to this history. The end of Girangaon is the end of another Mumbai. The new one will celebrate Valentine's Day with gusto, and without much opposition.

None of these political parties that expresses concern for culture really cares that Mumbai's unique working class tradition is vanishing. Future generations will only know of it through the occasional book and play. The gradual demise of Girangaon also marks the end of any real politics in this city.