2016-06-30

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.

Exiled from the kitchen, I analyze the tension from a sociological point of view. Mom seems bent on preserving the traditions she was raised with, confident that they are to be cherished, even if she can’t articulate the exact meaning behind each ritual or rite. It is enough for her that they exist, that they are gifts that have been passed down to her, and that immigrating to the United States has not rendered her incapable of receiving them and passing them along herself.

Growing up a Hindu kid in America, Ami spent much time answering questions about her faith – and asking more than a few of her own. For her, ritual and tradition are the containers within which the substance is stored. Without understanding the meaning behind the act, adherence to the ritual is at best blind following, at worst just the type of embarrassing superstitions she was accused of believing in as a child.

“What does this signify?” Ami asks now, unable to curb her pragmatic curiosity (and whining). “Why do we have to do it this way? Why does it matter?”

“What do you mean, why?” Mom answers, as if the question itself is an assault on the Hindu tradition she has carried with her from India almost forty years before. “This is the way we do it. This is the way my mother taught it to me.”

Invoking the authority of my departed grandmother chills any further questions, and leaves Ami with little to do but quietly and begrudgingly follow along.

And so I watch in helpless horror, as my mother and my wife grow farther apart from one another, each turning into a caricature of herself. Mom, easily the most understanding, progressive, and empathic Hindu matriarch I know, inexplicably begins to demand exacting adherence to a seemingly arbitrary set of rules that only she is privy to. No, the cashews couldn’t just be replaced with almonds, she states with a conviction that leads one to believe that the incorrect choice of nut could eradicate the entire Hindu race.

For her part, Ami – whose qualities of forbearance, helpfulness, and cooperative attitude are the stuff that hopeful mothers-in-law fill matrimonial ads with – seems poised for revolution. She questions every rule and rolls her eyes at every ritual. When she isn’t challenging the practicality of following century-old mandates, she simply complains—quietly but bitterly—about having to be the one starving herself.

My feeble attempts to ease the tension seem only to compound the problem. Mom vetoes my idea (okay, okay, so I borrowed it from another Bollywood flick) to subject myself to a sympathy fast alongside Ami. In fact, Mom is downright insistent that – despite what the Hindi film industry may suggest I do – declining the hearty lunch she has prepared for me is simply not an option. Ami corners me on my way to the dining table and flashes me a sarcastic smile.

“Gee, I guess Hindu husbands aren’t as concerned about their wives long life, huh?”

As the day wears on, my despondency grows. Ami seems more and more convinced that this day – a day that we once looked at as an observance of our own Hindu-American Valentine’s Day – has been transformed into a painful and cruel austerity to be endured and resentfully survived. Mom seems hopelessly unaware of her daughter-in-law’s plight, consumed with pulling off the mother of all Karwa Chauth observances.

By the arrival of late afternoon, Ami announces that she has a headache, and retreats to the comforts of a darkened bedroom. Immediately, I know that it is not the mere absence of food that has reduced her to this state – I’ve seen Ami fast for a number of the other Hindu holidays we observed, and she observed the ekadasi fast of our Vaishnava denomination faithfully twice every month. I also know that, as strong a front she puts up, she needs me there. I knock on the door and, still a bit shell shocked from my pre-lunch encounter with her, enter apprehensively.

“How are you doing?” I ask, sitting at the edge of the bed.

“Not too great.” Her voice is little more than a whisper, and I can tell that she’s been crying. “It’s so hard.”

I resist the temptation to tell her I understand, and instead just hold on to her hand.
“Why do things have to change so much?” she asks.

I think of all the things I had been prepared to say to her. Things about tradition, and being patient, and trying to see things through someone else’s eyes. But faced with her simple question, I can only answer truthfully.

“I don’t know.”

“You must think I’m pretty horrible,” she says looking away.

For the first time that day, I realize that beneath the resentment and annoyance and even the hunger, there is a little girl trying desperately to be a good wife, a good daughter-in-law, even a good Hindu.

“I think you’re pretty wonderful. And I know that you’re trying your best.”

I cradle her head in my lap and we recount the highlights from each of the makeshift Karwa Chauth observances we’ve shared over the years.

“Tonight, when you break the fast, don’t eat too much at dinner,” I whisper in her ear, “I have a surprise for you.”

I’m not sure if she’s heard, because when I look down, she is already fast asleep.

* * *

When I walk into the kitchen, Mom is sitting at the breakfast nook, her hands still covered in cooking flour, trying to remember the intricacies of the religious story that she is supposed to recite to Ami at moonrise.

“Can we talk?” I ask, cautiously pulling up a stool.

“Huh? Sure, beta,” she answers, obviously distracted, “I’m just trying to figure this story out. It has been a while.”

“Mom, we know that you mean well, and that you really care about celebrating this festival right,” I begin nervously, “But it’s really hard for Ami to do things like this without understanding the reasons why. You know, we want to understand the significance behind all the rituals, and be able to adjust stuff when we need to and when it makes sense. We want to be able to do things in our own way, and not feel…”

My mother stares vacantly over my head, and silently mouths the words to a story that she has heard over and over again but has never bothered to write down.

“Mom! Are you even listening to me?”

“Sorry, beta. It’s just this story… I can’t seem to remember it.” She closes her eyes tight as if digging through her memory banks for one last attempt, and finally opens them again. I am not totally prepared for what comes next. “Oh, forget it. Who cares, anyway?”

“Excuse me?”

“What’s the big deal? Nobody even knows the whole thing anyway, and I’m not even sure if I’m doing half of these things the right way to begin with.” She wipes her hand on her forehead, leaving a faint white streak on her olive-colored skin. Somehow, suddenly she looks both very old, and very beautiful to me.

“I mean the important thing is not all these little details. The important thing is that we’re trying our best.” She nods her head towards the bedroom where Ami lays napping. “We’re all trying our best.”

* * *

An hour and a half before moonrise, I drop Mom and Ami off at the temple to gather with some of the other ladies from the community. With no time to spare, I speed off to take care of my own special errand for the evening. By the time I return, a hazy white moon is partially visible in the sky.

Back at home, we clumsily navigate through a series of rituals, aware of our shortcomings but more relaxed than we have been all day. Mom enlists the help of my favorite aunt, and together they manage to tag-team a spirited (and improvised) re-telling of the story of the first Karwa Chauth. Finally, the culmination: dressed in a beautiful silk sari, her arms tinkling with a row of bracelets, Ami holds a strainer up to the October sky and peers through it to gaze at the glowing orb. Then, following Mom’s gentle nudging, she slowly turns the strainer down and glimpses through it at me. The ritual almost complete, I hold a glass of water to her lips and give her the first nourishment of what has proved a testing day for her.

The fasting is officially over, and we all gather around the table for a traditional Punjabi dinner. True to her word, Ami nibbles politely on each preparation, but doesn’t fill up. Within a few minutes, we excuse ourselves from the intimate family gathering, citing previously made plans. Forgiving the lame excuse, Mom lets us off the hook with a knowing wink and a hug.

None of us says it, but I can sense that in this simple moment three people living in the same house have started to become a family. And without speaking it, we come to see that we can honor old traditions, even while we learn to give one another the time and space to create some new ones of our own.

Ami and I arrive at the Brooklyn promenade thirty minutes later. We sit huddled on a park bench along the expansive boardwalk, a front row seat to the most breathtaking view of the New York City skyline either of us has ever seen. In our laps: veggie burgers and soy milk shakes that I picked up from our favorite vegan restaurant earlier in the evening. We solemnly offer the Americanized feast on a mental altar, and chant a heartfelt prayer of thanks – for the food, for the day, for each other. And even though she has already eaten, I know that Ami has waited until now to actually break her fast. I hold a napkin to her chin as she takes her first bite. Of course, sitting in the trunk of my car has left the burgers cold and the shakes warm; no matter—in this instant, they are both delicious.

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