Why I keep Karva Chauth . . .
At the end of the day, it's the rituals you embrace and make your own that matter. I didn't grow up keeping Karva Chauth or seeing my mother hold the fast. (Karva Chauth is a one-day festival celebrated by Hindu women in many countries in which married women fast from sunrise to moonrise for the longevity of their husbands; ref; Wikipedia.) We were raised in a conservative Sikh household, and all rituals were frowned upon. (Sikhism is a breakaway religion from Hinduism and is founded on the belief that the worship of one God be simple and free of the traditions and superstitions that had riddled Hinduism in the 15th century.)
The apparent history of this "auspicious" day is associated with the tale of Queen Veervati and her penance to keep her husband alive. The legend goes that Veervati held innumerable fasts as a married woman while living at her parents' home. She would begin fasting at sunrise and end it at moonrise. Her seven brothers couldn't bear her condition. So, one day they tricked her into breaking the fast earlier. The moment she ate, word arrived that her husband was dead.
Heartbroken, Veervati turned towards God to seek solace. Goddess Parvati appeared before her and suggested her to repeat the "Karva Chauth" with full devotion. This would bring her dead husband back to life.
She held the fast. He came back to life.
Since Sikh worshippers do not believe in heathen traditions of fasting, my mother and grandmother did not observe karva chauth and in fact, derided the ritual as being archaic and unrealistic.
"If your spouse's life could be increased by fasting for one day in the year, wouldn't scientists stop finding a cure for cancer?" was the undeniable logic. That sounded rational to me, and I didn't grow up feeling I'd missed out on anything.
Then came the advent of soap operas on Indian television and a slew of Yash Chopra rom-com movies that popularized the tradition of fasting for your husband. You would see an Aishwarya Rai or a Kajol flitting across the 75 mm film screen in a diaphanous net sari, hands decorated with henna, face aglow with happiness and contentment as she raised the sieve to the yellow orb of the moon and gazed upon her husband's visage through its nightly glow.
By then I was married, and although I had dutifully found a Sikh mate for myself, my husband's family had settled in the U.S. in the 80's (read: frozen in time) and celebrated the festival with much gusto. As the day drew nearer, my mother-in-law asked if I'd participate in the family tradition. I remembered Aishwarya Rai's radiant face and I happily acquiesced.
I threw myself into the festival; I dolled up in a sari and bindi; got up at the crack of dawn to devour 'sargi' (breakfast commonly given by a woman's mother-in-law and to be eaten before sunrise) and waited for the festivities to begin. Nobody had prepared me for the gut-wrenching pangs of hunger that assaulted me as my brain obligingly reminded me that it was time for breakfast; time for lunch; time for tea and snacks, damn it!
Nor had any movie or T.V. serial prepared me for how limp and exhausted you get by the time the moon finally puts in an appearance (9:50 p.m. this last Karva Chauth!). I was ready not to bask in the glory of my husband's eternal love but to snatch the drink he was so merrily enjoying and smash it over his head. Long story short, I managed to ward off these violent tendencies brought on by not having drunk a sip of water or eaten a morsel of food all day and tamely finished the puja.
My conclusion: Not a fun experience. Not worth repeating. And indeed, when I was working full-time as a lawyer, I stopped observing the fast. My mother-in-law didn't utter a word of recrimination, continuing to love and respect me.
October 2011 rolled around. I'd given up working full-time to raise my kids. I knew from the titter in the community and the ubiquitous soap operas on satellite television that karva chauth was coming. I casually announced to my mother-in-law that I'd join her in keeping the fast. The happiness on her face was a joy to behold. She hugged me and kissed me and gave me a thousand blessings. I almost felt ashamed that I'd revoked the tradition for all those years.
I wish I could say that keeping the fast has got easier. It hasn't. I still stumble and stagger through the day-long fast; however, I've learned to cherish the sisterhood of the women who keep it together; drawn together by our shared hunger; bonding when we all sit in a circle, dressed to the nines, listening to the narration of the Veeravati folk-tale, the rapt silence broken only by the clinking of glass bangles and the rhythmic tapping of the silver thalis as we pass them around.
DO I really believe that fasting for a day stretches my husband's life into infinity? I don't probe that anymore. I'm content in the belief that this ritual unites my family, and if it increases my husband's life by even a smidgeon, hey, he's the man I vowed to love and honor when I married him and have grown to appreciate more as he lovingly fathers my children and cooks me a good omelet in bed.