Mythology for the Millennial: On the absurdity around karwa chauth, and blaming women for every wrong
Karwa chauth is sanctioned romance, a way for a woman to be the centre of attention in a way that she is not on every other day of her life.
Of course Bollywood ruined everything.
When I was a teenager, once a year, one of our teachers would come to school all dressed up. This was after—oh, about twelve full years of school already, two years of kindergarten, one extra year repeated because I wasn't what you'd call an academically inclined person. Anyhow, suffice it to say, I had a lot of experience with school by the time this teacher came along, and I had never seen anything like it. Perhaps I had never noticed it before? But I remember quite clearly, this ordinary class teacher, sharp-tongued but kind-faced, a normal part of our lives, like our classmates, suddenly bursting into beauty this one day. She was an older woman — must have been in her mid-forties, which was practically ancient to us — and it wasn't like she dressed up particularly glamorously, it's just that her plump fair face was normally free of makeup, her hair tied up in a serviceable bun, and this once-a-year, she had kajal on, and her hair floated around her shoulders. Someone murmured that she was doing the karwa chauth fast, and someone even dared to ask her, and instead of biting their heads off as she normally would, she simpered — actually simpered — and admitted she was. It made her a lot more human suddenly, an actual person with a husband and a life outside of those four walls of our classroom.
She was generally a sensible woman, and I dare say if that was my one and only brush with karwa chauth, I would have dismissed it as one of those things that happen around India: frogs getting married, worshipping steel utensils, praying to a lingam — you know, when you're in a big melting pot of a country, you learn to shrug your shoulders about most of it. But then karwa chauth, a festival that was supposed to be confined to North-Western India to pray for soldier husbands who went far away to wage a war, began to intrude on the rest of my life as well. No longer was it as simple as just your class teacher putting on some make up one day of the year. Now it began to be seen as something that must be celebrated, and whoever was against it to be somehow against everything Old and Cultural. Even advertisements speak about karwa chauth, like it's equivalent to Diwali (which, I may remind you, is celebrated in some form or the other across the country). How did this little festival get so big? Where did it come from? And who's to blame? I decided to dig a little deeper into the origins.
To begin with: Bollywood. Karan Johar and his stable of films single-handedly made the Punjabi wedding the one to aspire towards. People began to look at their own wedding ceremonies and decide they were kind of... boring. Especially when compared to the dancing-singing Punjabis they saw on their screens. If Punjabi weddings became the ideal, could the Punjabi/North Indian marriage be that far behind?
There's something pretty-pretty in the idea of the woman starving for her man, the man who loves her beyond all reason feeling worried about her health. Eventually, he coaxes her to eat, but only when she sees a full moon through a sieve. It's all very melodrama and exciting, especially in a culture where men and women are supposed to get married and have children and have a life together for decades and literally never show each other any outward affection because that would shock everybody.
Karwa chauth is sanctioned romance, a way for a woman to be the centre of attention in a way that she is not in every other day of her life. It's ostensibly to celebrate the long life of your husband, but the very root of it comes from women dropping in to see other women with filled “karwas” or pots of bangles, flowers, sweets, whatever you liked. Little indulgences.
I told you one origin story about the men going off to war, but another, which I like better is that when a new bride arrived at a village in rural North India, away from her friends and family, a woman around her age, staying in the same village (but married into a different family so no conflict) was “married” to her at her wedding ceremony so she'd have a “dharam behan” for life. Karwa chauth, with the pots and the presents, was a way to celebrate this bond as well.
In the evening, there's a women-only ceremony as well, where all the fasting married ladies listen to the traditional story of the fast of which there are several. In Uttar Pradesh, you might hear the story of the princess who broke her fast before moonrise because of a trick played by her brothers and her husband promptly died. Lesson: if you put yourself before your husband, even inadvertently, you deserve to be punished. There's also a story from the Mahabharata, where Arjun is in trouble and it falls to Draupadi to fast for him and save him. It's all very magic trick, and even if your husband died after all that, I assume the blame would fall on the women: bad luck carriers, some would say, or she didn't fast according to all the guidelines ever made and so it's her fault in the end. It always winds up being the woman's doing one way or another — and widows couldn't remarry for the longest time — but widowers, now they could not only lose five wives if they wanted to, no one would ever think of blaming them for not fasting. It does seem singularly unfair that the only way to get attention and celebrate being a woman and so on and so forth is all arranged around your marital status.
Many years after this school teacher and her fast, a young girl I hired to clean my house asked me in all innocence whether I was going to keep a karwa chauth fast. I say young, but she was already on the marriage track, while I was only responsible for a cat. “No,” I said, and seeing something shut off in her face, I added, “Do the men ever fast for us?” It was like watching a light bulb go off inside her head, a new idea she'd never had before, even though it seems trite to you and me, she had literally never heard this argument. “I never thought of it that way,” she breathed, and danced off, and since she was temporary, till my regular person came back, I never heard of what happened to her fast, but I hope she was inspired to buck tradition. I hope you are too.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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