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Keeping a Foreign Fast

November 1, 2010

To fast or not to fast; that was the question.  Last Tuesday, we celebrated Karva Chauth, a holiday where Hindu wives are supposed to fast for the whole day for the prosperity and longevity of their husbands.  It’s no easy fast, either.  A meal may be taken before sunrise, but following that the wife isn’t supposed to eat or drink anything, including water, until the moonrise, about fifteen hours later.

I’ve never fasted before, frankly, because I’ve never had a reason to.  I didn’t grow up in a religion that included fasting as an act of devotion, and I never felt inclined to do so for personal reasons.  So, initially I wasn’t planning on keeping the fast.

After about the tenth time that I was asked whether I was planning to keep the fast by Indian friends or family, though, I started to figure out that “Yes” was a much more acceptable answer than “I don’t know”.  This is a funny thing about being a non-Indian married to an Indian man – As an American woman, no one really expected me to keep the fast. (I’m an American; it’s not part of my culture.  Why would I keep it?)  As the wife of an Indian man, though, I was expected to keep it. (I’ve willingly entered into this culture through moving to India and through my marriage, therefore, out of respect, I should adhere to some of the cultural norms, including this fast, which is one of the most important holidays for husbands and wives.)  And finally, as an American married to an Indian, it’s especially thoughtful and meaningful of me to keep the fast. (I seem so culturally sensitive and aware, and so devoted to my husband to I participate in a custom that is foreign to me.)  Confusing, isn’t it?

My henna-decorated hands

Ultimately, though, I decided to keep the fast.  And, I decided to keep it willingly – I don’t want it to seem as if I was forced into.  Amrit, his mother, and other friends and family never once told me that I was required to keep the fast; there was no pressure from them in that sense.  And, to be honest, it would have been perfectly acceptable if I had said that I wouldn’t be keeping the fast.  However, it was better that I was planning to keep it.  Plus, I figured, if nothing else, it never hurts to endear myself to my in-laws through participating in this holiday with them.  And, I would love for Amrit to have a long, happy,  prosperous life, and am willing to  do what I can to help towards that end.

The difficult part of the holiday, obviously, was the fast.  By late afternoon I was hungry, tired, and cranky, and I still had hours to go.  Fortunately, I had been given chai and juice by my mother-in-law during the day (just no water allowed), which was at least helping to curb any dehydration.

And, aside from the fast, the holiday itself was quite fun.  The night before I went to a local market with my mother-in-law and one of Amrit’s aunts to buy bangles and bindis (the little sticky dots that Indian ladies put on their foreheads) and have mehendi, or henna, applied to my hands.  The market was full of women having mehendi applied or buying their supplies for the next day, and the air was abuzz with excitement.

Red glass bangles, bought especially for the occasion

The following morning, I woke up at 4 am to share a hearty breakfast with my mother-in-law and Amrit’s aunt.  It reminded me of the excitement of waking up early on Christmas morning.  I spent the rest of the day trying to lie low and conserve my energy, though I did have to go into work for a few hours.

In the evening, we all eagerly awaited moonrise.  When the moon came out the wives, including me, all performed a puja where we looked at the moon through a screen before seeing our respective husbands’ faces.  Then, Amrit gave me my first drink of water, another part of the ceremony, and we all went inside for a delicious dinner that I quickly and appreciatively gobbled down.

A cute illustration showing an Indian wife preparing to look at the moon on Karva Chauth

Photo Credits: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/upload/2009/08/paper_folding_to_the_moon/moon_2_bg_0722021.jpg;  http://www.isamaj.com/bhakti/festivals/images/KarwaChauth.jpg

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. April Morris permalink
    November 2, 2010 8:27 am

    So….how long will the henna last?

    • November 2, 2010 10:43 pm

      It usually lasts between one and two weeks, depending on how long it’s given to set. My henna is currently fading, though there are still several places on my palms where it remains quite prominent!

  2. November 2, 2010 3:07 pm

    Katherine, I’ve been enjoying your blog for sometime now, but I particularly liked this post. You provide an interesting, personal window into a country which holds endless fascination for me. I, too, am an American expat–married to an Italian and living in Florence. I shall keep reading with pleasure!

    • November 2, 2010 10:44 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words. 🙂

      And, thank you for sharing the link to your own blog. I look forward to reading!

  3. November 3, 2010 5:57 am

    I have a fair number of female Indian friends who don’t keep the fast because they see it as sexist/anti-feminist. That, or they only keep fast if their husbands/boyfriends do as well. Have you run into any of that sort of sentiment in Delhi?

    • November 3, 2010 11:03 am

      I did encounter that in Delhi – both women who choose not to keep the fast because they find it sexist and husbands who keep the fast with their wives.

      I have a friend, in fact, who suggested that the holiday should be revised so that not only wives keep the fast, but that husbands and wives respectively fast on alternate years to ensure the longevity of both spouses, which sounds fair to me!

  4. whatusup permalink
    November 5, 2010 7:08 am

    Wait a second I thought you were not yet married 🙂

    • November 24, 2010 1:25 pm

      Haha I wondered if anyone was going to catch that…

      For all intents and purposes, Amrit and I are living in India as if we are already married, so it made sense for me to also keep the fast as an Indian wife would.

  5. November 11, 2010 2:53 pm

    Hi Katherine,
    This is my first time on your blog…I saw the henna painted on your hands and that compelled me to throw in a comment 🙂 The henna design is too good, I must say. Its lovely to see non Indians adapting Indian culture and following our rituals with such gaiety, when nowadays Indian youth are adapting to the west. Keep up the good work. Keep writing! I will drop in again….:)

  6. November 16, 2010 5:36 pm

    I thought about fasting while there, but we had some delays that kept us away from our friends (who would have been doing the puja) and without others to participate with, decided it was too difficult within the scope of that particular week. We did go bangle shopping the next day, though! I was surprised to find that there were no holidays when men fasted! For some reason, I thought that there had to be at least one. My four-year-old daughter and I had mehendi done in Hauz Khas before leaving a few days ago. I wish I’d seen your peacock before then! I’m on a bit of a peacock-kick and asked specifically for them in the design, though my peacocks are less literally drawn and I like yours better. 🙂

  7. Linda Namei permalink
    November 24, 2010 2:01 pm

    I really enjoy your blog! You have a very lovely home! I have been in Delhi since 2008, when I married my Manipuri(Indian) husband April 2008. I still havent learned hindi. Would love to meet with you sometime, chat and exchange our experiences. Have you met many other expat wives? Will keep reading your blog, I was looking at your list of things to do. I myself started driving in Delhi Last month and so far so good. I get a bit lost here and there, but most of the city is full of round abouts and eventually if you try them all you can find the right one!!!! Take Care, Linda

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