Essay: Queering Karva Chauth
Being at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, cut off from the intellectual spaces that shape my world view, I feel compelled to examine my own bubbles and biases. The attempt to let go of self righteousness can bring both pain and relief. The pain comes from not having something seemingly solid to hold on to. The relief comes from an embrace of curiosity over certainty. To grow less stubborn, more open to ambiguity and complexity, seem like goals worth pursuing.
I found the language to articulate these thoughts recently around Karva Chauth, which is described on the website of India’s Ministry of Culture as “a one-day festival celebrated annually by married Hindu women.” On this occasion, they undertake a nirjala fast -- without food and water -- “from sunrise to moonrise and pray for the well being and longevity of their husbands.” Prevalent in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, it is also observed by “unmarried women who pray in the hope of securing a desired life partner.”
I want to understand why Karva Chauth evokes strong feelings in people who reject or follow the tradition. Every year, there are numerous social media posts by feminist women who view it as a regressive practice rooted in misogyny because the wife is expected to fast for the husband’s well being but there is no reciprocal expectation from the husband. On the other hand, I also see a growing number of news reports about LGBTQ couples who have begun celebrating Karva Chauth. This contradiction has been intriguing.
Sudipto Pal, a data scientist who works at Walmart Global Tech, and chairs the organization’s LGBT associate resource group, has written a short story titled The Boy Who Kept Karvachauth. It was published by Juggernaut as an e-book in 2019. He says, “A lot of queer-themed books and films tell urban stories with city-bred characters. I feel disconnected from them, so I wanted to explore how a gay couple in a small town would express their feelings for each other. That is how the story of Uday and Shashikant came into being.”
Growing up without Karva Chauth festivities in his family, he learnt about the “spiritual and social significance” of the day from films such as Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). He says, “I like how people are reinventing it in ways that are meaningful for their own relationships. Like Raj, the character played by Shah Rukh Khan in DDLJ, many men fast along with their wives. We should also celebrate queer couples who wish to participate.”
Uday and Shashikant do not meet at a nightclub, house party, queer support group or pride march. These contexts are alien to their lives. They know each other through family connections, and Karva Chauth becomes an opportunity to express their affection and loyalty towards each other without drawing too much attention. They carve out a place for themselves in a tradition that is usually restricted to heterosexual couples.
Does “queering” Karva Chauth release it from the patriarchal baggage it seems to carry? In an essay titled LGBT People Celebrating Karva Chauth Should Know That The Ritual Is Rooted in The Same Culture That Shuns Them (2016), for huffingtonpost.com, Somak Ghoshal writes, “Most of us don’t take kindly to people cutting themselves up to write the name of their beloved with their own blood. Why should depriving the self of food and water for a whole day be seen as any less grisly and unnecessary?”
While this question might offend people who celebrate Karva Chauth, Ghoshal offers us a chance to think about whether fasting is indeed a form of self-harm. Is he being facetious? Apart from people who fast because they are expected to, there are many who fast as a matter of personal choice. The meanings they attach to it include stilling the mind, cultivating self control, allowing the body to rest and rejuvenate, and being deeply immersed in prayer.
Ghoshal offers his personal opinion on the matter but also indicates that other perspectives are worth looking into. He writes, “The debate over Karva Chauth is a hydra-headed monster and it gets uglier as you scratch the surface, as is the case with most social customs... Like the burqa, which can act as a tool of oppression or a symbol of informed choice, the practice of Karva Chauth has its nuances and is best not dismissed with sanctimonious condescension.”
Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1996), which is loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s short story Lihaaf (1942), revolves around the bond between two women named Sita and Radha respectively. That they “turn” lesbian because they are “trapped” in loveless marriages seems to be an unimaginative reading of this finely textured film. Like Uday and Shashikant in The Boy Who Kept Karvachauth, Sita and Radha too adapt the festival to their own needs and desires.
In a chapter titled Feeding Desire: Food, Domesticity, and Challenges to Heteropatriarchy, which is part of her book Culinary Fictions (2010), Anita Mannur writes about how Mehta inserts “a narrative of homosociality” into the “heterosexual ritual of female self-abnegation,” thus “imagining the possibility of female-female intimacy through a shared experience of deprivation and hunger.” Unlike the Bollywood films mentioned earlier, Mehta “ruptures the annual ritual such that it falls away from the cultural jurisdiction of heterosexual Hindu culture.”
Sita is married to Jatin, who has a girlfriend named Julie. Radha is married to Jatin’s elder brother Ashok, who has taken a vow of celibacy and is committed to Swamiji who teaches him that desire is the root cause of all evil. As sisters-in-law in the same household, Sita and Radha get to know each other through the shared labour of cooking. Their conversations in the kitchen lead to attraction and love. Eventually, they gather the courage to leave the violent household and build a future together.
Mannur writes, “On Karva Chauth, the women ritually fast to ensure their husbands’ long lives, but the rest of the day is spent in each other’s company... Where same-sex desire might be frowned on if it were to be expressed overtly, the film captures how everyday activities associated with food preparation are imbued with subversive potential to further the bonds of intimacy between Radha and Sita.” Apart from celebrating Karva Chauth together, they also go to the Hazrat Nizamuddin shrine where Sita tells Radha, “I wish we could be together forever.”
The idea of “queering” Karva Chauth has received much flak. In an article titled Articulating Dissident Citizenship, Belonging, and Queerness on Cyberspace (2014) for the South Asian Review, Rohit K Dasgupta analyses reactions to Karva Chauth photographs uploaded by Sonali and Alka, a lesbian couple. He writes, “The patriarchal bias of the ceremony has been a sore point among feminist activists in Kolkata for a long time... a lesbian couple reinforcing this heteronormative practice came as a shock to the queer community in Kolkata.”
Filmmaker Onir, known for his sensitive portrayal of gay protagonists in My Brother Nikhil (2005) and I Am (2010), believes that LGBTQ communities should focus on advocating for civil rights rather than imitating “everything that is messed up in the heteronormative world.” He wonders why gay men are looking for validation in Karva Chauth, and says, “Soon, they will want to reclaim sati or wear only white after they lose their partner. This encourages straight people to ask gay men stupid questions like: Who is the man in the relationship, and who is the woman?” His message is clear: Forget about Karva Chauth, and focus on pride marches.
Neha Bhat, a trauma-informed clinical art therapist, artist and counselor who works with several LGBTQ clients, agrees that Karva Chauth might seem meaningless to people whose lives do not adhere to “the script of a conventional heterosexual marriage.” She wanted to subvert the practice instead of discarding it. She thinks of fasting as “a way to let the body process what cannot be processed intellectually,” so she and five of her friends decided to fast together “to prioritize our own-well being.” There was no pati parmeshwar in the picture.
Her parents had an inter-caste marriage, and raised her with “a general distaste for rituals” but she chose a different path, which “takes from Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi and other streams of wisdom... and does not threaten my feminism.” She and her friends dressed up for Karva Chauth and broke their fast on Zoom while gazing at each other. “Coming together created space for storytelling around personal experiences of abuse, separation, adultery, divorce, open marriages, abortion -- conversations that are difficult and much-needed,” she says.
The resistance to Karva Chauth and other Hindu festivals is also informed by an anti-caste standpoint, especially because LGBTQ community leaders often come from dominant caste communities and support the Bharatiya Janata Party. In an essay titled Hindu Nation And Its Queers: Caste, Islamophobia, And De/Coloniality in India (2020) for the journal Interventions, Nishant Upadhyay writes about how “the Hindu Right deploys queerness to propagate its Islamophobic, casteist, and homohindunationalist agendas,” and how “decolonizing the law, state, and sexuality would also mean annihilating caste and brahminical structures.”
What does this mean to LGBTQ people who do not have access to the theoretical frameworks upon which this critical articulation is built? How do they find little crevices of joy and freedom while choosing to follow traditions that keep them connected to their families? When a practice is regarded as “progressive” or “regressive”, is that classification based on the interpretation of the observer or the intention of the performer? These are tough questions but thinking about them can teach us a thing or two about our own prejudices.
Khushi Irani, who works as an executive assistant, celebrates Karva Chauth with great enthusiasm. She says, “I like to pray and fast for my partner’s good health. This wish arises from within, not because someone told me to do this. Both of us have faced a lot of violence in our birth families, so we poured all our love into our marriage. When everyone abandoned us, we were there for each other not only as partners but as friends, siblings, parents and teachers.” She was born in a Jain family, where nobody observed Karva Chauth. She learnt about the ritual on her own, and incorporated it into her life.
Her partner, Shourya Irani, says, “As a person assigned female at birth, I was forcibly married to a man and I also had two children from my first marriage because of pressure from my family. He cheated on me, so I left him. Now as a trans man, I have found my freedom and Khushi’s presence is the biggest joy in my life.” In their case, the husband does not want the wife to fast but the wife believes that fasting will guarantee that they will be together in every lifetime.
There is something life-sustaining about the power of faith, which cannot be summed up through logical explanations. When people have been let down by their blood relations, which is a very common experience for LGBTQ people, they seek refuge in a variety of ways -- in making art, finding chosen families, becoming part of networks and communities, and also in creating new rituals to replace old ones that bring up memories of pain.
Writing this essay has unsettled my own understanding of what it means to be queer or feminist. As Eckhart Tolle writes in his book A New Earth (2005), “The quicker you are in attaching verbal or mental labels to things, people or situations, the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes, and the more deadened you become to reality, the miracle of life that continuously unfolds within and around you. In this way, cleverness may be gained, but wisdom is lost, and so are joy, love, creativity, and aliveness.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He tweets @chintan_connect