I happened to be at a meeting over a five-star lunch on Karva Chauth, the day that some Hindu women fast for the protection and well being of their husbands.
I said no.
I declined, shaking my head.
The moppy-haired man sitting across from me couldn’t take it anymore. “What is this nonsense? Isn’t it the 21st century?”
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s why my husband is doing it too.”
He still acted annoyed, as did many women slightly older than me encountered throughout the day. Their sentiment reflected that judgemental strand of feminism, passed from one generation to the next: We did not work so hard so you’d throw it all away—and for a husband!
So get them to starve, too, I say.
These allegedly flat-world times are altering our Indian landscape by the minute. It should come as no surprise that religion and ritual have become security blankets and authenticity badges for many in my generation, and even more so for those behind us. In my case, I married into a Punjabi family that has been celebrating the holiday for as long as anyone can remember. But I doubt any of my husband’s ancestors, like him, saw their wives sacrificing food and decided to join in the name of mutual love, protection and equality. (Okay, so there was a little bit of cajoling from the wife, along with company from other temporarily henpecked cousin-brothers and brothers-in-law.)
I was exempt from my first two fasts as a married woman—probably among the few times being pregnant or nursing came in handy. During the festival season in the fall of 2005, I happened to be reporting in Gurgaon at the India office of Convergys Corp., the world’s largest call centre operator. Hordes of women lined up to get a look at the moon, and pulled out pictures of their husbands before touching milk and water, then something sweet, to their lips. A few days later, I was present again for the fiercest rangoli (the process of arranging flowers into shapes and patterns) competition I have ever seen. Finally came Diwali night, which was again celebrated with a puja inside and pop and punk from a deejay outside.
One could point out, as I did in a story for an American newspaper, the dichotomy of the call centre workers interacting with the US and the UK on the phones even while their “Indianness” remained intact. Now, after living in India for almost a year, I’d say the Western exposure is precisely why they are asserting their said native identity even harder.
Thus, it’s not your imagination that with each passing year, the need to get rituals in the festival season “right” strengthens; besides, the commercialism and consumerism certainly doesn’t hurt those two booming institutions of worship in the new India —religion and retail. In many ways, Indians are now experiencing what us Non Resident Indians (trying our hardest to prove we are the opposite of Not Really Indian) have known for some time: confronted with foreign influences, sometimes you seek out the little pockets of familiarity and cling, master and pontificate. And that is why your American cousins can perform Bharatanatyam and recite dialogues from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and tell you precisely when cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni broke his own record. In the US alone, more than 150 temples serve an estimated Hindu population of 1.2 million—with dozens more planned.
Sadly, the turn towards religion also can ignite unhealthy passions. This year’s Karva Chauth, named because it is celebrated four days after the full moon, also fell four days after another big news event in India: the Tehelka expose of the planning, plotting and official sanction of the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. As soon as I saw the report, I wondered if chief minister Narendra Modi’s re-election bid had just been clinched.
What does this have to do with Karva Chauth? Everything, actually.
Indians can react to their newfound place in the global world in a few ways —regardless, the source of support for a harmless holiday and a harmful politician remains the same. At one extreme is losing who we are completely, scoffing at remnants of the old. At the other is becoming so absorbed in our assertion and definition of India that we exclude everyone—and ultimately ourselves. Somewhere in between is the hope we can bow to tradition yet blend progress, as the countless couples who fasted together this past week can attest.
How and why and whether we engage religion in our daily life has come to matter more than ever. We are not grappling openly enough with gestures and philosophies we have taken for granted for centuries, touching feet to our division of labour.
After all, there’s ritual and then there’s reality.
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