By Ashwina Garg Sep. 26, 2018
“Why do you fast if it makes you so cranky,” my daughter asked. Really, why are women expected to fast, especially for the well-being of the patidev, who anyway fritters away this hard-won long life by watching cricket matches and silly political debates on television?
Our celebrations are as much about fasting as feasting. In the holy month of Shravan, the Somvar Vrat is enough to cancel out any #MondayMotivation. Then there are the Navratri and Karva Chauth fasts, because how else do you prove your devotion to all your parmeshwars? Apart from these mega vrats, there’s a long list of weekly mini vrats for mini and maxi Gods.
I used to fast every Monday, in addition to many other Hum Saath Saath Hain type of festivals, much to the delight of my mother and mother-in-law. In my youthful naivete, I observed all mini vrats and some mega ones, because I was told there was a special place in heaven for people who fasted as much as they can. It’s tough to keep track anyway but as I grow older, I find it hard to cope with all the fasting.
At a festival we celebrated recently, I was mid-fast, and my daughter was mid-exam and we were both premenstrual. It turned into a ticking time-bomb situation pretty quickly. After our 35th argument that day, my daughter asked me why I fasted if it made me so cranky and I had no sharp retort ready to put her in her place. “Because that’s just how it is,” doesn’t seem to work with her as well as it worked with me. My parents or in-laws never gave me an explanation; they expected me to blindly follow the rituals.
My mother’s answer to every family problem, including bad report cards, was an upvas so it was hard not to be influenced. She fasted religiously every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday for my father’s health, her children’s well-being, and other sundry reasons that I was unaware of.
The day after the face-off with my daughter, I armed myself with a big bowl of leftover halwa because deep thinking required a full stomach. She deserved some real answers about why women were expected to fast on many festivals, especially since most fasts involve the well-being of the patidev, who often fritters away this hard-won long life by watching cricket matches and silly political debates on television.
I decided to cut down on all the mini vrats, but I wasn’t bold enough to stop the two mega vrats that were observed each year for the well-being of the patidev.
Fasting is a kind of bribe we offer to that Big Boss in the sky. It is a price we pay to prove to Him (or Her) that we are pious, holy and obedient souls, so that, in return, he showers us with all kinds of goodies like a great spouse who will live a long life and keep us supplied with exotic vacations and companionship. The thought that my husband might catch an incurable affliction if I eat on those days when I am not supposed to, is both ludicrous and scary at the same time. So I always felt that it was better to be on the safe side and carry on the fasting tradition started by my mother and encouraged wholeheartedly by my mother-in-law. The modern me justified this decision by claiming that a few skipped meals would keep the digestive system humming along nicely and allow me to keep wearing my ultra-skinny jeans. A Monday fruit-only fast after bingeing on the weekend made complete sense to me. That it was also going to make my husband live longer was a bonus.
The first sign that I needed to curb my religious fervour and fasts appeared as I grew older when most vrats were followed by headaches: some were mild and some were raging migraines. The Somvar Vrat-cum-fruit-only cleanse died a natural death because the Guest of Honour of the Vrat, the Patidev himself, had no sympathy for my growling stomach and often arrived late from the office. He then proceeded to become so conscious about his diet and fitness that I worried that fasting for his good health would just make me look greedy and then Big Boss would punish us with 21 lifetimes together instead of the customary seven. That was frightening.
I decided to cut down on all the mini vrats, but I wasn’t bold enough to stop the two mega vrats that were observed each year for the well-being of the patidev. The mind might be logical, but the heart is still filmy. Every time I tell myself that it’d be the last time I fast, I am assaulted by a mental image of the patidev clutching his chest in agony while blood spurts from a wound on his head because I was a bad wife who did not fast. In the interest of equality, many couples now fast together but the romanticism of the husband fasting along with the wife escapes me. How are two hungry bodies better than one? Two negatives make a positive only in mathematics not human physiology.
Informing the dear old ladies of the family was another problem. To them, festivals are not a chore, so silent execution was a wiser option than a grand public declaration. I casually mumbled to both sets of mothers (when they were napping), that I’d discontinued some of my vrats. Fasting and feasting takes a toll on an older woman’s body, but even hinting that you are putting your own health above your husband’s is a very unsanskari and anti-Indian thing to do.
It would be helpful for all concerned if menopausal, diabetic, and other medically challenged women were discouraged from observing vrats, but nobody has mustered up enough courage to pass such a rule yet. I remember the time when a friend told her mother-in-law that she wasn’t up to fasting on Karva Chauth anymore – it caused a major storm in the family and her MIL observed a maun vrat for almost a year. Personally, I don’t see the problem, but my friend was deeply upset since the vrat was directed only at her.
Even as we fight patriarchy every day, it’s disheartening that the preservation of festivals, customs, and traditions are still a woman’s responsibility. Today, a woman can claim to be a bad cook or a bad housekeeper or a bad mother without batting an eyelid, but it’s still not okay for a woman to declare that she is not religious – at least within her own family.
My daughter gives me hope, though. She insists she isn’t the “vrat type” and doesn’t see herself as a preserver of culture and traditions. And even if she changes her mind after meeting patidev, she’d probably design an app that would do the job for her. I think that’s an idea we can all get behind, including my mother-in-law.
Ashwina Garg is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. She is the author of the best-selling book 'Spicy Bites of Biryani' and writes regularly for Women’s Era, Bonobology and other sites. She has a keen interest in social causes and writes for the Hyderabad-based NGO, SAHE and TEDxHyderabad.