Featured Storyteller

INDIA: Why I No Longer Fast for My Husband

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Posted January 10, 2017 from India
Photo © Reuters / Ajay Verma

Dr. Shruti Kapoor on why she's breaking with a tradition she's practiced all her life.

“I will challenge customsthat I feel are harmful in order to set a strong example for my daughter.

Shruti's mother and grandmother observing Karva Chauth | Photo courtesy of Dr. Shruti Kapoor

I grew up observing Karva Chauth, a one-day festival Hindu women celebrate in northwestern parts of India. For this October tradition, millions of married women fast from sunrise to moonrise for the safety and longevity of their husbands.

There are many legends surrounding this custom. The one that sticks with me the most is that of Queen Veeravati.

Her story goes like this.

On the day of the festival, Veeravati fasted for her husband’s long life. By evening she was suffering from hunger and thirst, and her seven brothers couldn’t bear to see her plight. They showed her a fake moon, tricking her into believing it was time to break her fast. Veeravati drank water and ate. Just at that moment news arrived that her husband, the king, was dead. Heartbroken, Veeravati wept the whole night. Her tears invoked the goddess Parvati to appear before her. When the queen shared how her brothers had tricked her, Parvati asked her to repeat the fast with utmost dedication. Veeravati did as she was told, and Yama, the god of death, restored her husband back to life.

This story was always in the back of my mind when I was growing up. I would watch as my grandmother, mother, and aunt would fast for the whole day (they would not even drink water). In the evening, they would sit together to hold a prayer service and exchange karvas (or earth pots) filled with small gifts. Since I was a small girl, I was the fourth wheel in their karva exchange as three is considered an inauspicious number. I didn’t fast but went through the whole prayer ritual year after year until I finally moved away from home for college.

I got married six years ago, and as per tradition, I began fasting on Karva Chauth. It was a given; no questions were asked. The night before the festival, my mother-in-law and mother gave some instructions on how to manage the upcoming day. They assumed that I would fast as they always had.

For years, I thought about the absurdity of it all and even joked about it. Still, I would fast from morning until moonrise. I did it out of fear—fear of the consequences of breaking an age-old tradition.

Usually the day was an excuse to gather with friends and do the karva exchange. Each woman modified the tradition a bit to suit her needs. I did too. Unlike my mother and grandmother who fasted without water, I would drink a cup of tea in the evening after the prayer ritual.

By evening, most women have a bad headache and are dying of hunger waiting for the moon to arrive. I know many who take pride in this tradition and follow the rituals to a T. There is nothing wrong with that. It is their belief system and I respect their decision. But it is not for me.

This past October I decided to break with tradition. I did it for various reasons—the primary being that I don’t believe fasting will prolong my husband’s life. (I believe he will live a longer life by following a healthier lifestyle.)

In a country like India that struggles constantly with gender equality and respect for women in the most basic sense, traditions like these further perpetuate patriarchal notions of men’s superiority and women’s sacrifice.

Where is the equality in fasting for your husband’s life? What about your life? Is that not important? Is he fasting for you too? If the tradition truly celebrates love and the bond of marriage, it would call on all married couples to fast for each other.

My friend Namrata loves Karva Chauth because her husband fasts with her, for her long life.

“For us, Karva Chauth is a day where we spend time on ‘us’,” she tells me. “Before our kids came along, this day was all about fasting together, going for an evening movie to distract us from our hunger and thirst, coming back home to do the puja together before heading out to a fancy place for a dinner date.”

Smita, a resident of Atlanta, a career woman, and a mom of two young girls says, “For me, it’s more about the tradition. I dislike fasting but like the festivity that comes with it. I grew up seeing my mom do it every year. As little kids we would run up to our terrace every year, to check if the moon came out. Living here in the US, thousands of miles away from India, I do whatever I can to stay connected to my culture. I have two small girls; I want to pass on my traditions to them. So I make an extra effort to celebrate these festivals and traditions. It creates a festive atmosphere in the house. My kids are drawn to it."

For me, my decision to not fast for Karva Chauth was welcomed by my family. My husband said it was up to me. My mother-in-law and mother both supported me, reiterating that they did it because it was habit. After doing it for over 35 years, they didn’t want to give it up. But they were happy for me that I was going another way. The choice was purely mine.

It is not always easy to break a tradition, no matter how regressive it may seem. Like millions of Indian girls, I too have been conditioned since childhood to follow traditions without questioning them. Festivals like Karva Chauth and Rakhi (during which a sister ties a thread on her brother’s wrist and asks him to protect her) perpetuate patriarchy. They signal that men are superior and more important than women. Challenging that belief is not easy, especially when you grew up with it.

Guilt may surround you, fear may disempower you, and society will make you feel like you are doing something wrong by going your own way. One has to believe in oneself and have a strong sense of equality to be able to challenge and break regressive customs.

As a mother of an 11-month-old baby girl, I want my daughter to grow up with a sense of equality. I will challenge customs and traditions that I feel are harmful in order to set a strong example for my daughter.

As she grows up, I will encourage her to celebrate our culture and to be proud of our traditions. But I will also encourage her to challenge those that hold her back.

Comments 24

Log in or register to post comments
PilarAlbisu
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Hello Shruti,

Thanks for sharing this story with us. I truly admire your bravery and steadfastness in choosing to go against tradition. I can imagine that it wasn't an easy thing to do. But I was so happy to read about the positive feedback and support you received from your loved ones. It shows us that it is worth taking risks if we truly believe in what we are doing! I think yours is the first step to creating a new kind of conversation in a culture that has been closed off to women and girls for so long. Bravo!

Your story also reminded me of a sort of debate I recently had with my family back home in Argentina. We discussed a graduation tradition that I think is trivial and ultimately harmful to society. Essentially, it involves throwing eggs and other foods at a student the day of their final exam. In my opinion, it's a huge waste of food, and particularly terrible in a country where 1 in 3 Argentinians lives below the poverty line. In my case, I wasn't able to convince my relatives of my viewpoint because they insisted that the tradition was culturally significant and harmless to society. I know we may never agree, but reading your story, I was reminded of the importance of speaking out about the things that we don't agree with. That alone makes a huge difference in a society that is used to hearing just one side of the argument. I also know that I won't encourage that tradition the day my future children graduate.

Thanks again for this wonderfully reflective piece!

All the best,

Pilar

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Pilar, Thank you for your kind words and for taking out the time to read my story! Most times breaking traditions is hard because its a part and parcel of our lives. Thank you for sharing the wonderful example from Argentina. I encourage you to take a stance against this graduation tradition and setting an example for others. It truly sounds like a huge waste of food! Are you ready to graduate soon? 

CCarlisi
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Thank you for sharing your story. I traveled by ferry from Barcelona to Tangier, alone, and the ship was mainly populated by Muslim men. There were a few families with multiple wives and several children, and a few Europeans. Not many spoke English. I was culturally out of place, enjoying the time on the water, the view of Spain's Gibraltar on one side and Morocco on the other as the ferry arrived. Unable to speak with people, I observed. Many men smoked, drank, & gambled. They left garbage, and raised their voices. I felt safe. I had my own cabin, my own values, my book to read, and write. Guards watched. Vehicles piled high with things on top awaited below, and when we arrived at Morocco, the throngs of rowdy men drove away into the culture that intimidates women. I saw them look at me, and heard comments I didn't understand, except "American." And I walked into their land, brave, free, calm, and loving my life. I returned to Europe the next day, where I could communicate more easily. Your story sets an example for women of your culture. Setting an example as I travel alone, I am thankful for online support and communicate with women who are also brave, free, and calm. 

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Thank you CCarlisi for sharing you story and setting an excellent example of how you fought your fears and travelled to learn and experience new cultures. May you continue your adventures with the same fearlessness! 

Lily Habesha
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Hello Shiruti, This is one amazing story to be shared. You've inspired me a lot. I like doing things like you. I like you so much.

Keep breaking the chains

Lily

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Mulatwa, thank you so much for the words of encouragement. I am so happy to hear you like the story and are inspired by it. I hope it will give you some courage to break your traditions that don't empower you! Love!! 

Rahmana Karuna
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Dearest Sayfty=i love how you spell that.

and in trying to come up with the words, all the thoughts, as i write to encourage you to write more, question more, go deeper.................

what traditions did i grow up with? holidays off school with gift opening and lots of food and alcohol.

i let go of that and brought in honoring holy days

traditions of shaving legs/armpits=let it grow

oh thank you dear, i think you have inspired another story on my profile. now to go look at more of yours. blessings

Akhila Jayaram
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Hi Shruti,

Very thought-provoking article. Although Karva Chauth is specifically not followed in my family, I have seen other traditions which directly support the patriarchal mindset and do not follow any myself. After all, a tradition will continue to perpetuate only if people follow them. I'm not saying we should give up our culture but challenging outdated beliefs is definitely the way to go. 

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 12, 2017
Jan 12, 2017

Rahmana, love the let it grow :) I am so glad to hear my story has inspired you to write your own. Is there any tradition you are now trying to break away from or change? 

Jan 12, 2017
Jan 12, 2017
This comment has been removed by the commenter or a moderator.
Jan 12, 2017
Jan 12, 2017
This comment has been removed by the commenter or a moderator.
Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 12, 2017
Jan 12, 2017

Akhila, exactly! Let's not blindly follow traditions in the name of culture and customs. Let's challenge them and change things for ourselves and our next generations! Thank You!

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Jan 16, 2017
Jan 16, 2017

 Akhila, I strongly agree with this 'I will challenge customs that I feel are harmful in order to set a strong example for my daughter'.Thank you

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 17, 2017
Jan 17, 2017

Clodine, glad to see it resonated with you. What tradition are you planning to challenge? 

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Jan 16, 2017
Jan 16, 2017

Hi Safty, its not easy to let go of traditions that you grew up with. So for you to break them now is a very bold and courageous and its wonderful that your family is in support of your decision. We pray that many people can follow in your footsteps and break away from very conservative traditions as well. thanks for sharing and stay blessed.

Funmi
Jan 17, 2017
Jan 17, 2017

Thank you Shruti, for this empowering story. One has to be bold to be able to challenge age long traditions that undermines who we really are. You are such a courageous woman. Like you siad in your story fear is one powerful force that can hold people back - fear of what might happen, how one will be perceived by family/friends. Am so happy for you. 

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 17, 2017
Jan 17, 2017

Funmi, thank you for your kind words. Fear does hold a lot of us back and prevents us from bringing the required change. But we must try to trust our gut and set examples for others and our children! And doing that is never easy!

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Jan 17, 2017
Jan 17, 2017

Dear Anita, Many thanks for your kind words of encouragement. Yes, it is much easier to break traditions when your family supports you in the decision. Without the support of your loved ones, it can be an uphill battle. Do you have any tradition which you would like to reconsider? 

LillianVB
Jan 21, 2017
Jan 21, 2017

Dear Sayfty,

Your story is an extremely moving one, it resonates with many other cultural beliefs that women around the world endure out of habit, tradition and often times with no direct benefit or logic to ourselves. You received an awakening of the impact of this habit to your life and for many of us - we get to that point with our own challenges much later - still positively transformative but maybe after a lot more endurance and suffering has been sustained.

Thank you for sharing your triumphs and inspiring us!

shrutikapoor
Jan 26, 2017
Jan 26, 2017

Thank you so much Lillian. I do hope to read other such stories and gain strength from them.

Araba
Jan 28, 2017
Jan 28, 2017

Shruti, you inspire us to be our true selfs and not to conform.

Dr. Shruti kapoor
May 24, 2017
May 24, 2017

Thank you for your words of encouragement Araba! 

Lana Holmes
Jan 31, 2017
Jan 31, 2017

Deep bow of respect and gratitude, Sayfty!   Your decision to be a leader in this important realm of self care is vital for the health and well being of women and girls. 

Dr. Shruti kapoor
May 24, 2017
May 24, 2017

Thank you Lana! Is there a tradition that you would like to challenge in your community?