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A Hungry Heart
Tradition says if a wife eats before moonrise during Karwa Chauth, her husband may die. Not that any of these modern, professional women believe that, but still...

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.

As I became an adult, I still treasured the memories of Karwa Chauth. But I began to feel conflicted, too. I was in college -- emboldened to reassess old beliefs and assumptions -- when I first questioned the servility implied by this holiday. Indian women have a reputation for submission to their husbands as it is, and this tradition demands that women go so far as to sacrifice their physical nourishment. I was caught between my commitment to women's equality and my girlhood fantasy. In one vision, I was among those women shattering stereotypes and demanding their rightful place in the world. In another, I was a happily married princess dressed in silk and jewels for the love of her husband.

The girlhood fantasy won out: I keep the fast and celebrate the rituals of Karwa Chauth. But so did feminism: When I wed, I chose a marriage of equals.

I met my future husband, an ethnic Indian, in high school in 1990. I may have mentioned to him my childhood infatuation with Karwa Chauth, but he is from the West Indies and had never heard of the festival. When we married, we had already spent years pursuing ambitious careers and a more modern way of life. At home, he is an amateur chef and calls the kitchen his domain; I'm the resident handywoman. My husband was baffled, then, when I told him before our first anniversary that I wanted to keep the fast. First, there was denial: You couldn't possibly go that long without eating. Next came irritation: Why are you doing this? You don't have to follow this custom. I don't think you should follow it! Then, finally, acceptance: Hmm, this could be cleansing for our digestive systems, said the amateur chef. Can I join in?

And so, as I sit here on a US Airways flight to Charlotte, I find myself reflecting on my reasons for fasting. Why didn't I line up at the airport breakfast bar and order an Egg McMuffin like everyone else, so I could be free to fret only about my PowerPoint presentation, this infernal turbulence and the suffocating perfume of the passenger next to me? No one is forcing me to carry out this ritual. I don't belong to a clique of Indian women who would chide me for not following it. Still, here I am listening to my noisy stomach when I am so far from India. Yet, I realize, that's just it: I am so far from India. And no memory of India burns more brightly for me than Karwa Chauth.

THE YEAR WE MARRIED, MY HUSBAND AND I MOVED TO WASHINGTON FROM NEW YORK. It was an unfamiliar city, but one that also celebrated a bounty of ethnic cultures. I missed my own. Back in New York, I had my family to help me feel connected to my heritage, but here I knew no one. So I decided to seek out friends of Indian background and to try to persuade the married women to dress in their saris and wait for the moon. Some rejected it as an antiquated, sexist tradition. But that first year, I found five women, each either Indian or married to an Indian, willing to fast. In the seven years since, our observance has grown to include eight or nine couples.

It hasn't been easy. The willpower required to hold out for 24 hours has surprised me. To help me forget my hunger, I usually dive into a marathon of meetings. I don't discuss my fasting much at work because I don't want sympathy. One year, when a senior executive suddenly asked me to lunch on the holiday, I agonized before saying no. I kicked myself all day. I had been eager for face time with him so I could share some of my ideas. I haven't had a chance to lunch with him since.

But the pull of the festival is too strong for me to stop. Each Karwa Chauth, my friends and I rush from work to my home, to conjure some holiday charm. The women put on their wedding saris and decorate the prayer area (the fireplace hearth is our shrine) with incense, candles, posters and statues of goddesses. We improvise: The karwa is a copper pot instead of a clay one. We don't have leaves from the pipal tree. And we omit some of the ingredients on our plates and in the pot. But my aunts aren't around to tsk, and no one is the wiser.

My husband has fasted from the start, and other husbands have eventually followed -- perhaps feeling social pressure in an ironic reversal of roles. But the men keep their distance, and the shrine remains the women's domain. In the candlelight, our dresses rustling, we chant in Hindi, carry our personal plates to the hearth and pray. Afterward, the couples chat and distract one another as we await the moon, which usually appears about 8 or 9 p.m. One year, a cloudy night had us in panic. We waited until 10 before I called some East Coast rela-tives to ask if they could see the moon. No, the clouds were everywhere. Starving and grumpy, I was frantic at the thought of eating too early and sabotaging my husband's health -- a concern I would normally find absurd. We finally thought to consult the moon calendar; it showed that the orb, by then more precious to us than diamonds, had been out for an hour.

In our back yard, the moon ritual is performed as it was so long ago: the plates, the rice, the sieve (in our case, a metal colander), the touching of the feet and the offering of the first bite -- the sweetest bite one can imagine. Then we break our fast with a simple buffet cooked by the husbands. There is no alcohol, but the party is joyful. Eating after 24 hours of fasting can make you deliriously happy.

As for my once-bewildered husband, he's now an eager participant. He finds it romantic that I dress up just for him. He also dresses up, wearing his Indian kurta and jeans (he has his limits) on that evening just for me. I'm charmed that he also fasts. He says that if there is any truth to this sacrifice, it would be nice if we were both alive together.

This coming Karwa Chauth, October 29, I will be the new mother of a baby daughter. She has been born in America, a generation removed from her mother's India. As she grows, I'll teach her our beliefs and traditions, but there will be at least one difference: On the most magical night of the year, my little girl won't be peeking around corners, hoping that somehow she will also receive the goddesses' blessings. Instead, she'll be standing with me, allowed to sing and pray and be dazzled by the moon. Still, I wonder: Can this night ever cast quite the thrill for her that it did for me -- when I would spy on that forbidden scene? The shiver of excitement of those long-ago days, I know now, is likely gone forever.

Anu Kumar, a vice president of marketing with Bank of America, lives in Bethesda. She can be reached at anu.kumar@excite.com.

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