The Very Chains That Bind Them

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!!!

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19 Responses to The Very Chains That Bind Them

  1. R's Mom says:

    LOL on that last bit..Jeez! thats so totally funny!!

    If the fasting is done because one WANTS to do it, its totally fine, but if its done if one HAS TO DO IT, thats when it becomes an issue no?

    • That’s actually the point, RM. Have you ever really heard a a woman say she fasts only because she HAS TO DO IT? No woman admits as much. The socio-cultural forces that make her fast, also make her defend it.

  2. Amit says:

    I have seen girls keeping fast for their boyfriends. It basically shows that a brain cannot be sharpened with education. My wife keeps the fast as well but I have made it very clear to her that I do not like it a bit. She likes keeping the fast and knows that it is just a tradition and nothing more and we have left it at that. 🙂

  3. Pattu says:

    Well said!

    We in the south do not understand this craze , specially after DDLJ, but what irked me was one of my friends.
    She proudly announced to us , the day after KC, that even her small grand daughter insisted on keeping fast, because she wanted to get a good husband!!!( Achcha Dulha milne ke liye). I scowled at her. She got angry and defended it by saying ” why not?” I was speechless; here is a supposed to be forward thinking lady.. making her grand daughter fast at age 6, and announce it with glee.. It is amazing.

  4. Jas says:

    “there is a certain comfort in conformism.’ i think this is exactly what women fast for now. I must admit I kept it when I first got married though it is not in my tradition. May be it was the same comfort I was seeking. But then I questioned myself and realized this was not what I wanted to do.

  5. Loved the last line, thanks for reminding me of one of my all time favorite heroes 🙂
    Jokes apart, these vraths for the male folk is one of the most ridiculous things. So, does it mean it is ok if their wives do not have a long life? Well, they can get a second, third or fourth one of their choice, I guess!
    As for the 6 year old, I am not surprised. I know of women who have started saving gold for their daughter’s wedding even before they are born. Is it any wonder they grow up believing getting married is the ultimate ain of their lives?

    • Rhett Butler is one of my favourite heroes too 🙂

      Yep, I too have suspected that the reason it is considered desirable for wives to die early is that it might clear the way for the men to get married all over again to a younger woman :-/

      • biwo says:

        That’s doesn’t hold true anymore. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, it appears that middle-class men in my community are finding that women are getting pickier by the day. The marriage market has apparently evened a bit, with women’s preferences also evening the skew.
        Many of my male cousins complain that women these days are fussy, (meaning that they don’t kiss the men’s feet the moment a proposal is sent and the man expresses an interest).

        Serves men right — many of them have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. 😉

      • Hi Biwo!!! Long time no see 🙂

        Ah yes, I keep hearing about picky, fussy women from the men in my community too and I have to say that such talk warms the cockles of my heart :-). but I wonder if it represents anything more than the general tendency of Indian men to find faults with/ crib about women. I mean, finding a suitable groom through the arranged marriage route continues to be as tall an order as it used to be. Women may have become pickier but even if it is so, they often find the groom’s side acting high and mighty the moment they make a choice. What frustrates me most is the fact that dowries are getting showier and heftier–for instance, even lower middle class families now insist on gifting a car to their daughters. I am becoming increasingly convinced that there is no way to reform the hopelessly skewed arranged marriage market 😦

  6. Fem says:

    I hate, hate, HATE this ritual. Any mention of it brings me out in rashes. I honestly don’t see the romanticism of this. WTF!!!! I am getting angry just typing this, so I am going to go calm down. Grrr!

    • I too don’t find anything remotely romantic about karvachauth. How terrible that young educated girls should be buying into such idiotic ideas and fasting for their boyfriends as a show of commitment!!

  7. Ashwathy says:

    I have honestly found no meaning in starving yourself for someone else’s good. (Except as a detox for the system, but that can be done as a part of a diet also, not just as a vrath!!) Fortunately got married to a hubby who cares two hoots for these things. 🙂 All is well that ends well…lol.

    • You know Ash, many women do try to give the detox angle to it–at which I ask them why it is just the women who want to benefit from the detoxing effects of fasts. How come men don’t care for those same benefits? This earns me a glare from them 😀

      Like you, I too am fortunate that way 🙂

  8. Smitha says:

    ‘How closely women clutch the very chains that bind them!!!’ – That is so very true!

    I used to have romantic notions of Karva chauth too – long time ago, before I got married, but somewhere down the line, ended up wising up to the reality. Both husband and I are totally not ritualistic, so I never fasted or anything, but the way I’ve seen the festival gain avid followers(even among people who did not have it as part of their tradition), makes me believe in Rhett Butler’s quote entirely.
    As you say, it is perfectly fine if people genuinely did it because they wanted to. More often than not, it is the external factors that make people follow the tradition.

    • Indeed. I am so dismayed by the favour Karvachauth has found even in quarters where it wasn’t observed previously. I totally fail to see anything romantic about it.

      Actually, every time I hear women say they do it because they genuinely want to, I am reminded of those women who vociferously advocate the burka and swear by their right to wear it. Most of the time women are reluctant to acknowledge those external factors you mention that make them follow regressive traditions.

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