Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ashtami and the Unmarried Woman



Oil-soaked pooris (fried Indian bread) appeared at the breakfast table this morning. I notice them piled on various paper plates, each also holding chickpeas and halwa (Indian dessert) and a red thread and a twenty rupee note. Now I remembered – it’s Ashtami – the eighth day of the Nine Days of the Goddess.

The tradition, which is very sweet and beautiful, requires each family to cook a specific meal (poori, chickpeas and halwa) and distribute it along with clothing/jewellery/cash to at least eight or nine kanyaas in the neighbourhood on the eighth day of this Goddess Worshipping Festival.

The word ‘kanyaa’ has developed different meanings. There was a time when kanyaa meant a girl who had not yet begun menstruating. It then expanded in breadth becoming a term used for a girl who was unmarried, and (hence) a virgin. It is the latter meaning that has continued to be associated with the word today.

The idea was to revere the goddess energy manifest in girls – a truly unique celebration of the Feminine that only happens in India. The idea was to make the girls conscious of their feminine power, to help them identify themselves with the Goddess and thus access Her gifts within them. The idea was to teach them to know their power and their place in society – a pedestal which was the highest a man could give a woman – that of the Divine Goddess. It was an empowering ritual for the girl and a reminder to her father of the sacred nature of her existence.

Like all traditions, it’s dwindled into the drudgery of ritual, for most people. I mean, it seems quite pointless feeding and clothing and worshipping the goddess in your daughter in April and then murdering your daughter in May because she decides to marry a young man who doesn’t belong to your caste. (Yes, this does happen in Indian cities even today. The phenomenon is known as ‘honour killings.’)

It’s like making a trip to Vaishno Devi (a famous goddess pilgrimage spot) for ‘mata ke darshan’ (vision of the Mother Goddess) and then coming home a week later and beating your wife in a drunken stupor or forcing your daughter to quit her studies so she can marry. I don’t think that could really put you in high favour with the Great Goddess. Nope. Definitely not.

To me, the tradition is beautiful, especially if it accomplishes its original aim. And if I had a daughter I would remind her exactly what it meant before I gave her pooris and halwa or maybe just pasta would do. The food wouldn’t be the point of course. 

The reason I wrote this blogpost, however, was to voice a completely different idea: I am compelled to observe that in a society that is marriage-obsessed – the ritual can be a tad embarrassing.

In India, as a woman, your shelf life (value in the marriage market) dips considerably when you cross 25 years of age. If you’ve made it to 30 without being wedded, you are old news – literally – like yesterday’s newspaper that lines the bins. All the ‘good’ men are taken. Only the ‘divorcees’ (still mentioned in hushed whispers) are left and well, I mean, you really don’t want to settle for a ‘divorcee’ (hushed whisper) unless you are 38 and there’s ‘no other option.’ I am rolling my eyes here – seriously.

(I’m not even going to venture into the shocking lack of acceptance of divorced people in this society – it is truly appalling – martyrs who murder their souls in loveless marriages are given greater respect than individuals who choose to stand up for themselves and define their boundaries or awaken to find their trust betrayed by a partner and their honour tarnished in society – all in one fell swoop.)

But I digress.

What I meant to say was that in such a marriage-obsessed society, it is a bit of a rude shock to be woken up, at the age of 31 with poori and halwa from well-meaning neighbours on Ashtami.  The assumption is that I am still a kanyaa as I am not wedded to a man. (I might be engaged, in a relationship, living in on weekends in secret, or lesbian - but that doesn't count, strictly speaking.)

I immediately thought of all my single girl friends aged 30 and above who might still be waking up to poori and halwa on Ashtami morning, twice a year. A sweet gesture from the neighbourhood aunties that says they love you. Yet for these young women, embittered by their struggle to understand how to be single without having to feel apolegetic about it in this culture, or signing away your life to someone you don’t love – for them it could very well be a snub, an embarrassment, a prod in a tender spot – ‘You aren’t married YET! You’re an Old Maid, if ever there was one.’

Perhaps well-meaning neighbours can be a teeny bit sensitive about sending Ashtami Poori and Halwa to women above the age of 28 yrs. That would be a fair age to stop rubbing it in. Alternatively, they can honour the Divine in all women regardless of age or marital status by sending Poori and Halwa for all the women in the household, and thus celebrate the grace of the Goddess with great gusto. 

I'm sure the Goddess, benevolent as She is, wouldn't mind.

And that was what I really wanted to say.

15 comments:

Sanjukta said...

Liked reading this a lot, I keep asking where are the strong women writers. I just met one. Keep writing, we need more of these :)

Saraswati said...

Thanks Sanjukta... very happy you stopped by and enjoyed the piece.I look forward to reading your writings, now that I've accessed your blog. We should stay in touch!

Anuj said...

I really enjoyed it and it's great to read this article as ashtami once again just passed and nobody understand the basic idea of this festival.

Saraswati said...

Thanks Anuj. Exactly - our rituals have such depth and meaning - if only we remembered!

Anonymous said...

I thought this was very well written. I couldn't agree more. Nikhil

soma said...

I could not stop myself from leaving a comment here. I liked this post as its all true. My family don't participate in this, so never understood the real meaning or purpose behind it. Keep writing, and thanks for the article.

Saraswati said...

Thanks, Nikhil and soma. Encouragement is a great blessing for a writer.

anuradha said...

Enjoyed reading it, so true people have forgotten the real meaning of celebrating astami, what remains is puri halwa and chana.

Sharmistha Ghosh said...

Enjoyed reading what you wrote, just the other day a very self proclaimed "Modern" lady said to me that her daughter is 17 now and in 12th grade in another 3 years she should be married off to a rich man!! I am sad , wanted to say wake up girl, LV bag and Aldo shoes dont make you modern !

Saraswati said...

Thanks anuradha. Yes, Sharmi, you're absolutely right... truly liberal thought is a concept that seems light years away in present Indian society.

Rahul Vats said...

Nice Article. Thought provoking. Some points may need to be readdressed, overall something very close to my heart.

Saraswati said...

Thanks, Rahul. Yes, I am quite surprised people like it so much - I did not spend much time writing it. There are certainly loopholes, issues that can be dealt with better in the article...

Swapna Maini said...

So true!! Finally a post on how the woman really feels in this country as against what the rituals (created for her) intended for her to feel! I don't bother loking for loopholes in an honest personal account :)

Saraswati said...

Thanks, Swapna :)

barbie said...

hi saraswathi. ur writing is awesome.I felt like crying.You inspired me to write my life experience.I am going to do it, which might help some women to come out of their shell one day.
lots of love. if possible send me your e mail. my email id-sduraimani@mum.eu/shanthiduraimani83@gmail.com
usa-6414559312