When we were children, there was a festival that came around this time of the year. Usually between late September and early October.
Mothers and fathers prepared for this holiday by buying all the seasonal vegetables and fruits. In addition, there were three kinds of desserts. One made at home, usually faniyan kheer, an alternative version of the classic Indian rice pudding, and two were bought from the local Halwai—Peshawar Sweets.
Mom and Dad woke up early on the day of the festival. Mom had half-prepared a few dishes already, the night before. Before six in the morning, we were woken up, and asked to bathe before we could join the feast that was prepared.
Dad gently woke Papaji, our grandfather, and asked him to join us.
‘Sargi is ready!’
He’d freshen up and join us.
It was a complete meal —and while we could eat it all day, Mom was to eat and drink only before sunrise, and after seeing the moon that evening. And yet, that morning ritual was turned into a family feast every year for all at home. A special treat for this festival was faniyan—the vermicelli kheer. This special vermicielli, made in desi ghee, was sold only during this festival, so we all looked forward to it.
The preparation of the food was supposed to be done by married women in the family, meaning my grandmother and my mother. But unfortunately, my father had lost his mother when he was a child, and my mother had never met her mother in law. So both my mother and father took over the organization of the festival. For the rest of the two meals, mom would cook a large amount of rice, even though we are mainly wheat eaters, to accompany dal and dahi, so that she could take a break from the cooking, rest, and/or have fun with her friends. For about twelve hours, that day she fasted. But those twelve hours were a celebration of life and family. Other than being good for health, that fasting day for women in our neighborhood was spent almost as a ‘women’s day out’. Those who stayed at home had certain activities planned during the day, those who were working joined in the festivities and fun of the evening.
Women of the neighborhood usually went for a movie. When VCRs, and later DVDs arrived, women got together and watched two movies at a go, before getting ready for the evening party.
The evening party was something we children looked forward to. All the aunties of the neighborhood draped themselves in red and gold, symbolic of life and prosperity, most likely something they got married in. They did add the latest accessories, bought after several visits to markets close and afar. But it was the fact that our slightly plump and very blushing aunties dressed in their wedding saree/lehnga that made it so special. On the day of the festival, many women got their hair done, and almost everyone put henna in their hands the day before. So in essence, the preparations started with the anticipation of the day, adding joy to the women’s lives for days if not weeks even before the day arrived.
And that evening of the actual celebration, women of all ages became brides again, as they proudly exhibited their joy at being a part of the community, being a married woman, a mother, and a daughter-in-law. Women consciously (and/or subconsciously) acknowledged and participated in the festival that affirmed their role as a life giver, sustainer of community and tradition.
The festival was a confirmation of family and the joys it brought to all those lucky to have one. Very aware that families came with their issues, women also understood that family provided them both emotional support, and a way to contribute towards society, with or without gainful employment. While many of the women in the neighborhood were working women, their biggest contribution to the neighborhood was raising us collectively. They were the aunties, who were sometimes called Chachis and Maamis, even when we were not related to them. All of us grew up under their watchful eyes, listening to their wisdom, eating meals cooked by them, and sometimes being helped with our homeworks. They were a part of our growing up, sometimes by handing-down used textbooks from their children, if they were older than us, and other times by sharing memories, that even the ones our parents may have forgotten, and bringing us some forgotten stories from our childhood.
Their biggest influence on us was that all of us went to pursue higher education, never got into trouble, and learnt to respect our elders. These women, who celebrated womanhood, by revering the families they were married into, were our role models. That family life can be filled with extreme work, much sacrifice—both for men and women, does not take away from the fact that at the most basic level, family provides security for the young, who are the foundation of any country’s future.
This particular festival was much more than a mere ‘fasting day’, it was a celebration of these women. Refraining from food and water for twelve hours was undertaken consciously, knowing that the day was an acknowledgement of several sacred bonds, and not just between a husband and wife, as is often portrayed.
One of many purposes of festivals is to break the monotony of everyday life. This half a day fast for the women became a nearly two-day celebration—one in anticipation and preparation, and the day of celebration.
The new brides in the neighborhood got all the attention. They were put at the center of the circle that the women formed during telling of the story related to the festival, and welcomed them into the neighborhood (including kitties and clubs).
When my mother returned from the celebration, she offered the thali filled with sweets and home made goodies to my grandfather, who always gave his blessings to my parents for a long and healthy married life, and returned all the offerings back to her, including the money. Some years the offering would also include a piece of clothing for him, which he touched with his forehead and accepted graciously. The offerings that women made to their in-laws are the same as the felicitations bestowed upon a head of an institution, who initiated a process that lead to many becoming a part of a community.
For women, it was a way of thanking their in-laws for creating a family they could be a part of. For it was through the family that the world became meaningful. Children were born and raised, allowing women to exercise their maternal instincts, and many times it was due to their in-laws that they could continue their careers since they took charge of looking after the children when their parents were at work. The elders were acknowledged and valued. Wonder if that added to a sense of significance for many elderly in our community? Otherwise in so many cultures the older generation is forgotten and often suffers the negative emotional consequences of feeling irrelevant, once the children are grown up. Karva Chauth provided an opportunity to express appreciation towards the in-laws, and added a link of gratitude and love between two generations.
For us, the festival meant good food, and seeing our mother dressed up like a bride again. We would fuss over her, get her flowers for her hair, and pester her to buy new shiny bangles to match her saree.
Later on the same day women would gather again, with a sieve and a glass of water in their hands, trying to steal a sight of moon. The first one to see the moon would inform others on the phone. Some women would have to visit their neighbors because the moon was not visible from their house.
The sad part is that men did not have a day like that, where they could honor the feminine and indulge in a day of dressing up and male bonding. May be that is why many of them fervently bow to the Goddess only a few days before this festival –as a way of saying ‘you fast for us, and we honor you, there are no men without you Devis!’
Around this time, people of a certain persuasion, who have been taught to see everything from the lens of oppression, start to talk about why ‘only women’ and ‘not men’. There are several answers and arguments, but taking the discussion about the festival, in that direction is reducing the joy and happiness that the day sprinkles on families, it is to take away from the livelihood of mehndi artists, who make extra money during this season, it is to hurt the shops that sell everything from jewelry to sweets around this time. But most importantly, it is to say that we must do away with this one day, when women break away from the quotidian and slip into outfits that make them feel like queens—to be replaced with what?
Continuing the monotony of everyday life? Or celebrating ‘modern’ festivals that do not acknowledge the fact that our lives are always intertwined with others (I have met women who forgo taking antibiotics when sick because they are planning to go clubbing with friends— choice/stupidity/peer pressure/social oppression?). Today, many women observing the fast do partake a snack and a cup of tea during the day, often urged by their in-laws to do so. And, many men fast along with women.
But to turn the day into a gender war, and focus only on questions such as ‘who and why’—while ignoring the cheer it brings, is what is called ‘framing’, when only one aspect is focused on and the other overlooked.
This Karva Chauth, allow the women freedom to celebrate, honor those who are brave enough to celebrate it even when ridiculed, and recognize that Karva Chauth though seen only through the act of women fasting for their husbands’ long life, by the naysayers, is actually a celebration of life, of families and the beautiful bond of commitment between a man and a woman.