Thursday, October 20, 2016

Karwachauth: tradition, superstition or kitty party?

picture courtesy: Google images.
Superstition runs deep in my veins. I can't help it. Call it conditioning, or just plain sanskar (values) passed on by my grandmother and mother.

Beji, my grandmother, was superstitious about everything: from not using soap to bathe on Thursdays to not eating onions on Tuesdays to not drinking water just before she stepped out to go anywhere. The list goes on and on. My mother, however, was slightly more liberal and chose to let only a few superstitions creep into her daily life.

I hated them all. Even now, you will find me relishing eggs on Tuesdays. There's a rebel clock inside me that makes me crave eggs on the one day you are not supposed to eat them if you are a Khatri (Punjabi). And before you enlist all the cholesterol driven health benefits of abstaining from eggs, let me put your protest to bed-- I don't even like eggs that much.

At 45, I'm a concoction of my grandmother's compulsive kitchen cleaning, some of her superstitions, almost all of my mother's housekeeping standards and a lot of family traditions that look suspiciously like superstition to me.

Take Karwachauth for example. This is a very North Indian price one has to pay to remain suhagan (married). It's a killer fast observed by married women for the long life and prosperity of their husbands. It falls on the fourth day after Full Moon around this time of the year.
(in the Hindu lunisolar calendar month of Kartik, according to wikipedia)

Karwachauth  Rules in 4 simple steps :
1. Wake up before sunrise, get dressed and eat a beautiful feast prepared by you or your minions, as the case may be.
2. DO NOT consume any food or water till you've spotted the moon.
3. Sit with other fasters and do the pooja (prayers) before sunset and generally rejoice as a group, patiently waiting for the moon.
4. Spot the moon, feel grateful that your husband is there to bless you with love and financial stability and break your fast.
the end

The Reality of Karwachauth in my household (especially when I was working and living in London)
1. Set the alarm for 10 minutes before sunrise. Get out of bed half asleep. Wash face. Brush teeth. Put the kettle on. Drink gallons of water. Watch the lightening sky while sipping second cup of tea. Eat a banana and munch on some nuts. Set the alarm for usual wake up time and hit the bed.
2. No food-- no problem. No water --- will manage. No tea -- DO NOT mess with me! You've been warned!
3. Working and married and fasting? Turn on one of the million whatsap videos of the pooja while driving back home because the sun's gonna set before you reach that front door. Somehow reach the sofa in your living room and plop.
4. Keep sending husband, son, daughter (in turns) out to check the status of the moon while getting more and more irritated with that pesky headache because you haven't had your fix of tea ALL day.
When the moon does show up, after the sieve ritual, take that first sip of water! Go aah! Put the kettle on. Sip the tea. Watch the headache dissolve and become human again.

Why do I do it? Why do I put myself through it?
Three reasons:
1. I'm just too scared not to. This belies logic, I know. But it's my truth. Yes, I can see it's entangled in the web of superstition woven by my ancestors, but I'm too chicken to break free, just yet. You see, the popular belief is that messing up this fast can have a direct impact on the husband's health and well being
2. To check my will power and by default to hopefully lose 200 - 500 grams in one day!
3. I get to dress up.

The first time I Karwachauthed, I wasn't yet married to him, just newly engaged. I think that was the only time I truly believed in it. It was my coming of age ritual. I'd seen all my married aunts, my grandmother and my mother observe it. So when I took my first steps towards marital life, this fast marked being accepted into the 'married women's' club. It felt special.

Then followed a decade or so of fasting on an auto pilot. Busy with job and young children, I never pondered on why I fasted. I just did.

The story of the fast is like any other legend that has become so deep rooted in the everyday life of a community or the people that it has morphed into superstition disguised as tradition. I know it sounds silly but I don't want my husband to get a tummy ache just because I couldn't go without food for one day. There, I've said it. The only reason I fast is because I'm a superstitious coward.

These days even husbands fast to show their solidarity or I guess it's just easier this way; they don't have to worry about fixing their own dinner.

Jokes aside, why do we (liberal, educated, progressive) women continue to practise these rituals?

I've been  feeling  all churned up since the Full Moon. Why should I do this? No one's forcing me to. I almost feel like a fraud feminist. How can I talk about gender equality if I continue to shackle myself in these rituals? A ritual that reeks of women's dependence on their husbands to provide for them. Hence, fasting for the husband to ensure he lives a long and prosperous life seems crucial for the woman to enjoy financial security and stability. It sounds like a good business practice for an era when women didn't go out to earn their livelihood. So why continue with an archaic practice?

Then two things happened and I found the answer to my whys:

First, I went for a mehendi (henna) party where the host had put in a huge amount of effort to recreate India in Doha. The food, the henna, the chatter, the laughter-- her house resonated with wonderful sounds of womanhood -- bindaas (carefree) and beautiful. It was a 'women only' affair: single, married, divorced, widowed, henna lovers, henna haters, big eaters, small eaters, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Turkish, Syrian, Indian and British-- yes, it was party time. Why not? I thought. Why not?

The second moment of awareness came during the pooja (prayers): sitting in a circle with twelve other women dressed in red, pink, purple, gold, maroon and coral -- beautiful hues worn in traditional outfits from different parts of India, some friends and some strangers, some newly-wed, some married for more than thirty years, some shy, some bold, some early and some late to the venue, but all sitting around in a circle in a veranda under the late afternoon sky, listening to an ancient story played on an I-phone. The words of the song that accompany the katha (tale) tell you that on the day of Karwachauth you don't cook, clean, sew or do any chores whatsoever.

Scenes of my aunts and grandmother and mother flash before my eyes. Before Mother's day invaded India, this was the day when they were treated like royalty. No chores and no cooking. The focus of the day was getting ready for the pooja.

That's pretty much what I did. I didn't have to go to work, so I rested, made and applied my yohgurt and turmeric face mask, chose which saree and jewellery I'd wear, got dressed, took a few selfies and climbed into a friend's car to reach the pooja venue. Why not?

And once the pooja was over, and the prayers had been sung enlisting the virtues of  goddesses, our collective voices ringing out into a blushing sky, we went around hugging and congratulating each other. Why not? I thought. How beautiful and unassuming is this celebration of the female form?

Some of the fasters had a cup of tea after the pooja while others posed for more pictures, exchanged compliments and fashion/shopping tips, shared stories about how the rituals are done in their part of India-- all slightly different and all immensely interesting.

I'm aware of all the 'eat the patriarchy' stuff that's hot at the moment. By all means, STOP the forced fasting. No one should be made to feel guilty or harassed to do anything, least of all go hungry and thirsty. And if this practice is another stick to beat women with, then I'm totally against it.

You know why I do it, right? Because I'm a coward and I've established that fact early on.

But the reason I enjoy this day is because being away from my country of birth, I get to feel a part of it when I sit in a circle and pass my thali (plate) to the mother/daughter/wife sitting next to me. At times like these, I think of my mother who always made an effort to dress up no matter how ill she was. She's no more but the gota in her red dupatta sparkles with me when I sit in a circle and listen to the katha while my Beji's pink pure chiffon one says, 'Jyonde raho puttar, sada suhagan raho.' live a long and happily married life.

In this world of war and hatred, is it such a bad thing to keep some of these traditions alive? Why Not? I say. Why the hell not? 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Theodora Sofronia: I saw the goddess in her.

Unplanned and unprepared, I stood besotted in her dark workshop, facing her demure frame. Yes, I saw the goddess in her.

It was our last day in Cyprus. The flight back to Doha was late in the evening. I woke up early and poured myself a cup of black coffee prepared with hot water and a single Nescafe sachet. We hadn't bothered to buy any milk. Beams of sun were already bursting through the green slatted shutters and landing warmly on the round dining table in the tiny kitchen of our apartment, where I sat peering through my reading glasses at the map. I get greedy on last days of holidays (long and short). I like to see a new place or explore a new corner before boarding the home bound  train, bus or plane.  And that is why, I prefer late evening departures back home.

Cross-referencing the map with the local guidebook, I realised that we could drive through a village called Foini after breakfast and still have ample time to drive back to Larnaca airport.

The narrow streets of Foini were deserted when we drove through around mid-day.
This sign  bribed me. It held promise of an unexplored gem. Not altogether thrilled at the prospect of stopping so soon after leaving Omodos, the husband stopped the car and parked it under a tree.  None of the other occupants of the car budged.  It was agreed, silently, that I'd do the exploring alone. So, I stepped out or rather, bundled out with my bag, camera, map, hat and sunglasses.
The further I walked in the direction of the 'woman potter', the less promising the prospect of finding 'her' seemed. Large tin sheets that looked like a shack of some sort covered up a corner. It wore a deserted look--like someone had forgotten to open shop for many years. I was tempted to turn back, but I held my faith in the sign I'd spotted at the bottom of the hill and continued clambering.

Another sign.

'Let's go for it.' I goaded myself. The sun shone sharply.
Just like that, the path purged into stone steps that led up to a garden flanked by green pumpkin vines on the left and luscious grape vines on the right.
The promise unfolded, step by step.
'Hello...' I called out, sounding parched and hoarse.
'Hello! Is anyone there?'
Siesta silence filled the stillness around me.

Passing through an old door next to this kiln, I hesitated before stepping into a dark room. My eyes took time to adjust to the coolness inside. The room was large and felt like it had been used to create pieces of pottery for a very long time.

Chucking hesitant hellos into the workshop that was developing around me like a photograph from a negative, I ventured further in. I could make out shelves and corners and beautiful hand crafted pieces on display, some lay drying on the floor.

I clicked and almost as soon as I had, I felt like an intruder.

I left.
The steps back to the path were heavy with regret and what ifs:

What if I'd come in a bit early?
What if the rest of the family had come with me? I wouldn't be in a rush to head back now.

I'd reached the end of the steps when I heard a faint sound like a metal pan hitting a stove or a hob-- a metallic, everyday kitchen sound that announces tea/coffee/lunch/dinner is being prepared.
A soft whimper of a dog (or was it a cat) followed.
I turned to check.

No one.

Almost at the end of the deserted path, I turned round. And decided to clamber back up the hill.

I may never come back to Foini or find this sign pointing to a 'woman potter' again. I had to try one more time.

The husband and the children will have to wait.

*******
A small figure draped in blue appears from the door to the right of the workshop as I make it to the last step. She looks up and smiles.

'Is this your work?' I speak slowly and use my hands like I'm  acting out a nursery rhyme. I'm not sure if she understands English.

'Yes, this is my work.' she states clearly and steps inside. Before my eyes have had time to readjust to the dark, she has reached the end of the room and is flicking old fashioned light switches on. The room reveals like a temple and I stand facing the woman potter.

Ma Saraswati.

I see the goddess in her, in her hands, in the way she says how 'special' the piece I'm looking at is because she's put flowers on it.
I'm awestruck.
She talks.
I listen.
'Can I take a picture?' I ask.
She straightens her shoulders and poses next to the completed pieces.
I see the goddess in her.
And want to buy more than the two pieces I've chosen, but airline luggage limitations have to be respected and I'm planning to take my treasures in my handbag.
We get stuck on numbers.
The how-much- do- I -pay creates a total break in communication.
I have no idea if she's saying five or fifty or fifteen.
Clueless, I face her stretched palm and five fingers and nod obediently.
Suddenly, the idea to use the calculator on my phone strikes me and I dig it out of my bag to show her.
She's already busy wrapping the pots in wads of old newspaper when I look up. The phone and I watch her engrossed.
I can stand here all day and just be in her presence, witness her sculpt those pots, those flowers, those embellishments -- the way her grandmother and her mother had done before her--all by hand;
Yes, the primitive way.

I extend fifty euros.
She empties out her pouch and counts out fifteen euros in change.
I'm gobsmacked at the bargain price.
On the table lies a laminated photograph of hers with an article. I click a few quick shots on my way out and thank her.
She smiles.
I feel blessed.


This reads:"She works as her mother and grandmother did on the vine shadowed porch of her home."
Sadly, I didn't note the name of the author of this article.
The vines, heavy with ripe fruit cast a cooling shadow as I look back from the hot deserted street, making my way halfheartedly towards the parked car.
If only they'd come with me.
If only my phone was working, I'd call and say I'll take longer.
If only we weren't leaving tonight, I'd come back and 
absorb this primitive practice of pottery making.
Back in Doha, every now and again, I turn the pot upside down to get a glimpse of the goddess I'd seen in Cyprus.

Feeling forever grateful to the very special 'ordinary' moment of my life when I met 
Theodora Sofronia.