Friday, October 17, 2008

Why Karva Chauth?

Karva Chauth is supposed to be a joyous occasion. It is another matter of course that it can border on the ludicrous on its silver screen version –
Glitzy sets and huge, laden tables for a Hindu, vegetarian version of an Iftar party, and that curious, perfectly round water body specially created for the event.

Anyone who has actually kept the fast knows that real life is quite different. Dressing up is probably the best part of the tedious fast, but making it through the puja and waiting for the moon to rise takes up all the remaining energy. How many actually have the vigor for partying either before or after that?
Part of the fun is to gather in a circle to complete the thalis ritual before sunset. Every family has its own hoary tradition (hamare wahan to aisa hi hota hai) of what to do with the diya which is lit on the thali. Most families have one diya, while others have two, one of which goes over the woman’s shoulder after the puja. How would that be possible on the glitzy party settings?
For others, it plays a role in the finale, at the point when they view the moon through the chhani before breaking the fast... When does it go into the water, as shown in the movies and TV serials?

The rituals
Like the Muslim roza, women wake up in the wee hours of the morning for a meal, and the last sip of water for the day should be taken before the vanishing of the last star and the rising of the sun. Practical experience indicates that rather than food, it is nourishing coconut water and juices, which helps one to last the day without even swallowing one’s own saliva. The fast breaks at moon rise, not at sunset as the roza.
The day may be spent in gossip and solah shringar. Mehendi is applied to the hands— is that to ensure that no work is done? Nor are the women allowed to use any pins on this day—is that to ensure that no wily sasuma gives them some stitching or embroidery to complete on what is touted as a Woman’s Holiday?
This is perhaps the only festival which is not preceded by bouts of spring cleaning and cooking of traditional specialties, which break the woman’s back, while offering festive treats for the rest of the family.
Wives are enjoined not to wake sleeping husbands and not to cajole sulking ones, as this is their day—a day to spend on themselves and on 16 forms of shringar. The question arises:
Why do women have to pay such a heavy price for that tiny annual bit of freedom? That the stomach must remain empty the whole day, not even a bit of spittle to wet the parched throat.

On a more serious note…. the story behind the Karva Chauth quite defies logic. How did the fast start in the first place? I have been questioning this anomaly for the 37 years that I have been married to a Punjabi.
The story is that the ‘laadli’ sister of seven brothers undertakes the fast for the first time after marriage. Apparently, although she has seven older brothers and seven bhabhis, who presumably kept the fast while she was an unmarried sibling in the house, both she and her brothers are totally oblivious to the sacrifice that the festival entails.
The brothers are so troubled by their little sister’s thirsty agony that they cheat her by lighting a fire behind a hillock nearby. They tell her to look at the light through a round channi (to make her believe that it is the moon) and persuade her to break her fast.

Is that possible? Rational?
Immediately, her husband is pierced mysteriously with thousands of needles and she has to carefully pick them out one by one. One has to presume that the pain of the extractions and possible infections delay the process so much that it takes a whole year until Karva Chauth comes round again and misfortune strikes once again.
Veerawali, the laadli sister of her male siblings, hears a hawker selling karwadas, a typical Karva Chauth delicacy. Deputing her maid to the needle extraction task, she goes off to take her pick. While she is buying her karwadas, the maid finishes off the job. As the last of the needles is extracted, the husband comes out of the coma and amnesia takes over.
Seeing the needle in the maid’s hand, he takes her for his wife. When the actual wife appears, she is relegated to the post of maid and over the whole of the next year, no one, not even her fond brothers bother to disabuse him of that false notion.
Is this an indication of a very Punjabi notion that once a girl enters her sasural, she is to be abandoned to the mercies of her in-laws no matter what – even death? Witness the modern day parallel in dowry deaths, with parents taking tearful action only after death claims their daughter, never during all the time that she has been complaining of ill treatment.
So Veerawali is reduced to a servant’s status in her own home. She takes to spending her spare time playing with her doll, telling her repeatedly “Jo rani thi so goli ho gayi, jo goli thi so rani.” (the queen became the maid and the maid became the queen). Another year rolls by before the husband overhears Veerawali’s refrain and questions her. Finally, she spills the beans and tells him that she is his real wife. What took her so long?
Look at that story and wonder: if any fire can be mistaken for the moon. Also, it is difficult to imagine such terrible nanad-bhabhi vibes that Veerawali has no conception of what Karva Chauth entails.
It beats me why the silly woman did not send her maid out to buy the karwadas when she knew that there were just a couple of needles left. Having cared for her husband for a whole year, would she not be more concerned about those last needles? Why did no one tell the husband the truth about his wife?
And of course, most importantly: why the fast in the first place?
We are told that it is kept for the long life of the husband. But there are several such fasts. What is so special about this one, except that it falls on a day when the moon rises later than usual?
And as for fasting for someone’s long life, how come there are so many widows in India when fasting for husbands is such a popular and common phenomena spread over all the different varieties of culture in this huge sub-continent? If some wives don’t fast, does it mean that they don’t care for their spouse? Or that they wish him ill?

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