A Hungry Heart

During the Karwa Chauth ceremony, married women view the newly risen moon through a sieve.
During the Karwa Chauth ceremony, married women view the newly risen moon through a sieve. (Photosindia Photography / Veer)
By Anu Kumar
Sunday, October 21, 2007

I AM TRYING MIGHTILY TO RELAX AS I SIT IN THIS JET AT REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT, but the growls from my hungry stomach are nearly drowning out the sounds of takeoff. What is usually a routine flight to my firm's headquarters in Charlotte has already become a challenge. I close my eyes and try to focus on my breathing and loosen my muscles -- relaxation tricks I learned in yoga class. Maybe meditation can calm me enough to make it through the day.

I'm not nervous about potential gel bombs made out of toothpaste. And I normally enjoy these work trips. But today I'm afraid that my pangs of hunger will affect my job performance. I've been up since 5 a.m. to get to the airport, so I know there will be many tortured hours before I fly back to Washington for dinner at home. Yes, it's odd that I'm waiting so long to appease my stomach. And, no, it's not a commentary on the food in Charlotte (The pecan trout at Blue Restaurant is nothing short of heavenly). It's just that, well, I need to see my husband before I allow myself to eat.

I have some company: Several married friends are joining me in this 24-hour fast from moonrise to moonrise. It's one of the obligations of the Hindu festival of Karwa Chauth. And, if legend holds true, our daylong starvation will be rewarded with a powerful blessing: It will guard our husbands against an untimely demise and ensure their long lives.

It's an observance that some might find anachronistic, or even servile: For one day a year in the fall, wives from northern India are expected to sacrifice their nourishment for their husbands' longevity. It is only after she has seen the moon that a wife may eat her first bite of the day. For centuries, Karwa Chauth has been a time when women have come together, away from the men, to dress in their most beautiful saris and to pray and encourage one another to keep the fast. In my modern commemoration, however, my husband also dresses in Indian garments, and he and I gather with other couples after a food-free day to wait for the moon -- and our supper.

As with so many customs, this one began with a story: Shiva, a principal Hindu god, asked his wife, Parvati, to fast for him because he believed the sacrifice would guarantee his long life. Known for her devotion to her husband, Parvati agreed. The mischievous god Krishna then spread the story to humans, who took up the practice. Legends followed -- cautionary tales of women who succumbed to hunger and ate before seeing their husbands, who then got sick and died. One story tells of some brothers who feel sorry for their famished married sister and dupe her into believing that the moon is already out. In her haste to eat, their sister fails to confirm the moonrise before completing her prayers and having dinner. The next day, her husband falls fatally ill.

The myths are compelling, and Bollywood films have played up the romance of Karwa Chauth -- portraying young wives dressed in shimmering costumes, lighted by dreamy moon glow. Those glamorous images were part of my childhood in India -- and they're the inspiration for my own version of the holiday. I haven't bought into the idea that the mere act of my eating could affect my husband's mortality (I suspect that, in some relationships, wives would love to command that power). And my self-worth does not revolve around my being married. Yet I, too, wait longingly once a year with my friends for the moon to appear.

IN MY HUGE EXTENDED FAMILY, KARWA CHAUTH WAS THE HOLIDAY MOST TREASURED AMONG THE WOMEN -- more revered than the Hindu holidays of Diwali (festival of lights) or Holi (festival of colors), which were celebrated by all. Karwa Chauth was saved for only the lucky women who had found the precious commodity of a marital relationship. In traditional Indian communities, marriage bestows on women a status and security that unmarried, divorced or widowed women lack. And so, wives must nurture that relationship. A woman who faithfully observes Karwa Chauth, thus securing her husband's future, will reap the rewards of her marriage for many more years.

According to the Hindu calendar, the fast is observed on chauth, the fourth night after the full moon, in the month of Kartikka, which corresponds to sometime in October or November. In our household, that day was like no other. The married women took center stage -- shooing away the men and children, and setting aside most of their household duties. Even the widows kept their distance, fearful of bringing bad luck to the wives. I hardly saw my mother on that day. But I would sneak peeks at her and my aunts, and their mysterious preparations.

The women spent most of those hours readying the shrine area. One of the objects for the ritual is a clay pot called a karwa, which the women filled in sequence with spices, rice and leaves from a holy plant called the pipal tree. They made colored paste from vegetable powders to decorate the karwa and the walls and floor of the shrine with hieroglyphic descriptions of the holiday and explanations of why it was important to observe. I was amazed by how, despite their hunger pangs, these women were clearly enjoying themselves. They were cheerful as they worked, with the older wives passing on the traditions to the newly married. Only the youngest of the wives would lament the lack of food, while the veterans would tease them and encourage them to see their hunger as a badge of honor.

But the moment that most enchanted me came after sunset. As I peered from behind the doors, the women proceeded to the prayer room, candle flames dancing on their prayer plates, their gold-embroidered saris rustling, and their anklets and other jewelry jangling. I watched as they circled the shrine, carrying their plates filled with rice and dessert. The food for the feast was set out, and the scents were pure and strong: cumin, salt, curry leaves. The women prayed to Parvati and Lakshmi, goddesses revered as paragons of spousal devotion. Their chanting followed the rhythms of Hindu prayers, as, one by one, each new voice sang another part of the holiday story. Secreted behind the doors, I prayed that, because I was so close by, the goddesses' blessings would fall on me, too. Then the women would ring their bells to conclude the prayers. By that time, I was overwhelmed by the fantasy: the circling lights, the fragrant food and incense, the music of the chants and the jingle of the bells. Imagining my own future marriage, I couldn't wait for the day when I could join in.

After the prayers, the men joined the ceremony. My father and uncles followed their wives outside: Each woman held her plate toward the moon. She closed her eyes, then opened them to look at the moon through a sieve held in her other hand (some say the sieve is used to show respect to the gods by not directly viewing such a powerful symbol). Next, the wife threw rice, water and food toward the moon and closed her eyes again. She turned to her husband and opened her eyes to gaze upon his face through the sieve. She touched her husband's feet; he placed his hand on her head and blessed her. Then he held her by the shoulders and raised her up to feed her for the first time that day. For a little girl hidden from view, this scene brought more delight -- the chance to see real physical affection between her parents, something Indian couples rarely exhibited in front of others. The husbands were tender in feeding their wives. And the couples would playfully embrace. For those few moments, I sensed the love between a husband and wife.

WHEN I WAS 11, MY FAMILY MOVED TO NEW YORK. We lived with my paternal aunts that first year, and my mother continued to observe Karwa Chauth. Soon after, though, she dropped the custom. I learned later that she had never cared for the holiday and felt pressured by her mother-in-law to observe it. I was surprised, because I had assumed that my mother enjoyed participating, but she says that spending the day in isolation with the other wives was claustrophobic. She also was offended by the competition among the women over their holiday dress and food. In America, she realized, she was free to break the fast forever. My older sister, however, took up the practice when she married a man of northern Indian descent. She is more traditional, but she says that she, too, chose to observe to please her mother-in-law. She has found it difficult to resume the fast after her second pregnancy.

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