Kartik, a sacred month in the Hindu lunar calendar, is packed with more holidays than the average believer can realistically commemorate. The star of this story, however, is Karwa Chauth. Observing the holiday a few years ago with my family, I discovered that even without fanfare Karwa Chauth could pack in fireworks.
I should preface my tale with a clarification: “my family” here refers to myself, my wife Ami, and my elderly mother. After Ami and I got married, the three of us decided to try to live together – a 21stcentury suburban New Jersey incarnation of the traditional Hindu extended family. While such an arrangement raised eyebrows with some of my American friends (“You still live with your mom?”), it seemed to evoke approval from most of our Indian friends (“Oh, how sweet! Your mom lives with you.”). Either way, it just worked for us – Ami and Mom adored one another, and the three of us organically gelled into a household. Sure, we knew that it wasn’t for everyone, but we were quite happy.
Happy, that is, until Karwa Chauth hit.
To be fair, Karwa Chauth seems like an innocent enough celebration in theory. One of several holidays marking the autumn harvest, its name derives from a ritual involving a clay pot (karwa) on the fourth night (chauth) after the full moon. Precise origins of the holiday vary, but it is a festival in which married women fast for one day without food or water, believing that doing so will lengthen the lives of their husbands. Wives demonstrate their love and devotion to their spouses by willingly enduring austerity and self-sacrifice. According to popular legends surrounding the holiday, by the strength of a woman’s vow she could render even Yamaraja, the demigod of death, powerless. At moonrise, the wife (now decked out in finery, adorned with new jewelry, her hands and feet painted with mehandi) gazes at the moon – as a gesture of chastity and feminine shyness, she looks through a colander (or some other holed material) instead of directly. After this, she looks upon her husband, offers prayers on his behalf, and breaks the fast with water given by his hand.
The cynical may see strains of male chauvinism in a holiday that has women deprive themselves so that men can benefit, but many contemporary Hindu wives seem as committed to it as their ancestors were. And the vast commercialization of the holiday – from greeting cards to Karwa Chauth spa treatments – has given the tradition a contemporary, hip, and even romantic edge. Bollywood films have played a major role too, especially in popularizing the holiday among unmarried girls and dating couples.
In fact, Ami and I observed such a romantic version of Karwa Chauth when we were dating (and later when we were engaged). Separated by miles, she fasted for me while barely studying for college midterms; meanwhile, I pined for her, buried under Law School assignments. When moonrise came, she broke her fast with the chocolates I had mailed to her a few days before for this purpose, and we comforted each other over static-filled phone calls that lasted through the night.
My present story, however, finds us not in the starry-eyed days of courtship, but in the awkward early years of marriage. It is Karwa Chauth morning; it also happens to be Columbus Day, which means a day off from work. We sit at a breakfast table set for three, and I lazily thumb through the newest Time magazine and daydream about how to spend the day. Ami absent mindedly begins to pour herself a bowl of cereal, when Mom makes a declaration. Now that we are all settled in a home together, she tells us, it is time to observe the holiday properly.
Properly? Granted, neither Ami nor I were born in the motherland. But still, I like to think that we have been doing okay with Karwa Chauth. As a recovering Bollywood addict, I have seen so many schmaltzy depictions of the holiday on the silver screen that I can practically re-enact them word for word (and dance routine for dance routine). More importantly, as committed Hare Krishna devotees, both Ami and I know the secret of making any observance auspicious: chant a good Krishna kirtan, light up some high-grade incense, and end with a killer vegetarian feast. What more could one need?
Funny we should ask.
From the beginning, there are problems. Overcome with the urge to re-create the Hindu household of her youth, Mom begins to prescribe ritual act after ritual act. The kitchen is to be scrubbed clean, and clay pots filled with specific token ingredients are to be prepared. Certain dishes are to be cooked. Particular ingredients must be used; other ingredients are to be strictly avoided. Even Ami’s clothes must conform to the edicts of tradition. Mom fires off instructions to Ami faster than she can follow them, each one more specific and inflexible than the last. And each instruction adds to Ami’s growing annoyance with the whole affair. She is visibly resistant; her body language and speech betray that she resents being the target of this throwback to Vedic India.