Love seeks a quiet, private place to express its relentless grip, sex just needs crazy chemistry to catch flames but marriage proposals increasingly seem to be on the hunt for public platforms. We have heard of them all: trains, planes, airport tarmacs, mountains, on Eiffel Tower, inside the Egyptian Pyramids, churches and temples, in opera theatres, mustard fields in Punjab of course (only Indians raised on a steady Bollywood diet would understand this emphasis on “of course”).
Thirty-year-old Chinese diver Qin Kai chose the victory podium at Rio Olympics to propose marriage to his girlfriend of six years, the 25-year-old He Zi right when she was garlanded with her silver medal. At the precise moment the world should have celebrated three fabulous women divers who had achieved what must have taken them years or months of testing rigour, the triumph of sport turned into a moment made mushy by one man.
It is a week-old story, so most of us have been fed it by the media already. Kai performed the entire love-ready-to-fade-into-marriage script, was down on bended knee, cluck opened a red velvet box with a ring, with a red rose encased in glass in tow. We didn’t see the ring but that rose in a glass looked like a typical Made in China memento. Let’s just hope it doesn’t inspire Valentine’s Day “products” as a plastic-velvet Kai-Zi love gift sold everywhere from the streets outside the Louvre in Paris to Times Square subways in New York or New Delhi’s Janpath.
Zi, though initially doused with surprise reacted according to the expected girlie script: hand on the mouth, some sniffles, some joy, and some confusion. She called her feelings “complicated” while speaking to the BBC. However, it is the bronze medallist diver’s (Kai won a bronze for a synchronized diving event earlier) proposal—a mashup of Chinese-global-Hollywood-Bollywood-Mills & Boon theories of romance—that is far from a fairy tale proposal. It appears couched in the halo of “extraordinary” and “original” but these are sham words as it ended up stealing the glory of a moment that was not his.
There are no ideal proposals perhaps even though there are countless breathlessly beautiful ones. They can’t be ideal because every such moment comes riding on two waves: one, the conventional assumption that every marriage proposal is sacrosanct and so must be met with sobs, sighs, surprise, gratitude and blessings. This is a water-tight assumption, leaving little room for scepticism. Perhaps that’s why the gold medal winner for the same event Shi Tingmao stood by with grace and acceptance though she knew about Kai’s plan in advance and could have dissuaded him. This blanket cultural sanction to a marriage proposal’s moral beauty needs to be poked and questioned a bit, not from a morality point of view but certainly a suitability one.
On the other hand, when someone actually attempts this holier-than-thou and oh–so-romantic ritual, it usually comes, as we are told, with a set of untried emotions: what if, is this is absolutely the right moment, can I do better, will she say yes...
While Kai must be absolutely sure of his love and commitment, he did shut out the “what if” layers by proposing in front of the world media at an Olympics event that too at a vulnerable minute when his girlfriend must anyway be awash with multiple emotions. Could she have said no at that moment? It would be a tough call to take for most girls even those like Zi who said she was not ready to “marry out myself so soon”.
So, did Kai do the right thing? Since Zi accepted it and sealed their relationship, we can hardly call it “wrong”. Romanticism is a fluid, open-ended term, who knows, it may even be romantic to a lot of people, but I find it difficult to applaud. It brought up marriage at the time of a sportsperson’s career high mixing up two of life’s peak realities but those that should be diverse and complementary not blurred into one. It sought the very glorious limelight to mount a private decision and attract world attention; Kai hijacked a prized and hard earned moment that belonged to three girls. It also showed the world through a spectacle why privacy has become such a semi-precious value. Kai made the proposal too precious and it lost its shine.
The limelight is a strange place to lay bare our deepest emotions: the light fragments and scatters into various dimensions and starts mirroring the times we live in instead of the people we are.