Payal takes a hard look at Karva Chauth fasting. She brilliantly critiques the tradition, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
Yesterday was the popular day of fasting and prayer for the husband, celebrated all over Northern India, especially Punjab, called Karva Chauth.
Millions of married Indian women would have got up at break of day, and eaten ‘sargi‘ before the last star disappeared, and then kept a fast the whole day, and performed a prayer ceremony in the afternoon. The fast with only to be broken at night, when the moon appeared. Traditionally, you are supposed to gaze at the moon through a sieve (symbolising a veil) and then at your husband, who proceeds to give you your first sip of water. Many women keep it without even drinking water, others are ‘allowed’ milk/fruit, as per family tradition.
In the early evening, neighborhood women gather together to pray together. They pass their pooja thalis around seven times and sing this little doggerel:
“Veero Kudiye Karwada,
Sarv Suhagan Karwada,
Kumbh Chrakhra Feri Naa,
Gwand Pair payeen Naa,
Sui Che Dhaga Payeen Naa
Ruthda maniyen Naa,
Suthra Jagayeen Naa,
Bhain Pyari Veeran,
Chan Chade Te Pani Peena
Ve Veero Kuriye Karwara,
Ve Sarv Suhagan Karwara.”
Roughly translated, this song exempts the fasting lady from chores like cleaning, weaving, sewing, leaving her house for errands, even waking up or reconciliating anyone.
Today, it has transformed into a big-time hoopla with women getting henna on their hands, and wearing their bridal clothes, some get new sarees and jewellery. Universally, this is the day when mothers-in-law make much of the daughters-in-law whose sincere prayers will grant long life and prosperity to her son. Bollywood films have picked it up as an ideal ‘romantic’ opportunity, playing up the image of the sanskari Bhartiya naari (the traditional Indian woman) and her indulgent husband, overcome with love for his self-sacrificing wife.
Along with the doggerel, the story is told of Queen Veerawati, who does not stick to the rules of the fast, and the terrible consequences therein, as her husband dies due to her transgressions. Many of our quasi-religious festivals are accompanied by such stories that ‘warn’ women about what happens when they break the so-called ‘rules of society’. These tales are passed around orally and gain currency as facts among the uneducated, and also the so-called educated. Women, it seems, must be frightened into obedience.
Quite apart from the fact of the myth and the superstition around it, I am struck by two things, when I think of this festival.
The first is the conditions surrounding this fast, which exempted a woman from all onerous household tasks. How delightful it must have been for a woman to have that one unique day, on which she had to do nothing except dress up in her bridal finery and be indulged. The sargi, the traditional food for the fast, comes from the mother-in-law. What luxury, to have the one woman who you must obey for 364 days a year, pamper you and make much of you on this one particular day.
The second thing that strikes me is, how critical it was, and is still, for many Indian women that the husband has a long life because the perils of widowhood are untenable.
Marriage is still pivotal in the scheme of things for most women in India. Leave aside a handful of extremely privileged and educated women, marriage provides a home, a relationship, sex, children and a security blanket. For most women in India, this remains the only viable option for any kind of independence, although an independence that is limited by the constraints of the marital family and society.
On the flip side, is widowhood, which snatches away your emotional bedrock, takes away your sexual rights, removes any modicum of fun and enjoyment, and leaves you dependent on children, relatives or in-laws. No wonder women prayed sincerely and devotedly on Karva Chauth, because anything is better than the way widows are treated in our country.
A recently widowed friend was asked by her friend if she wanted to get rid of all her bright clothes! Yes, both are modern, educated women. But social conditioning results in the belief that life must necessarily change once one is widowed. I have seen women change their lifestyle, dress, habits, and socialisation. Equally, I have seen how friends change their behaviour towards women widowed or divorced. When women, who are economically independent and live in the cities are so affected, how much more must the impact of widowhood be in the villages and small towns?
Obviously, these can only be generalisations. I know there are women and men who are strong enough and brave enough to break these absolutely unacceptable taboos and live life on their terms, but it’s not easy. It’s hard enough to lose someone you love, and with whom you have shared your life, without having to also give up on life. Traditionally, widows will wear white, stop eating meat, eat only satvik food, in some places eat only one meal a day, and in some states be forcibly made to shave off their hair. They live on the indulgence and mercy of relatives.
Such is the hypocrisy of our society that on the one hand widows are marginalised and made to give up all comforts and on the other hand, they are considered easy prey for the very men who are their guardians. It is not some eighteenth-century scenario I am talking about – one only has to see the widows of Bengal, Haridwar, Vrindavan, and Varanasi to see that for many women, life has not changed even in the twenty-first century.
Social conditioning plays such a part on our psyche that even educated, modern women, feel vulnerable when widowed. This is not just the vulnerability of having lost someone you love – it is the uniquely frightening understanding of how society treats you as different. Most festivals and celebrations, especially those connected with marriage or childbirth exclude widows. “Even if I receive an invitation, I know they will be more comfortable if I don’t come” – this is what my widowed aunt explained to me.
Needless to say, there are no taboos or restrictions for a man who loses his wife.
In my mind, marriage should never be an inevitable state of being. A woman should certainly be able to construct her life and dreams on her own terms. If marriage has a role to play in her life, so be it. In India, this, however, remains a distant dream and the pressure to get married is huge. On girls and boys, but definitely more on girls. I hope for a time that this will change, but as of now, like the celebration of Karva Chauth marriage remains this romanticised ideal that parents crave for their children.
So what are the implications for modern women who celebrate Karva-Chauth today?
Certainly, they don’t believe that the fast will prolong their husband’s life. But it remains at a simple level, a reason to get dressed up in your finery, to get pampered and celebrated. Many husbands fast with the wives, thus making it a mutual celebration of each other. Some spend the day with each other, making it a meaningful celebration of the relationship and marriage.
We certainly need to evolve new ‘stories’ to keep with our beliefs today. I like the idea of it being a day of fasting for each other, renewing marriage vows, prayers and promises for each other’s emotional and mental health and wellbeing, ending with a huge celebratory meal under the moon.
Perhaps then, we may not need the story of poor Queen Veerawati, to frighten women into observation, but instead, can celebrate with the story of Heer-Ranjha as both husband and wife make it a celebration of commitment and love.
And yes, I am all for one day free from domestic labour…where did I put those order in discount coupons…?
Photos from the Internet
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