Love is a word that has been pondered over by many. It is a subject of interest among those who study science, philosophy, literature, religion, anthropology, psychology- a variety as you can see. Some say it is a neurological condition, while others say it is a basic human instinct and yet others argue that love is nothing more than a cultural construct, used to promote long term relationships in order to secure parental support for children, and ensure feelings of safety and security. Despite the speculations and arguments over time, love, till date, remains a fascinating mystery.
Some say, that love is a combination of a variety of emotions, lumped into a single word. There is love for family, love for friends, love for the self and the most intriguing and perhaps the most painful kind, love, for the significant other. Love is also a phenomenon that is evolving constantly with time.
Back in the day (by that I mean when our grandmothers were young), love was something one would dream about, but never dream of pursuing without parental consent, or for that matter without signing a legal document first. Love could happen through a single glance, a smile, toss of a long braid, and in most cases, looking at the photo of a complete stranger who is also a prospective spouse.
“Before we were married, my husband and I were neighbours,” says 82- year-old Munira Begum. “He saw me playing with my sister on the roof of our house and he says he thought I was beautiful and fell in love. His father sent over a proposal the following week, and we were married within a month after that. I only saw him from afar before our wedding day and we didn't get a chance to speak to eachother until after we were married,” she recalls.
That was back in 1945. It took about a decade or so after that for youngsters to gather the courage to take one step further and send a note to their beloved. “I was in love with a girl during my university days,” says Amer Nazim (not his real name). “Her school (she was in high school) was close to my house, so I would walk there every day to look at her. I sent her many love letters through her friend's brother but never got a response. I even sent her earrings once and all I got was a smile.”
“I grew up outside Dhaka, where love and relationships before marriage was practically unheard of,” relates 65 year-old Banu Haider (not her real name). “Back then, a boy in my village used to send me letters with our gardener, and I thought I was madly in love with him. I knew that my parents would not approve because he came from a poorer household than ours, and even if they did, I wouldn't have the courage to tell them about my relationship. So we planned to elope. I didn't tell anyone about this except my trusty maid ofcourse, who was my confidante as she was close to my age. As the day of our elopement approached, she got cold feet and told my mother about my plans. Oh the beating I got after that! I can still remember vividly. I was heartbroken. The boy's family was informed and I never heard from him again. My parents arranged my marriage with my husband and that was it. I must say, when I look back, I didn't know much about this boy at all, except that he thought I was gorgeous,” she laughs, “My husband and I are quite happy together so I suppose it all worked out in the end.”
Then came the 60's and 70's the age of free love, when people dared to pursue relationships, albeit ones that would be guaranteed to end in marriage upon parental discovery. Love marriages were still frowned upon (heavily) and arranged marriages were still the way to go. “I got married to my cousin in 1973,” says Runa Alam (not her real name). “I was studying abroad at the time and had a white boyfriend. My parents had decided I would marry my cousin who I barely knew at the time and I was given no choice in the matter,” she says. “I got married over the phone and didn't see my husband until six months after that.”
Little girls are still encouraged to read about prince charming in fairy tales, and young women, still pour over the all time favourite classics and dream about their very own Romeo, Mr Darcy and Amit Labonno, hoping to have their own whirlwind romance someday. The process of being swept off one's feet, however, has changed somewhat.
“Romantic love will be felt in the same way at any age or place. The manner of expression of this love may have changed,” says Sara Zaker, theatre and television actor, entrepreneur and social activist. “We maybe thinking of it in a different manner now than before, for example, three or four decades back, a song such as "Amee dure hotey tomarey dekhechee aar mughdho ei chokhey cheye thekechhee" would remind a lover of his beloved . He would be turning the tune in his head the whole day and humming away. But nowadays, the sight of a cell phone may conjure up the same romance in a lover and he maybe looking at the photo's he had clicked of his loved one on the phone and while flicking through her pictures, he might be listening to "buk taa phytaa jai , phytaa jai ...." playing in some fm band radio, with his head phones on. From my experience of a decade of writing to young ones about their relationship problems, I see the process of courtship has changed. In this digital age it has become fast moving. Several missed calls and then the courtship is ON. ”
There are several elements that come into play in bringing about such dramatic changes in the pattern of courtship that lead to different types of relationships. Globalisation is on the top of this list. With exposure to foreign cultures through television and media, the youth of our country have a very different idea of relationships, compared to the previous generations.
“I believe the perception of romantic love has changed,” says Mita, relationship advisor at the Star. “This is only natural with the advancement in information technology and its use and spread in our parts of the world. In fact, not only romantic love, the entire perception of relationships has changed over the years. The aspiration of women to be treated as independent and equal partners has also had an impact on romantic love. The life style of young people, profession, demand on their time and even the traffic jam now has an impact on love.”
Gone are the days when love letters and pebbles thrown at window panes were the only means of communication. With cell phones, computers, email and social networking sites, it is far easier to meet people and develop relationships. However, some claim that the age of technology has also served to weaken the bonds and value of relationships. “Young people in love are not willing to make a long term commitment so easily,” says Mita. “Previously it was assumed that falling in love would naturally lead to marriage--that is not the case any longer. The age of falling in love and getting into a relationship is reducing while the age to get married is increasing. Marriage at the age of 25 is now considered too young whereas before, as soon as a girl was 21 and a boy 24 parents would start to worry about their marriage. However, having said all this, whatever may be the perception, a young woman still enjoys being surprised with a romantic gesture such as a sweet message on the mobile or a rose sent over on a special day!”
With the help of technology and the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex un-chaperoned, it is now easier to have multiple love interests. The acceptance of relationships before marriage in certain spheres of society also gives young couples time to know each other better and therefore break-up a relationship if they discover they are incompatible.
“I've been in many relationships, mostly bad ones,” says a 23-year-old college student, “It's okay to be in more than one relationship I think, because you won't find the right person, right away. You have to look. I don't want my marriage to be a compromise I make, because I am expected to do so. How can you really get to know someone well in an arranged marriage situation? It's like being given a deadline to make the most important decision of your life! I want to be absolutely certain I am madly in love before agreeing to make that kind of commitment.”
“Society is much more accepting of open expression of courtship,” says Mita. “The most visible example of this is the popularity of Valentine’s Day. It would be completely inconceivable even 20 years ago that young men and women and even teenagers would be allowed to express their love so openly. It is now okay for society and also parents to accept that their children are in a relationship and taking time to decide before marriage. Public expressions of love such as holding hands, sitting very close is okay now. The society does not frown upon this as much as they used to,” she opines. “The mobility and visibility of women and young girls has had an impact in the way society now perceives courtship. The way girls and boys dress, walk and interact has changed the perception of society.”
Mohammad Mahfuzul Islam, lecturer of Anthropology at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) agrees. “Globalisation and consumerism are the prime aid to romantic engagements,” he says. “Food joints like KFC, Pizza Hut and cinemas are adding spice to romance. Young people no longer wait till marriage to become physically intimate. Nowadays there are ways to find privacy if one can afford to go out of town on a holiday,” he says.
“No one stays a virgin until they are married anymore,” says a teenager who wishes to remain anonymous. “Some of my friends do “it” (sex) because they think their boyfriends might go for other girls if they are not open to sex before marriage. I would never do that but I do think that it's okay to do it if you're really in love with someone.”
“I am shocked by the audacity of the young people these days,” says 55-year-old Afzhal Huda. “When I go for my evening walk to Dhanmondi Lake, all I see are young couples kissing and groping each other openly for everyone to see. I am disgusted by the sight of it. They have no shame or sense of common decency and respect. I think it's all about upbringing and family background at the end of the day,” he shakes his head vehemently.
“I really don't agree that it's easier to have relationships these days,” says 24-year-old Zeeshan Rahman. “I still have a curfew and am treated like a child. I can't go to many public places with my girlfriend in case I run into someone her parents know. I hardly get to be alone with her because there isn't anywhere to go other than restaurants and public places. It's frustrating!”
According to Mita, the pattern of love related questions she has answered in her column have changed quite a bit over time. “The questions are bolder, seeking answers to intimate problems” she says. “The age of those seeking advice is now younger. The problems are complex depicting the dilemma of modern youth caught between a traditional and modern society. However, I have started getting a lot of letters from young couples struggling to keep up the romance in their marriages.”
Even though marriage is still viewed as a serious commitment, it is no longer the unbreakable relationship it was once perceived to be. With the acceptance in some spheres of the society of divorce, couples now have the option to break off a difficult marriage. In some cases of abusive marriages or irreconcilable differences, this is a positive change. However, there are people of the opinion that divorce being more socially acceptable and relatively easier to get, young people no longer respect the institution of marriage and look for a way out at the sign of the slightest problems.
The concepts of love and marriage also differ in different social classes. “I come from a middle class family, where I am still expected not to have a boyfriend and have an arranged marriage,” says 25-year-old Shoma Chowdhury. “While I must meet these expectations, I still find myself drawn to the idea of falling in love before getting married.”
“I never had enough money in my pocket to date,” says 30-year-old Md Zahid. “Girls wanted gifts and meals at expensive restaurants and being from a poor family, I couldn't fit that into my tight budget.”
Sara Zaker is of a similar opinion when it comes to consumerism in romance. “Probably, today there is no love expressed without a stuffed toy or a card or an expensive rose perhaps even the diamond ring that is being offered with 30 percent discount,” she says.
“There was a time that giving flowers was enough to win the heart of a loved one,” says Mita, “Now, in most cases, flowers have to be accompanied by a gift, it is said the more expensive the gift, the more intense the expression of love. The TV commercials on diamond jewellery etc actively promote the linking of expensive gifts to love. Globalisation and technology has made it possible to purchase any gift online which has led to increased consumerism among a certain class of people.”
Sonia Khan, who is 33-years old claims that growing up in a middle class or lower middle class family also makes it difficult for young people to meet members of the opposite sex to have a relationship with. “When I was a teenager, I went to an all girls' school and was not allowed anywhere outside my home without a male chaperone, usually a cousin or my father,” she explains. “I also attended a women's college so all my friends were female. I didn't have a chance, growing up, to meet someone to fall in love with. When I started working, it was inappropriate to have a relationship with a co-worker. I was always expected to have an arranged marriage, but that too comes with many terms and conditions. You have to look a certain way, be a certain way and meet certain needs to be “chosen,” and frankly, the idea never appealed to me. After a certain age, people just stop looking for a groom for you, but that doesn't mean you don't still hope to find someone,” she relates. “There is nowhere for people of my age group to go and mingle with members of the opposite sex, like a juice bar or a coffee shop where you can just approach someone because you are interested in them. Even if you manage to find someone there are problems. My friends, who live alone, are not allowed to bring men up to their apartments because people will talk. I find this utterly ridiculous. We are all adults and should be allowed to make our own decisions! I think it's very hard to find love for single people like me, living in this society.”
Recent times have also seen the emergence of different types of romantic relationships in this part of the world. Homosexual and bi-sexual relationships, terms that were unheard of before and are to an extent still taboo among many who firmly believe in traditional relationships and family structures, are now seen more frequently in foreign TV channels, films and literature. Young people in this country are exploring with the idea of sexuality and what it means to them. “Although the younger generations are more open to this new concept of love, it will be a while before it is accepted with open arms by the whole society,” says Fahim Khan (not his real name), “Until then, it will be difficult being gay in this country and having a proper relationship without being ostracised.”
Love today has metamorphosed into something unreco-gniseable in the eyes of previous generations. It is bold, open and confident, a tad bit consumer driven, and leaves little room for doubt. All it needs is some guidance and acceptance for what it is. Talking openly about romantic relationships, marriage, divorce, discussing rights and wrongs, talking about taboos such as sex and sexuality leaving no room for shame or the need to hide, will steer youngsters in the direction of mature, responsible relationships. Making space for young people to meet and socialise and explore their options will eventually lead to successful relationships.
Love today may not be as subtle as the days gone by, but in essence, it is still as sought after, romantic, passionate and intense as it was once upon a simpler time.
Day of Love? No Thanks!
The concept of celebrating romantic love on Valentine's Day may not sit well with the more traditional in Bangladeshi society, but even open-minded, single and romantically involved people, young and old, are sometimes not a fan.
The reasons of millions, if not billions, of people around the world – who do not get excited about that loved-up, red-themed, card-giving day – are many. It may well be because you got dumped on that day, find yourself always too poor to shower that special someone with gifts, or simply have no one to celebrate the day with. Those who have seen the Hollywood blockbuster Valentine's Day will know that there is even the concept of celebrating Anti-Valentine's Day, with a party to badmouth failed relationships and beat piñatas to release love-fuelled hate.
“I don't think there should be one single special day of love, it should be every day,” says Audrey Alam, a 27-year-old office worker in Dhaka, asserting her opinion is not just because she also has bad memories associated with 14 February.
“My previous boyfriend had been abusive and I'd decided, when I heard he was cheating on me, to break up with him – that day just so happened to be Valentine's Day. I was just so determined not to celebrate it ever again but the following year, with my next boyfriend, I thought I should give myself and the day a chance and then I got slapped.”
In a crowded public place, Audrey and her boyfriend were joking and teasing each other when she decided to call him a name. “Out of nowhere he hit me really hard,” the young woman recalls the event that took place three years ago. “We were both wearing red, people could tell we were a couple and instead of coming up and asking 'why did you hit her?' people started clapping instead – like it was so brave of a guy to slap a girl.” Shocked into silence, Audrey says she didn't know how to react. “I wouldn't have done anything, but hearing the laughing and cheering of people just got me so mad. He tried to pull me aside, afraid I was going to create a scene and I only took a few steps before I slapped him back.” When asked whether her feelings will change about the romantic occasion, Audrey replies, “I have no problem with the world celebrating Valentine's Day, I was just unlucky on that day.”
For 40-year-old bachelor Nazif Monzur, the day has no special significance and that's exactly how he'd like to keep it. “I've dated women in Bangladesh and abroad and there's something about Valentine's Day that makes them irrationally expectant. I was with a girlfriend for six years when I was in my twenties, and we never made a big deal out of the event. I'd wish her in the morning, we'd go about our day, and if it fell on a weekend, we went out, if it didn't, we'd stay in, no fuss no frills.” Nazif believes things changed because of other women meddling in his relationship.
“Her friends were getting married, having kids, or desperately looking for that happily-ever-after. Once we hit our fifth year, she wanted us to spice things up and make an effort so we went for dinner – on a weekday I might add – to a very charming little Italian place. It was delicious and the atmosphere was ridiculously romantic, but by the end of the night, she had such a sour face on her.” Turns out, Nazif relays, she'd been expecting a proposal because as an Asian man hitting 30 that year, she thought he'd be ready to make his family happy and settle down.
“It's a capitalist ploy to make people spend a lot of money,” believes Nazif, a business professional, “but I never complained when my teenage girlfriend wanted flowers or when my latest lady wanted jewellery. I oblige because I want to make them happy, but I'm perfectly capable of being a good partner without the world saying 'this is the day to be romantic'. Can women not get worked up about essentially a commercial day? What's really romantic about generic cheesy cards and fattening chocolates?”
Another young man, equally unimpressed with the love-themed day, says he's celebrated the day once, and the memory of it all is now ruined. “I never really liked it before and now I just have an extra reason not to,” says Rakibul Islam Sunny. “February 14 is my ex-girlfriend's birthday, and in our 18 month relationship, we only spent it once together. Our relationship was suffering so I wanted to make a special effort, hoping it would fix things.” The 20-year-old explains, “We had a college picnic and I got her cake, roses and I threw her a surprise party on the bus with 50-60 classmates singing happy birthday. She was very happy but it died out two days later.” Sunny says the break-up six months later was just so messy, it spoilt Valentine's Day.
Now happy in another relationship, the student says, “I'd prefer going out on the 15th. Last year, I'd only broken up with my ex four months before and my girlfriend was really nice about it. She said 'you put a lot of effort into this day last time so the memory must be bad for you so let's forget about today'. Then the next day, we went to Ahsan Manzil.” Sunny adds that they have now worked their way through all the Old Dhaka sights. “Maybe in a couple of years I'll be able to shake the memory of my ex with Valentine's Day but until then, I'd prefer not to celebrate it.”
Young people, while leading society in accepting romance before nuptials and public displays of affection after marriage, are not the only ones to have associations with the day. Raisa Chowdhury, now in her late sixties, began acknowledging the day with her husband after twenty years of marriage. “We were married young and we grew love,” says the grandmother-of-four. “After we took our first trip abroad I learnt about this day. It was a sweet idea and I think my husband felt bad for not being like everyone else there so he bought me flowers and gave it to me in our hotel room. For another twenty years, in Bangladesh, he continued to give me flowers.” The former teacher says, for a man who said very little, this was how she knew he loved her. “My husband died on Valentine's Day after suffering for a long time. I didn't even realise the day until the following year when my daughter brought me flowers because her father couldn't. I cried so much and I cry every year now because it was this one day he bought me something to show love and it was also the day he was taken from me.” Now living with her son in the capital, Raisa says she will spend this Valentine's Day visiting her husband's grave before having an evening with her sisters, to watch their favourite Indian serials.
Like the many jilted, heartbroken and disappointed Valentine’s Day celebrators before her, Raisa says softly, “I just don't like this day of love anymore.”
The names and details of people interviewed have been changed to protect their privacy.