Over the past few days, the WhatsApp group of women who reside in the Gurugram condominium I live in, has been abuzz. Most of the group’s 220-odd members have been spending hours sharing notes on where to get the best henna applied, the best stores to buy bangles from, and beautician cost. All this is a serious buildup towards “the day.”
And that big day is Karva Chauth, a Hindu festival celebrated by married women mostly across northern India today (Oct. 17). The wives fast from sunrise to moonrise, avoiding even water, seeking long lives for their husbands.
Preparations often begin weeks ahead and include shopping for clothes, jewellery, and spa treatments. Besides pampering themselves through the day, the women also perform community puja and socialise with other women from the family or neighbourhood.
The rituals end with catching a glimpse of the full moon through a kitchen sieve and offering the celestial body—and the husband—prayers. This last phase is often marked by a gift for the wife.
Raised in a fairly conservative Punjabi family in Delhi, Karva Chauth was an inseparable part of my growing years. As a pre-teen, it was almost an adventure for me. I would wake up at 4 am with my mother and grandmother to eat sargi (a meal had before sunrise that day), and then watch them in awe as they dressed up in new clothes and the finest jewellery.
By my teenage years, secretly fasting for a boyfriend was the adventure. Unmarried girls obviously can’t fast, you see. Furtively throwing the packed lunch in the school or college bin while pretending to have overeaten was the ultimate expression of love.
Ironically, by the time I got married, I had lost interest in Karva Chauth.
To any rational mind, the idea that one person’s day-long hunger increases another’s longevity would seem ridiculous.
It does to me as well. The following words that journalist Sonali Kokra wrote last year sum it up best:
Take KC (Karva Chauth) out of its shiny, tinselly wrapping paper, and all that’s left is a ritual that basically tells women, “Your life is worth less than your husband’s, so Missy, better start praying and pleading that you kick the bucket before he does.”
Yet, I have fasted for three out of the six years I’ve been married. Primarily because I’m not keen on picking a fight with my grandmother and mother-in-law. Once, I even lied about fasting even as I hogged burgers with my husband (I do feel terrible about lying, though).
However, I can’t deny that years of conditioning have left a fear somewhere deep inside: What if there is something to Karva Chauth?
The past three years have been easy, since I was pregnant and then breastfeeding, letting me off the fasting hook.
It was easier not to fast (or to lie) when living in Bengaluru in southern India where Karva Chauth hardly matters. However, I moved to Gurugram, near Delhi, this year—and the pressure is back.
I’m flooded with messages from aunts asking if my outfit was ready and if I planned to join them for the rituals. My cousins applied henna a day or two in advance and shared the images with me, asking me to share mine. There was even a “free henna camp” organised in my condo by a leading private bank.
At least part of this enthusiasm may be inspired by Bollywood, which has in recent years frequently romanticised and glamourised Karva Chauth. One movie that has influenced my generation, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, even has the male protagonist fasting along with his lady love.
In those years that I fasted, my husband joined me. Many other couples in our friend’s circle follow this practice. But then, when has patriarchy kept itself out of personal affairs? “You’re so lucky he’s doing it for you,” I was told each of those years; when I starved, I was only “supposed to.”
Besides all the blatant sexism, now, there’s a more practical reason why I don’t feel like celebrating this festival: keeping up with Karva Chauth has become too expensive for me.
On Oct. 14, henna artists in Gurugram were charging Rs1,000 ($14) for two hands. A day later, they had raised the price to Rs1,500 given the demand. By evening on Oct. 16, the prices ranged between Rs2,000 and Rs4,000. And that’s just the beginning.
In the decade that I lived away from north India, Karva Chauth has taken a whole new form with tens of new avenues to spend hard-earned money.
For instance, my mother and grandmother forever used the humble channi (sieve) from the kitchen to watch the moon at the end of the day. Today, designer sieves have taken over, often matching your attire. These decorated channis cost anything between Rs150 and Rs2,000.
Just look up “Karwachauth” on Amazon and forever stay amazed.
The festival has also gotten savvier over the years. There are now a number of mobile apps that guide the novitiate through the day.
It is rather ironic that a festival that has patriarchy and misogyny written all over it has not only survived all these years but has in fact thrived.
In a 2015 blog on Huffingtonpost, Rita Banerji, a feminist author and founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to stop female genocide, summed up the irony:
It has become a fashion statement for celebrities, with Bollywood actors sending out Karva Chauth wishes via social media and female politicians announcing their fasts for their husbands!
Twenty-first-century India’s media and gizmo crazy market is happily promoting this misogyny. There’s advice to women on how to prepare for the festival. There’s a new application for smart phones that busy, professional women can use in place of a sieve if kitchenware is not handy in their executive offices during work hours! Businesses realise they can bring in more revenue from this sexism by expanding their customer base.
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