Sometime in the late nineties, when I was in college, there was this funny Bollywood song with a punchline that went,”It happens only in India!” A rather silly song really but it has stayed with me all these years. There are just too many things that happen only in India, and all of them remind me of this song!
Across much of India there is a tradition of women fasting/ praying for the well-being of their menfolk. If it is the much hyped Karvachauth in the north, it is the Teej in the eastern parts. I am sure other parts of the country have their own regional fasts which women must observe. Now, most of the world is patriarchal to a greater or lesser degree but Indian society trumps all others by being the only one which makes its women fast for the well-being of its men. Yep, it happens only in India.
Husbands are not the only beneficiaries of these fasts observed by women (though they are definitely the major ones). In UP and Bihar mothers of sons perform the Jitia/Jiutia fast for the long life of their sons. In parts of West Bengal sisters fast for the long life of their brothers. I actually wonder why, while they were at it, nobody thought of making daughters fast for the long life of their fathers too!!
Gender-based fasting is a very in-your-face symbol of female oppression. It sets in sharp relief the value attached to the male life in contrast to the disposability of the famale life. [On a related note, some of my older and more traditional relatives are given to blessing married young women with a standard ‘Saubhagyawati bhavah’. It makes me cringe because it in effect means, may you die before your husband does! Now I don’t really mind dying before my husband if I have to, and in any case I or anyone else would have little say in the matter, but I do mind these elders openly expressing such a hope!]
These fasts probably originated in times when the death of a husband may have meant a fate worse than death. It can be argued that the women fasting for their husbands’ lives in those days were actually fasting more for their own well-being than their husbands’. Point conceded. But what do you make of modern, well-educated, economically very secure women undertaking these fasts?
I have spoken to many friends who fast on karvachauth, and most of them have initially insisted they do it because they believe in it at some level. Believe in what? That their observing fasts would help their husbands live longer? Really? Ultimately many of them admitted to doing it because it was the done thing–they had seen everyone around them doing it since as long as they remembered and there is a certain comfort in conformism. Nobody wants to be branded a rebel or worse. And besides, there were tangible benefits too, as one friend pointed out, tongue firmly in cheek, referring to the practice of men showering gifts on their fasting wives. What is a few hours of dressing up and going hungry if it can get you diamonds and your husband’s gratitude as compensation. Not a bad bargain eh?
This gifting business is largely a recent development, I am told, and no doubt a product of the consumerist revolution sweeping India. It possibly also signifies that the modern Indian male feels guilty about his wife having to go without food and water the entire day needlessly, and assuages his guilt by spending on gifts for his wife. Some of them even fast along with their wives in a show of solidarity( and draw sniggers from everyone around them for their pains).
These developments, I am sure, also owe themselves in part to the romanticization of karvachauth in Hindi movies like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Baghbaan.
Which brings me to what triggered this post. While I understand somewhat that married women fast because they cannot summon the courage to say no, what I do not understand and actually find alarming is the recent trend I have observed of unmarried girls fasting for their boyfriends. A cousin who lives in a girls’ hostel was telling me the other day how on karvachauth some of her friends ran up the stairs to the terrace in the evening , cellphones in hand, and let out a whoop of joy on seeing the moon, covered their heads with a chunri (she said they looked really funny, clad in shorts and tees with a chunri on their heads) and called their boyfriends, making a big show of breaking their fasts. Arrrghh!!
Sigh, what does one make of this!! Reminds me of the immortal words of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind– How closely women clutch the very chains that bind them!!!