In the SCMP: How tradition can make a meal of feminist ideals

South China Morning Post

As a young child, the Indian festival of Karva Chauth was something like a competitive sport. After the guilt of watching my mother go without food all day, it became a race against hunger to help her find the moon right after the official moonrise so she could finally break her fast. But on Karva Chauth, the moon had a nasty habit of getting stuck behind a cloud or building.

Karva Chauth is a north Indian festival during which married women fast for the well-being of their husbands. Observed during the month of Kartik, on the fourth day of the waning moon (which generally falls in October), the festival was based on camaraderie between married women in the community at a time when most of that society lived in villages. Today it is a ritual of north Indian women all over the world and a bonding experience for mothers- and daughters-in-law.

By the time I was a teenager, the ritual had struck my feminist chord. There was no way I could condone – much less take part in – any tradition that catered to a male-dominated society.

So when, shortly after my wedding, my mother-in-law sent a series of faxed instructions for the fasting ritual, I thought: “She’s got to be kidding!” The last thing I needed was a battle with my mother-in-law about my feminist ideals.

She wasn’t kidding, but she was empathetic. “P.S. I understand times have changed so please do not be obliged to follow this ritual if you do not feel like it.” What a thoroughly reasonable woman. I was delighted to put an end to it.

Until my own not-so-reasonable mother interjected.

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“I have had enough of your rebellious ways,” she grunted down the phone line from Mumbai to Tokyo, where we were living. “As a married lady, you had better toe the line. That means you will do as your mother-in-law has requested and you will fast for your husband.”

I had to defend my cause. “But she sent a postscript!”

“Postscripts are nothing but after-thoughts. Was your decision to marry your husband the main plan or a postscript?”

No prizes for guessing who calls the shots in our family.

I was not sure whether my husband would be thrilled I had decided to renounce my feminist ideals to fast for his long life or whether he would be disgusted that my mother convinced me to do it. It was best not to reveal the truth.

His response was unexpected. “Well if you are going to fast for my long life, then I sure as hell will keep you company and fast for your long life, too.”

I was touched. Wow, this is what they mean by an ideal husband. I will never forget how we spent the day with no food or water, then played hide-and-seek with the moon that evening while trying to contain our hunger-spurred crabbiness.

But how long would it last?

Alas, the next year, when I suggested the idea of Karva Chauth once again, my dearest had already decided that he was done with the ritual. “You should abstain from this old-fashioned nonsense. Let’s celebrate life by going out for a French meal instead.”

“Oh, yeah, and face the wrath of your mother?” I replied, knowing the wrath I feared was that of my own mother.

“My mother is a progressive lady,” he retorted. He was right.

No worries.

This year Karva Chauth fell on October 15. So it was the 16th year I performed the Karva Chauth fast. A few days before the festival, we talked about it.

“Awesome! Do we get to eat mooncakes?” asked my nine-year-old son, obviously caught in a cross-cultural culinary dream.

My 13-year-old daughter perked up at what I thought was the mention of mooncakes. “Can I fast with you, too?”

“How could you say such a thing?” I yelled. “You are only a child and you are buying into this stuff?”

There she was … my latent feminism had decided to come out of the closet.

My daughter looked at me as though I were a mare that had lost control. “Whoa, Mum, take a chill pill already. I was just thinking it would be good discipline to sacrifice food for a day.”

“If you want discipline, focus on getting your homework in on time!”

“Mum, are you saying that performing Karva Chauth has taken away your identity?” she asked with a new level of intrigue in her voice.

Not at all! How could I explain to her that each decision you make in life is a step towards shaping and defining your identity, but that it must be made at the right time?

Relationships are challenging enough without complicating things further with tradition and ideals. How was I to explain my views on life, feminism and Karva Chauth to my darling daughter? I wanted her to have the right dose of feminism, yet be traditional enough to consider doing Karva Chauth at the appropriate time. I wanted her to learn this as I had, but then, learning is a different experience for each of us – even mother and daughter.

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2 Responses to In the SCMP: How tradition can make a meal of feminist ideals

  1. Nainaa says:

    Dear Reenita,

    I loved your blog and find myself in a very similar situation. I am 24 years old, unmarried, but have already been branded a rebel in the family for dissing the tradition on grounds of my feminist ideals. So my question to you is, what finally made you continue the fast for 16 years despite your strong opposition to the tradition?

    Many thanks!
    Nainaa

    • admin says:

      Hi Nainaa,

      It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for writing in.

      It’s not so much an “opposition” to the tradition that irked me when I was younger, as much as the fact that it didn’t make sense to me. I grew up watching the women in my family follow this tradition but could not justify how it might help their husbands live longer. In retrospect, I think that Karva Chauth is less about your husband and more about female bonding, especially with your mother-in-law which a relationship that tends to be strained just by definition. My own mother-in-law never did require me to follow the tradition but I know that my doing so is something that deep down inside she appreciates. And if that makes for one less spoke in the wheel then I figure it’s worth a lifetime. This is the one piece of advice my own mother gave me that I did not rebel against!

      Also, I figure there are too many out there who waft and waver when it comes to tradition (whatever the tradition might be), doing things one year and not the other. But then that is the very antithesis of “tradition.” I think I either you do it or you don’t.

      I hope this was helpful.

      Best,

      Reenita

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