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Observing the observers

india Updated: Oct 14, 2011 23:40 IST
Antara Das
Antara Das
Hindustan Times
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The music is not there. Painfully absent, I would say, for what better than a rush of pipes and drums and cymbals, raising their pitch to a thundering crescendo, to claim this moment? There they come out now, my neighbours, in ones and twos and threes, and all that this dramatic moment has as an accompaniment is the stillness of the October night. It is their Karva Chauth; I am safely ensconced on the other side of the cultural divide. They are North Indians, I come from the east of this frightfully diverse country. And now I must gather my knees close so that my chin can rest on them, for better viewing and to ward off that slight nip in the air.

Most of the times, well, all of the times, the enactment of Karva Chauth has nothing to do with what you were fed on television and movies as you grew up. To begin with, the faces of normal, flesh-and-blood people do not drip with the saccharine-sweet piety that you see on screen. Their dialogues, so to say, are not scripted, overflowing with the burden of wifely devotion. I can but hear them now, sitting on this green, dank bench on the park, facing that row of slightly over-embellished buildings, their short snatches of conversation, that occasional burst of laughter. The men, back from office, or any other trade; the wives emerging after a day spent fasting. The ordeal is personal, its end a public spectacle.

The balconies (and some rooftops) are all a-shimmer now: the sequined sarees and the glint from the jewellery dispelling the pools of darkness that gather in corners. I always wait for the lapse, when one of them will lean over for a peep at the neighbour's, the is-her-outfit-better-than-mine point in time. That one lapse is guaranteed to become a contagion, and within a few moments of the first bank of curiosity being breached, well-coiffed heads are leaning over, checking each other out, an appreciative comment for the now, a snigger saved for the later.

Of course, the sieve is the aha-moment of Karva Chauth, as anybody who has grown up in this Bollywood-drenched culture knows and has it embedded in her bloodstream. The wives, before they break their fast, are supposed to peer at the waning moon through the sieve, before they turn it to gaze at their husbands through the mesh barrier. My cultural disconnect bothers me now: what is the dramatic function of this prop, what are the legends hidden behind this device? I admonish myself though. This is the final act, not the time to raise rhetorical questions.

Those involved in the celebrations withdraw to their quarters. The stage is now empty. My feminist nerves slowly surface now, raw and jangled. Never a day to celebrate the woman, the wife, the mother: the toiler in the household and the workplace. Salons have made a killing over the past few days, I remember reading somewhere, with the demand for botox-induced facelifts running neck-and-neck with traditional henna embellishments. A woman commodified (ugh, that clumsy, ridiculous word) is as true, old and secure as the mountains. A woman's lot, to be caught forever in that booty trap (even more ugh).

And yet who can grudge the warmth and sense of rootedness a festival can bring, no matter how obscure its origins? Those few moments of shared togetherness on the balconies and terraces are perhaps what this festival, and all others, is about; society's legacy - to be as much treasured as that much-vaunted piece of family heirloom - to those caught in the unforgiving bind of the pre-marriage 'your-place-or-mine', only to transit to the post-marriage 'your-credit-card-or-mine'. Chauth, I have ascertained, refers to the fourth day of the lunar calendar, and before next year, I am determined to figure out what 'karva' means.