The morning did not augur well. I had invited a few colleagues for lunch without consulting the “Panjika”. As it turned out - it was the fourth day after Lakshmi Puja - the special “Chaturthi” on which falls the auspicious occasion of “Karvachauth”. “Karvachauth” is an occasion on which women fast for the whole day, skipping water and food altogether, ostensibly praying for long lives of their respective husbands - irrespective of the husband’s qualities. According to lore, the quartile of a moon plays a huge role on this day – since women break their fast only after gazing at it through a sieve followed by a gaze at their beloved husbands. According to some other lore, the reflection of the moon on a bowl of water is also acceptable. Yet another set of lore seems to say that the husband is also dispensable, though the moon is not. This third source states that Karvachauth essentially started as a celebration of sister-hood. When a newly married bride arrived at the in-law’s place, she was encouraged to make friends with neighboring women or sisters-in-law of her age to overcome homesickness. On this day of the fourth moon, she gathered with her friends at the rooftop to gaze at the moon and engage in some merry-making while exchanging gifts.

Now though I do have my doubts as to whether merry-making is possible with one’s sisters-in-law especially while exchanging gifts which will invariably be critically scrutinized, I am aghast at how even this totally sisterly-thing was hi-jacked by the husband or men-folk somewhere down the line, so much so that I am quite sure the entire brood of my hardworking maids will take leave today. So what - if most of their husbands are drunkards or laggards - thereby pushing them to cook, clean or wash at others’ homes, including mine –these women will not take a drop of water the entire day! Of course it would be inhuman of me to expect them to work. I am not inhuman. But now with the thought of guests coming for lunch on a day with no maids, I do feel like a nincompoop. There is no question of prior information or leave application for this day since being a married woman I am supposed to know. How could I forget this once again after spending so many years here in Delhi?
But you know what - it is not entirely my fault! The Bengali festival calendar that I grew up with did not have this day marked in red letters. In the quiet little town of Durgapur, the dream-child of Dr. B.C. Roy, besides Holi, our festivities were more or less restricted to worshipping Durga and her daughters. Of course, there was Kali – the other form of Durga, who also garnered some attention, but not as grand in scale as Durga. I hear that the discrepancy has been taken care of these days. The interim time between Durga Puja and Kali Puja was spent in preparation for Annual Exams, which used to be held in December in those days. Since I do not have a brother, Bhratri-Dwitiya, the second day after the New Moon, the day when sisters pray for their brothers did not have a big emotional role in my life.

I first heard of “Karvachauth” when I came to Delhi for a job. Since Bongs don’t have the letter “v”, the first time I heard about it from a Bong friend, who pronounced it with a “B” rather than a “v”, I thought the name of the festival was “Gorbachov”! Now, don’t forget that the year was 1992. The world was going ga-ga over Perestroika. Though slightly intrigued, I thought that it was quite a befitting gift for the great Russian Statesman, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize. After all, Nehru had a soft corner for Russia and this man had successfully started the mission of erasing Communism from the face of earth. When I was corrected and educated about the severity of this day, I assumed that the word “Karva” in “Karvachauth” must have stemmed from the fact that women find it to be a bitter experience to stay without water or food the whole day, not to mention of the resulting acidity. At least I would have been extremely bitter had I been forced to do it for the well-being of my husband. I thanked my stars that he could take quite good care of himself without keeping me hungry.

Though my childhood calendar did not have this fourth day of moon marked in red, it did have a few other moons standing out from the rest. On some of those days, we would come back home from school to find Mother and Grand Mother ready with a special lunch for themselves. We would promptly desert our regular plate of “Bhaat-daal-tarkari-maach”(rice, lentils, fish) and demand a portion of their “sabu-makha” or “luchi-begun bhaja-suji”. The sabu-makha, a kind of mish-mash with couscous, ripe mangoes, bananas, grated coconut, sandesh and what- not in it was simply magical. I have not tasted any slush since then that comes anywhere close to the sabu makha prepared by my grandmother. However, my memories about these days are strictly restricted to the lunch and occasionally a story that would be read out aloud by mother or granny. These stories, called “Brata-katha” had a unique story-line. There would be a main protagonist – some influential character who refused to bow down to a petty God or Goddess. The Gods or Goddesses of course had their own means to bring him to book. By the end of the story, the protagonist would be usually raving about the God or Goddess, thus convincing the women-folk that He or She indeed had great powers over their children, husband, brother or son-in-law and hence had to be appeased through a day of fasting and salutations. I don’t exactly remember whether there was any special tale involving a son-in-law – but I do remember that it was the mother of all feasting days. Though we did not care much about the sons-in-law we indeed cared about the very special lunch and dinner.

Having said that, I realize now that as I grew up, not even all those terrible stories of Gods and Goddesses doing horrible things to non-believers could retain my fear or faith in them. We were busy in dreaming of other things. We dreamt of a world where there was no fear of the unknown. Astronauts had already set their feet on the moon. We wanted to go to the space beyond the moon – to Mars, Neptune, Pluto. The trio of Saraswati, Durga and Lakshmi did remain in our lives along with Kali – but in a different way. Saraswati Puja meant wearing a pure-silk saree from Mother’s last Puja collection. Durga Puja meant month long rehearsals for the evening stage productions during those days of Shashti to Navami. Lakshmi Puja was usually a private affair at home with some special goodies prepared by Mother, ostensibly for the deity, but devoured by us. Kali puja meant night-long pandal hopping to be rounded off by the “Khichuri-bhog” at one of the many Kali-baris at the crack of dawn before sauntering home with sleepy eyes. Thus, Pujas were more about socializing and gourmet food. The most pious among us sacrificed breakfast on the days of Saraswati Puja and Mahashtami to offer Anjali to the goddesses.

Looking back, I also realize that while some of the more established ones were losing their ability to intimidate us, the high-school girls, more and more folk Gods were making their way to mainstream. Of course Tollywood and Bollywood played their roles to perfection. Santoshi Ma, Baba Taraknath, and possibly more whose names skip my mind now, captured the imagination of people via the silver screen. Vishwakarma, Sani Dev, Annapurna – who till then had a somewhat restricted fan-base quickly grew in popularity. Temples dedicated to Sani Dev mushroomed on the streets. Till then Vishwakarma happened to be worshipped mostly by factory employees. His respectability started growing by leaps and bounds till the local youths took it upon themselves to organize his puja for general public with fan-fare. Annapurna was brought out of the confines of Chandan Nagar to be worshipped statewide.

But none of these outcomes of the neo-Bhakti movement seemed to have affected us. We must have been pretty obtuse not to be blown over by all those waves of faith. We were immersed in our own world in which we demanded equality for men and women. Tagore’s novels like “Gora”, “Jogajog”, “Ghare-baire” and many more drove us crazy. Sarat Chandra’s “Datta” and Ashapurna Devi’s “Pratham Pratisruti” urged us to stand out from the crowd rather than try to be one among many. We shunned rituals that required women to fast for their husbands, brothers and sons. Who was fasting for the women, we asked. Why do women have to wear Sindur and go around with iron in their bangles for the safe-keep of their marriage and long-life of their husbands? Why don’t the men show off to the world that they are married? Does Sindur stop a woman from being raped? The answer we got was unfortunately no. Why do women have to cover their heads in front of elderly in-laws? Why can’t the oldies who find their hearts go aflutter at the sight of beautiful young brides instead cover their eyes? We asked questions. We refused to do anything for which we did not get a convincing and satisfactory answer that could show that women would really benefit by doing so. Hence we revolted against rituals, we revolted against Sindur, we revolted against the injustice meted out to women by asking them to take the responsibility for the whole world on their frail shoulders. We thought we could change the world.

But the world moves in circles. After twenty-five years, I find the world around me has gone crazy for “tradition” and would love to roll back the wheels of time to welcome the days of my Granny. Love for rituals is once again adding more and more to the Calendar every year. Globalization has ensured that the whole of India celebrates many more days together in fasting and praying. But what defies logic is that while women seem to regale in fasting for men-folk, Newspapers regale in rape incidents. As female foeticide steadily brings the number of females per 1000 males southwards - the war to own the woman gets hotter. Life appears to be like that proverbial monkey climbing up the slippery ladder - two steps up, six steps down – will women in this country ever be the masters of their own destiny?



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