Today is Karva Chauth. Yesterday, messages were flying to and fro on the women’s WhatsApp group of our residential society. Is there a good mehendiwali around? What time is the elusive moon likely to turn up? Recommendations followed, and in a couple of hours, pictures of hennaed hands, each adorned with a lovely intricate design kept popping up. About the moon, there was much light-hearted discussion: the moon was mostly late, as it was last year; certainly not dependable. The enthusiastic entrepreneurs in the building posted pictures of clothes and accessories, just in case someone needed something new and accessible for the occasion. This was a massive build-up. The conversation sounded more like a gang of girls coming together to have some fun, forced as they were or choosing to, having to fast throughout day. Why not do it together?
During my walk in the morning, I met a young lady, dressed up in finery, the sindoor matching her tikka and lipstick. She smiled at me, still in my track pants and faded T-shirt. “You are not fasting?” she asked. I had sort of seen it coming. “No,” I replied, feeling guilty for no reason. How patriarchy and conditioning work! “In ours, we fast very strictly. No water also,” she explained, and asked, “In yours?” “Well,” I said, “we don’t observe Karva Chauth, but we do have our own fasting and feasting days, just like yours.” “You fast on them?” she was curious. “I used to,” I replied, remembering the five years I observed the Mangala Gauri festivities, fast and all, as also the Vat Purnima, which had me circumambulate a banyan tree.
No doubt, most of these rituals are gendered. There is patriarchy at work. Like a hundred other things we are still protesting against and questioning, for conditioning women to owe their allegiance to.
As a newly married young woman, I did not question the rituals. I simply followed them. Having been brought up in a ritualistic household, it wasn’t too difficult. My own rituals were restricted to saying my prayers and visiting the temple in times of crises, but beyond that I did not take these norms too seriously. Nor did I fight them. It was in the third year of the Mangala Gauri festivities that in the middle of the reading of Mangala Gauri’s story, I found myself actually paying attention, and feeling rather alarmed and a bit revolted where the events in the stories and the platitudes propounded seemed to be at loggerheads with my beliefs. It also hit me hard that I was performing these rituals mechanically, to avoid strife with the elders. If I wasn’t able to muster the devotion and faith expected to see it through, I was just being a fake worshipper, and the whole shindig was a farce. It was another matter that it had become an occasion to invite relatives and friends over for some much-needed bonhomie and bonding.
So as to spare my mother-in-law palpitations of the heart or anxiety attacks, and to save my mother from the ‘bad mother’ label (rebellion, for some unknown reason, is traced to upbringing), I continued with a “symbolic” pooja performed with as much sincerity as possible, for the next two years. I don’t remember when I stopped fasting during the other festivals. It happened organically, as I developed a kind of immunity to the must-dos over the years. It wasn’t deliberate or revolutionary; it was evolutionary. I had witnessed my next-door neighbour, in my childhood home, transform from a kanya pooja performing faithful (I was one of the invited kanyas) into a formidable social activist and atheist who took on a rabble-rousing politician in the later years.
Do I scorn or judge those who fast and feast? Certainly not. It’s a choice they have made, for whatever reason - keeping the peace at home or because it makes them feel good. I would stop short of acquiescing if there is a threat or coercion. That would raise my hackles. I can’t speak for the others, as I’m not in their situation. Are all women who follow the prescribed path victims of patriarchy? I have no statistics on that. I can only safely say from personal experience and observation that it takes all kinds to make this world. Some follow “traditions” blindly. I have heard others whisper, “It’s just one day in a year. No big deal. Why quarrel over something so trivial?” There are also those who go through it with faith and devotion. Faith comes in many forms. It could be a ritual, a simple affirmation, an elaborate pooja or just simply plain conviction. Who am I to question that?
“You are not fasting?” she asked. I had sort of seen it coming. “No,” I replied, feeling guilty for no reason. How patriarchy and conditioning work!
No doubt, most of these rituals are gendered. There is patriarchy at work. Like a hundred other things we are still protesting against and questioning, for conditioning women to owe their allegiance to. Some things change. Some things remain the same. Some things take their time to evolve. I remember, as a child, when we went around exchanging thaalis of Diwali goodies, the common question asked was, “Did your mom make them at home?” If she had, she was a “good” homemaker. If she had bought “readymade” sweets, she was branded a lesser mortal. I have friends who buy savouries from the local sweetmeat shop and pass them off as homemade, just so as to not to labelled rogue homemakers, only to realise that the “homemade” sweets in the neighbourhood homes look suspiciously familiar. The must-dos that we grapple with are many, but there is always a way out. It’s yours to choose.
The moon will arrive when it has to. The fasts will be broken. As I write this, I hear some singing and laughter. I hope that at least someone is having some good fun.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.