Karva Chauth, a Hindu ritual that is observed with varying degrees of seriousness, mostly in the North of India, is a great leveller.
Some years ago, I noticed a long line of foreign-made cars parked along both sides of the Defence Colony flyover in south Delhi on the evening of that blessed day. Women, accompanied by their spouses, waited in these vehicles, armed with sieves, for the sighting of the holy moon that would let them break their day-long fast. The sky was unseasonally cloudy that night, the wait was probably longer than expected, but it did not seem to diminish the enthusiasm in the faces looking out of the windows of air-conditioned BMWs and Ferraris.
Thousands of others across the city — living in the sarais and the gaons, in less salubrious circumstances — must have endured the same sense of anticipation, their goals being the same. The same evening, as I was narrating this experience at a dinner party, I was informed that LGBT couples, too, observe this practice — the proof of which is sporadically reported in Indian media. This year was no exception either.
Indian law does not give legitimacy to gay, lesbian and bisexual people, deeming them criminals under the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which condemns sexual intercourse "against the order of nature" as a punishable offence.
For a community from which the State has historically withheld fundamental rights to observe a sanskar like Karva Chauth may seem a shockingly unexpected gesture.
Recently the Supreme Court recognised transgender people as belonging to the "third gender" and the Cabinet approved the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016, which is expected to usher in a slew of social reforms affecting the lives of people from the community once it is passed as law. But by refusing to read down the deplorable Section 377, the law holds back from transgender people their right to consensually engage in sexual relationships with others — and, by extension, denies them the right to have fulfilling romantic relationships. In other words, it doesn't allow them to exist as ordinary Indian citizens.
For a community from which the State has historically withheld these fundamental rights to observe a sanskar like Karva Chauth may seem a shockingly unexpected gesture. The counter-argument, as many queer people make, is that by following a heteronormative custom like Karva Chauth, entrenched in the very socio-religious tradition that refuses them dignity, they want to claim for themselves a place in the mainstream. To fast for their partner on Karva Chauth is thus an affirmation of their identities: a means of asserting themselves as being an integral part of society, as opposed to being "a minuscule minority", as they had been referred to by the Supreme Court in its ruling of 2013.
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. One side calls it out for being sexist, anti-women and the reflection of regressive values; the counterpoint demands the right for women to make their own choice about the way they wish to observe or ignore the practice. 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.
Increasingly, it feeds into the commercial interests of food and gift sellers. Archies, for instance, has a range of options to buy for your S.O. for Karva Chauth: greeting cards, bags, wallets, fragrances, clothes, cosmetics, jewellery, you name it and there's something for everyone for the occasion. If Valentine's Day gets the goat of the Hindu right, Karva Chauth is a kosher excuse to celebrate a sanitised V-Day, the fast being the classic sanskari touch.
Archies, for instance, has a range of options to buy for your S.O. for Karva Chauth: greeting cards, bags, wallets, fragrances, clothes, cosmetics, jewellery, you name it and there's something for everyone for the occasion.
Among queer people, too, the same logic should apply, except it is worth pointing out that the imitation of a custom, premised on the institution of marriage, and perceived as perpetuating inequality between partners (one of them fasts for the well-being and long life of the other) could not possibly be a healthy expression of love for one's partner. Whatever it indicates, it certainly doesn't uphold the equality of two people in a romantic relationship. 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 of grisly and unnecessary?
Same-sex marriage is now widely recognised in the West and is as legitimate a wish as any. But it should be embraced in terms that do not condone — certainly don't advance — the stereotypes and prejudices that have scarred heterosexual marriages through the centuries. If that involves having to avoid some of the rituals of the mainstream, such a choice should be worn as a badge of honour and pride.
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