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Indian Woman Fasts for Husband to Live Long
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Indian Woman Fasts for Husband to Live Long

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Indian Woman Fasts for Husband to Live Long

Indian Woman Fasts for Husband to Live Long
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Some cultures believe abstaining from meals, or fasting, can prolong the life of a loved one. Anu Kumar, an Indian woman, talks about the traditional Indian fast Karwa Chauth, where women fast for 24 hours to ensure that their husbands live long lives. Anu explains why she embraces the tradition in her life, while others in her family have not.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Switching gears now. You're a modern woman, right? You can bring home the bacon, expect her husband to do his share around the house - all of that, right? And yet, there comes a time when you may find yourself following the call of tradition in a way you may not have expected. That's Anu Kumar's story. She told it in this week's Washington Post Sunday magazine. She's here with us in the studio now. Welcome.

Ms. ANU KUMAR (Writer, "A Hungry Heart," Washington Post Sunday Magazine; Vice President, Bank of America): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Anu, tell me the story of the origin of Karwa Chauth.

Ms. KUMAR: The holiday is basically observed annually in northern India, specifically. All the married women fast for 24 hours from, you know, the time you wake up in the morning until basically moonrise - not sunset, the moonrise. Some people don't even drink water.

The story that I have been told since I was a little kid was that it started by my lord, Shiva, that he wanted his wife Parvati, who is the icon of the married woman, he asked her to observe this for his longevity. And, of course, Lord Krishna, who's known to be very mischievous, decided to tell everyone and (unintelligible) folks this story, and everybody on Earth start observing this holiday. It is believed that if you fast, that your husband will live a longer life.

And as you know in India, to be a married woman, it carries a lot of weight. I mean, you have a definitely a better standing in society if you are married woman. So it behooves you to actually protect that relationship. So this is your - this is sort of a Indian woman's way of giving back and say, okay, I'm going to stay married for as long as I can.

Once you break your fast and the moon rises, all the women get together, because in India, we tend to live in communities. So all the women come together, and, of course, read all these stories and do chanting and prayers in the evening wearing their wedding gowns - or our wedding saris, rather, which is an Indian outfit. And you pray, and then you look at the moon through this sieve.

MARTIN: A sieve?

Ms. KUMAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Why a sieve?

Ms. KUMAR: I've asked my mom, my aunts a couple of time why a sieve specifically, and everyone's given a different story of why a sieve. But I think that the common theme is that it's filtered. You're praying to god, but in a filtered way. You're not looking directly at them.

And once you look at the moon through the sieve, you turn around. And then you look at your husband, and they pray to him, and that he's suppose to feed you your first bite of the day, which is an absolutely delicious bite in the entire world.

MARTIN: And did your mother observe this when you were growing up?

Ms. KUMAR: Absolutely. I mean, every year I saw mom observing it. I saw my aunts observing it. We lived with my maternal aunts. So we have, you know, five or six of them in the one house, and my mother. And they all observe it together, watching them, you know, basically fast all day, then in the evening come together, get - watching them get all dressed up, which is just so lovely. I never…

MARTIN: And also seeing your father feed your mother, which is something that you don't generally see grown men do. And there's a tenderness…

Ms. KUMAR: Oh, actually, especially in Indian culture, because you don't see that public affection at all. And for them to do this was just so lovely and seeing them playfully affectionate, you know, hug each other and so forth. So for me, it was a glimpse into a little bit of romance in their life.

MARTIN: But then you grew up, and, you know, became, you know, a modern American woman. And the thought occurs, hmm, fasting? You know, for my husband? No way. Or this is superstition, or this is anti-feminist.

Ms. KUMAR: Oh, absolutely. I came to America when I was 11 years old. So, you know, I came into America with a romantic picture in my head. However, you know, I grew up in America, you know, where feminism is at all-time high. And you went to college here and so forth. So, yeah, definitely, I got to question, you know, what is this holiday?

MARTIN: But your mother doesn't even fast anymore. And the wonderful about the article is you talked about this conflict. Should I do this? But you did decide to continue to observe the holiday. Why?

Ms. KUMAR: It's because I had the choice. My mom gave it up because, you know, it turns out she didn't have a choice. You know, it was something she felt was pressured by her mother-in-law, and then, of course, in turn, by all the relatives around her. If she didn't do it, oh my God, you don't respect this marriage tradition, and you don't respect your husband, and you don't want him to live a long life. And when she came to America, I mean, she realized, you know what? Those pressures aren't here. I'm not going to do it.

MARTIN: Do that make your father feel bad?

Ms. KUMAR: My dad didn't say one way or the other. He said, well, you know - the way my mom put it to him was, you know, it's bad for my health to not eat all day. He said, okay, fine. If you don't feel good, so, you know, so be it. But, you know, I had the choice, you know. My mother did not. It's like I did observe it in my own terms.

MARTIN: But it wasn't that easy. In fact, you write about the fact that the holiday came on a regular workday, and a senior executive at your company, Bank of America, asked you to lunch and you couldn't go.

Ms. KUMAR: Yeah. Part of it is easier because the workday. Because, you know, you're so busy, you don't think about the fast. But part of it's hard, because, you know, you are given opportunities. Like that executive asked me for lunch, and I would have given my arm and a leg any other time to have lunch with this person, and, you know, talk some of my ideas. And here I had to say no.

MARTIN: Did you say why?

Ms. KUMAR: I did say I was fasting, but I don't think he heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KUMAR: So I'm kicking myself to this day if I made the right decision or not, but it's one of those things you just have to let go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Maybe we should send him boxed lunch with a note.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KUMAR: I love that idea.

MARTIN: But - and just to say how modern you are, apparently, your husband now fasts with you?

Ms. KUMAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Explain that.

Ms. KUMAR: Well, I'm not sure if it's so much a reflection of me, but it's a reflection of him. He grew up in a family where this wasn't observed. So to him, this was a whole new territory when I explained it to him.

MARTIN: But he's also from India?

Ms. KUMAR: Yes, his family's Indian, but as you know, there's - long, long time ago they were in India. They don't observe it at all. So for him, this was a new thing. So when he asked me why am I doing this and I explained to him it's for his longevity and for his health, he said, oh, why can't I do this for you? So it made sense to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KUMAR: So it got - made the whole tradition sweeter. And I think the reason I continue to do it is because of that.

MARTIN: And you have a beautiful little daughter now.

Ms. KUMAR: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: What you do think you'll teach her about the holiday?

Ms. KUMAR: I want…

MARTIN: Which has mommy gets cranky once a year and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KUMAR: And don't eat. I do want her to know the holiday exists and why it exists. And I think that that's what I'll pass onto her, that she has a choice. She has a choice in how she observes traditions. You know, this tradition has given a lot to me. It's given me more than it takes from me. It gives me, you know, sense of community. It gives me sense of connections to my husband, to my married friends, to my childhood. I want her to know she can continue with those traditions, but she has a choice on how she does it.

MARTIN: Anu Kumar wrote "A Hungry Heart." It's a piece in this week's Washington Post Sunday magazine. She's a vice president at Bank of America, and she joined me here in the studio.

Anu Kumar, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KUMAR: Thank you.

MARTIN: You can read the article in its entirety by going to our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

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