14 February 2017

For the love of profit and deceit

Sixteen years ago I wrote about 'love' and 'Valentine's Day'.  The names of places have changed. Thing have changed too.  A bit. 

The streets of Colombo have suddenly turned red. No, the JVP is not having another of their rallies. It’s love, baby. Giant red hearts shimmering in the sunlight during the day and in the street lamps at night, and little hearts dripping from the shop windows, all tell us that something strange is happening. We are told it is love.

Some of Nanda Malini’s most endearing songs are about love. One of my favourites starts like this "Kala Weven gath diya dothak se, vatee vatee oba matama vatee....bodhiyakin vata bo kolayak se, age age oba matama age.." (You are as precious as a handful of water from the Kala Weva; I cherish you as I would cherish a leaf fallen from a Bo tree). Our cultural heritage never recommended the quantification or commoditisation of things such as love. Although love is undefinable, our poets were sensitive and creative enough to paint for us its subtle nuances using metaphors that tapped into the heart of our ethos.

Against this background, consider this: "Want to be my Valentine? Win me over with a cute SMS for a dinner date". Sushma Reddy, VJ-Channel V, was offering herself to the guy who sends her the best message using her (hopefully) brand new Celltel. I don’t know whether it is Celltel or Ms. Reddy who is cheap. Maybe both.

All I know is that either these people don’t know anything about romance or the value of that which we call "love" has considerably depreciated. I have also been told that the oldest trade is prostitution. All that has happened, apparently, is that the trade has found new territories to exploit. Since this is all about love and romance, my thoughts strayed to the ancient dictum "A rose by any other name would sell as sweet". I am not sure what prostitution’s fragrance is, but I know that a name change does not alter rupees and cents nor the character of the exchange that takes place.

The newspapers (and probably the radio and TV stations too) are chock full of advertisements, with merchants of all hues trying to teach us how to express love, as though they are not really interested in cashing in on all the hype about Valentine’s Day. As though we are supposed to practice love only on the 14th of February. As though our loved ones are less special on the other 364 days of the year.
But then again, we live in times where the calendar is artfully used to limit celebration of certain things to a single day. Thus we have May Day to think about labour and associated exploitation. We have designated March 8th as the one day to address women’s issues. One day for the earth, one day for national heroes. So why not one day for love, one could argue.

Celltel does not have a monopoly when it comes to love, it seems. Dialog GSM wants us to celebrate Valentine’s Day differently this year. They suggest that we purchase one of their hurubuhuti machines so that we can call our sweethearts "for longer lasting sweetness". The underlying assumption is that if we did not take up their offer, our conversations with our lovers, spouses etc., would fall short on the matter of sweetness.

They also want us to convey our messages "faster than fragrance". They seem to believe somehow that love is directly related to speed. I thought that there are times for urgency and times when taking things slow is infinitely better. Maybe Celltel knows better. The market is about exchange and transactions that take place at a given moment. I am sure these people understand how markets work. Maybe that is all they know. Therefore we should not be expecting miracles from them.

Crescat Boulevard wants us to shop for romance. They have "opened their hearts for Valentine’s Day". Does this mean that on all other days their hearts are "out for lunch" or something? They have warned us: "beware, Crescat’s crazy, bowstring happy cupid’s aiming for you!" Now that concern went straight through my heart. Cupid is a generous spirit who derives happiness from bringing people together. Or so I thought. Now it seems that the intention of this inimitable character is to rake in profits. The "love", alienated and vulgar, is but a by-product. How else could it be when we are supposed to measure the worth of love in terms of the value of the gifts we receive? Crescat Cupid’s arrows have a purpose. In Sinhala we call it "pocket ekata vidinna".

One Stop Spot has opened a "Valentine’s Shopping Zone" so that "you + me" can have a new shopping experience. At least they are honest. The "me" must refer to themselves. In this sense "they" have put down the naked truth. It is not for the love of lovers, but love for profit that fuels them.
Similarly honest is the ad Cargills had come up with. Just two words, "consumer freedom" against the backdrop of a shopping cart full of goodies careering along a deserted road. Not a single consumer in sight. It hits the nail on the head. We just don’t have the purchasing power to consumer the many delights these people offer us, including love as they would have us believe.

Love, however, is a different category altogether. Prostitution is about lust, not love. And love, maybe we should remind ourselves, is clearly not for purchase.

I am not blaming these people. After all there are things called demand and supply. Demand, however, can be created. It can be supplied, in fact. If that was not the case, we would not have an advertising industry. The people who handle the annual SLIM awards, have put the entire exercise in a nutshell, for our convenience. "While you were searching for politically correct ways to describe your drastic cut-downs and precautions in the face of ‘recession’, some fantastic advertising happened. Wonder how? Find out at the SLIM Awards 2002. You’ll forget that the word ‘recession’ even existed". How politically correct!

Advertising, then, is about deceit and intoxication. The "fantastic advertising" is aimed at generating amnesia of epidemic proportions. And still our badaginna (hunger) has not subsided. Some fires refuse to go out, clearly.

In reality, few can afford the "journeys of endless love" or "romantic cruises by candle light". On the other hand, there are those who have money to burn. So, when at the end of the day, these various companies laugh to themselves muttering "what suckers consumers are", the rest of us can be happy that we were not swindled.

Still, this advertising extravaganza (fantastic stuff which, according to the SLIM Awards people, seduces us into believe that shit smells sweet), doesn’t leave a bad taste only on the tongues of the more reflective of the deceived. The lie, admittedly well packaged, affects us all. The lie teaches us how to love. Maybe its next mission is to teach us how to make love. On the other hand, if we are alert enough, we can allow this crass commoditization of love to tell us how not to love.

True love, I believe, understands that the heart’s capacity to give and receive has no limits. The what of giving is small, compared with the how and why of giving. True love has a keen sense about the how and why. A glance, a touch, a word and even the poetic communications of silence can and will outdistance the alleged fragrance of purchasable things.

I am sure that millions of people will express their love on February 14th. I am sure that a vast majority of these people do not need Valentine’s Day to remember and appreciate loved ones. I salute their resolute hearts. And to all those who have swallowed the Great Valentine Lie, all I can say, naturally, is "Happy Valentine’s Day! May all your purchases result in great sex and greater profits for the peddlers of ‘love’".

This article was first published in the Sunday Island of February 10, 2002, 16 years ago, under the title "Valentine’s Day: for the love of profit and deceit"