Fasting and Feasting: Suckers for Religious Gluttony


Fasting and Feasting: Suckers for Religious Gluttony

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

It can be safely said that at any given point in time, somewhere in India, people are either fasting, or having just fasted, are now feasting.

Feasting is our favourite part of fasting. We fast to pay obeisance to deities, who may or may not grant us what our hearts desire. Then we go ahead and chomp with pomp and splendour, announcing to one and all that we’ve just finished fasting, and now we need to celebrate this superhuman feat and show our neighbours that we’re holier than them.

Almost every major religion in the world advocates fasting or dietary abstinence in some form or the other, in order to subtly fuck with people’s psyche and reinforce their hold on our minds.

Case in point, Lent. Lent is the period of fasting and abstinence that leads up to Easter. It’s supposed to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, supposedly fasting and facing off the Devil. So good Christians are expected to give up meat, fish, alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. Basically everything Jesus didn’t have access to the desert. Finding a decent theka attached to a restaurant is difficult in any desert, and these were Biblical times, mind you, before the invention of the Chota Gold Flake or brewing, basically, God’s version of sour grapes.

How then can mere mortals have all the fun?

In my house, Mardi Gras aka Fat Tuesday is actually a bunch of fat people, sitting around a table, eating every kind of animal protein possible and getting pissed drunk.

So good Christians are expected to give up their jollies and what do we do? Before we abstain, we go on a bender with a little thing called Mardi Gras to kick off the sukkha-giri. For those not in the know, Mardi Gras literally translates to Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Jesus’s 40-day long trip. Mardi Gras is supposed to be a time for feasting, merriment, and copulation, in preparation for 40 days of fasting, sorrow, and a hell of a lot of masturbation. And just like they’ve done with turmeric lattes, Basmati rice, and hamburgers, our American brethren have co-opted this tradition from early French colonists in the American south and turned it into a bacchanal. There’s alcohol, ticker tape, and titties everywhere.

In my house, Mardi Gras aka Fat Tuesday is actually a bunch of fat people, sitting around a table, eating every kind of animal protein possible and getting pissed drunk before becoming morally upright hypocrites for the next 40 days. (And there are these little pancakes stuffed with bright, neon-coloured coconut that are delightful.) But there’s a catch, just like the Brahmin’s of Calcutta, who decided fish is exempt from being a meat, the Portuguese too conveniently decided that fried fish could be consumed. And from this, the famous Japanese dish, tempura, was born. The etymology comes from the Latin word “Quator Tempora” which loosely refers to the four Fridays in Lent. Just like it’s not cheating if she doesn’t catch you, it’s not meat if it can’t breathe on land. Problem solved.

If this concept sounds alien, then let me Indianise it a bit. In Maharashtra, before the holy month of Shravan, which is like Hindu Lent, comes a day when public drunkenness is encouraged. Raucous, rambunctious revelry is just what the doctor ordered on this day. It’s called Gatari, a day that evokes memories of middle-class Maharashtrian males, hopped up on Kingfisher mild, busting moves that defy the laws of gravity and pelvic integrity. The month of Shravan again is marked by hardcore vegetarianism, abstinence, and piety.

When I was a kid I would misquote the popular song from Milan as “Shravan Ka Mahina, Pavan Kare Shor” which as I got older, I changed to “Shravan Ke Pehle, Pavan Peeke Kare Shor” because Pavan and friends are about as lit as a chakri on Diwali. Besides being lit, they’re also high on meat. Enforcing abstinence sends even occasional carnivores into overdrive. Like a bear heading to hibernate, these guys make sure to tank up on the kombdiche kalwan and beer.

When the fast starts, it’s time for another kind of binge — the “fasting-food binge”, which is brimming with decadent fare like sabudana vadas, kela chips, and fries. All of this is okay to eat in large quantities, when you’re not supposed to eat. If a vrat diet manual is to be made, it should be called “What To Eat When You’re Not Eating”, with the first half of the book devoted to ways of working around the “no atta” rule with loads of carbs in the form of potato and kuttu, with a generous sprinkling of holier than thouness to keep hunger at bay.

The prize for all this fasting is the feast. Now there are feasts, and there is iftar, a meal so elaborate that it gives other religions #feastinggoals. For the sake of iftar, I’d fast too, and I’m not even Muslim. Technically, the roza or fast can even be broken with a date, a glass of water, and the name of the Most High. But today, dates are part of the foreplay ahead of the marathon gluttony that is iftar. A full-fledged iftar is a sight to behold. There’s every part of the goat except the bleat, and every part of a chicken except its beak. Beef was a staple before the ban was enforced, but a cow’s gain is a goat’s loss. If a heaven for carnivores exists, it’s found in the lane next to Minara Masjid, behind a police barricade.

After iftar ends, sehri begins. Sehri is the early morning pre-fast meal which usually comprises a thick legume and meat-based stew to provide the faithful enough energy to go about their day. Somehow eating after fasting and then eating before fasting once again simply sounds like skipping one meal. Somehow, fasting the entire day seems a bit less daunting when you take this fact into account. It’s just perfect timing, that’s all.

Long story short, religion in a broader context, is open to interpretation. Religion may be a social construct we have invented to keep us bound together, and at the same time divide us, but what truly unites us as human beings is our attitude towards food. You can be of any colour, caste, or creed but at the end of the day, if there is a fast in sight, we will prepare for it with gluttony that borders on religiousness. It’s basic human nature, hinging on our need for self-preservation: Always look before you leap. And fast after you feast.