“Karva chauth” (literally translated, karva is a pot and chauth refers to the fourth day after the full-moon) was celebrated this year on October 8. It is a day-long fast that married women, primarily from Northern India (Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan etc.,) observe from before sunrise until after the moon has risen, for the wellbeing and long life of their spouse. Occasionally, young unmarried women also fast for their fiancés or prospective husbands. Systemically, encouragement is provided by mothers and elderly ladies with comments like, “Hamaari Sushma (or, whatever name) toh apne sanskaaron mein bahut believe karti hai. Abhi se karva chauth ka vrat rakhna shuru kar diya hai…” [“Our Sushma (or, whatever name) is enamoured of, and strongly believes in her traditional values. She has already started fasting for karva chauth…”] This being a women-only tradition, men steer clear of all karva chauth activities.
I grew up observing my mother, aunts, cousins and other ladies perform the rituals associated with karva chauth. The household would be abuzz with ladies waking up well before the crack of dawn to prepare themselves for the day. In accordance with Punjabi tradition, it was my paternal grandmother’s responsibility to organize – days in advance – all the materials for “sargi” (the pre-dawn meal before the start of the fast) for her daughter-in-law, my mother. A number of ladies from the neighbourhood would arrive, bringing their prayer “thali” (usually, a stainless steel or a silver tray) with them. The tray would typically hold a lit clay lamp (“diya”), a metal tumbler (with a sacred, red cotton thread tied around the upper edge) half-filled with water, fresh fruits, a couple of pieces of Indian sweets, some almonds and a bit of cooked food. The idea was to keep ready food items that would help sustain the daughter-in-law at the end of her fast. The ladies would pray and boisterously enjoy a pre-dawn feast together before returning home.
Traditionally, women folk are precluded from performing their “daily chores” during this fast and the karva chauth “prayer song” reminds them among other things “to not spin the “charkha” (spinning wheel), not thread the needle, not to cajole or pacify anyone who is offended/displeased, not to wake up those sleeping, to not step into the neighbour’s house etc.” Historically, these would have represented some of the typical household activities with karva chauth allowing the hapless housewife at least one day of respite in a year, even if it meant going hungry! Things are different now I guess. The day might now be spent watching movies with friends, playing cards, planning an elaborate dinner to end the fast, shopping or just taking a nap. Rituals adapt to suit conveniences even as the mind is unwavering on tradition.
In the evening, the ladies would get together again, bedecked in bridal finery of rich, red and gold silk saris and jewelry. Sitting in a circle, they would sing the karva chauth song while passing each other’s prayer tray from one to another (a “pheri.”) Seven rounds would be completed with an interval at the end of each, when an elderly lady would take it upon herself to narrate the local version (or her own interpretation) of the karva chauth legend about the devoted wife who was able to bring her dead husband back to life through this penance. The ladies would then go back home to wait for the moon to rise, sighting it through a metal sieve before looking at their husband’s visage. Taking a sip of the water they would break their fast with a piece of sweet from their tray, before sitting down for a meal with their husband and the family.
In spite of many attempts over the years, I have failed to persuade my wife to give up this ritual. If you can’t beat them, join them and so I also “try” to fast on karva chauth. This year, our granddaughters arrived for their “sleep over” on the eve of my wife’s annual day-long karva chauth fast. At the breakfast table the next morning the six-year old, S inquired why her nani had not joined us for breakfast. I tried to explain the aforesaid long-winded concept in as short and simple a manner as I possibly could. S pointedly asked me, “So, if Nani cares so much for you Nana, why are you not fasting for her? Don’t you love her?” I stammered that I was fasting too, which is why I was not eating with them. She retorted, “But you are having coffee and Nani is not even having water. That’s not fair!”
I wonder if my well-being is more important than the health of my spouse? My granddaughter’s unbiased view and forthright sharing of her feelings with me is redefining my own perspective. Doubts that have lurked at the back of the mind have resurfaced, even as the “#metoo” public discourse is challenging us to review the narratives that have long been suppressed, or taken for granted.
Perhaps I am being politically incorrect in recalling an excerpt from the celebrated poet Sahir Ludhianvi’s provocative composition for the movie “Sadhana” penned back in 1958:
“Aurat ne janam diyaa mardon ko, mardon ne usse bazaar diyaa…
..mardon ne banaayee jo rasmen, unko haq kaa farmaan kahaa..”
[Woman gave birth to man, man placed her in the market place..
..men devise rituals and declare these to be the true edicts..]