Karwa Chauth is a fast undertaken by married Hindu women who offer prayers seeking the welfare, prosperity, well-being, and longevity of their husbands. It is said to have an extraordinary observance rate among married Hindu women. Following a bath early in the morning, well before dawn, the woman adorns new clothes and partakes of a meal of very select grains and fruit. For the remainder of the day, the woman is bound to abstain from food and even water, though the more strict rules of observance are not always kept. In the text-book version of this fast, various items including a karwa, an earthen pot with a spout, are collected and worship is offered to Siva and Parvati.
In principle, the fast is not to be broken until the moon is sighted at night, and an elderly woman in the house is supposed to narrate the story of Karwa Chauth before the fast is terminated. It may well be a cloudy night; the moon may not be sighted; what then? Is the married woman to forgo her food until such time as the moon appears, howsoever long or howsoever many days that may be? In urban areas, as almost all children can attest, they are sent to the roof-top to see if the moon is visible; and if it is sighted, the news spreads quickly through the neighborhood, and women are seen making their way to the rooftop, where an offering of water and flowers renders the worship complete. Gandhi has some interesting observations on the performance of the Chaturmas fast by his mother. He narrates in his autobiography (Part I, ch. 1) that, like the other children, he was eager to inform his mother of the appearance of the sun [not the moon in this case] even when it had not been sighted, as he could not bear to see his mother suffer from want of food; however, Putlibai, whose devotion and discipline were not so easily shaken, insisted that she herself had to sight the sun.
In this matter, as in many others, an extraordinary inequity obtains in the relations between men and women. It scarcely requires a feminist to point out that married Hindu men are not obliged to observe a similar fast in the interest of prolonging the prosperity, happiness, and longevity of their wives. Indeed, in many if not most Hindu households, the wife serves food to her husband and her children (if any) as she might on any other occasion, and the husband is scarcely required to forgo his customary dietary needs and pleasures. On the other hand, the nearly universal acquiescence of married Hindu women to this practice can by no means be adduced, as it often is among Hindu conservatives and alleged upholders of Hindu tradition, as an example of the fidelity and selflessness of Hindu women, the resilience of Hindu family values, and the tranquillity of the Hindu home. As it behooves the patriarch to understand that a tempest might be brewing in a teapot, so the feminist may well ask if the Karwa Chauth may only be read as an unequivocal sign of women’s submission. Relying on old associations between nature and woman, are we not entitled to view the Karwa Chauth as a reminder of our ecological responsibility to the earth and equally as a warning of our failure to abide by this responsibility?
The recent, and enormously popular, Hindi film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge offers a benign compromise and less subtle reading. Here, as the bride-to-be partakes (as she should not in her position as a virgin) of the Karwa Chauth, her beloved, who has yet to contrive his marriage to her and so free her of the burden of the wedding that is being imposed on her, similarly abstains from food and water. Such feelings of equity are, however, represented as natural to those in the first flush of love, and the politics of this representation is such as to avoid a more serious inquiry into a wholly gendered practice.