A few weeks ago in the elevator, one of my neighbors finally did more than the standard “nod and smile”. S introduced herself and invited me to get together with her for tea. She was new to the building too, and had children around the age of DiploBoy 2. I was thrilled, surprised, and happy. After two months here, I was finally going to have friends in my building who weren’t other expat families!
S got me on the building WhatsApp groups, and soon enough, I was getting notices for gatherings, queries on where to buy vegetables, and playdate information. Score! The really big thing though, was getting the information about Karva Chauth.
Karva Chauth is a Northern Indian tradition where wives fast and do pooja (prayers) to ensure a long life for their husbands. I’m not an expert, not a Hindu, and am already suffering to keep things straight with the constant information overload I’m exposed to as an expat and a mommy, so I’ll stick with that short explanation and let you read all the details on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karva_Chauth
The building ladies (aka, “the Divas”) organized two days of preparation and pooja. Friday afternoon, the day before the fast, there was a mendhi party – the traditional Indian henna decorations that women, especially brides, have painted on their hands and feet. Again, I refer you to the illustrious Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mehndi
I’d been wanting to do mehndi, and thinking this was a good way to get it done and done well instead of by some hawk near a tourist trap, and just maybe wade into the Diva social scene, I RSVP’d for the mehndi party.
At 2:30 p.m. sharp on Friday, I ventured down to the clubhouse. When I opened the door, several ladies were sitting around on thin mattresses, either waiting their turn or getting mehndi applied by the four young women the coordinator, I, had brought in. I spotted K, a lady I know from the morning bus run, and went over to sit beside her and get in line for my turn. K had a really cool design, a mandala in the middle of her palm, hanging lanterns from her wrists, and her husband’s name hidden in the web design on her fingers.
“So – do you want just a little, or are you going full-on?”
“Go big or go home – that’s my thought today.”
(Big grin.) “Americans.” (Wink, wink.)
The mehndi artist finished the palms of K’s hands and then while K waited for it to dry, it was my turn. When K asked me what I wanted to tell the girl to do design wise, I said, “Surprise me”.
“Are you OK with it going up to your wrist?
K said something in Hindi, the girl smiled, picked up my hand laid it on a pillow in her lap, cracked open a tube of mendhi paste, and started in on her design.
Soon, my wrist was covered in waves and circles, lines, and swirls. A peacock. Some patchwork threadlike design. Moving up to my palm, she changed the designs frequently, adding flowers, waves, and on my thumb a distinctive “mango design”.
It didn’t really tickle, but it was kind of hard to sit still, especially because in a boneheaded move I had worn an above-the-knee skirt, and was trying to sit as ladylike as possible. After one hand was finished, K was dry enough on the palms to get the top of her hands done, so I moved aside and took the opportunity to stand. Crick! Not used to sitting sideways for soooo long at my age. I walked around the room to get a feel for the other designs to see it there was anything I wanted her to add when I went back for the other side.
Everyone’s design was completely different. There must have been 20 women at that point in the room, all in varying stages of application, and not one of them had the same design. Surveying everything didn’t help at all – time to just go with the flow and let the artist do her magic.
Soon, it was my turn again. The artist went to work again, and this time she did a completely different design. It was very free form to me, but one of the ladies came by and told me it was a very traditional Indian wedding design. Eventually, I flipped over to the top of my hands and kept watching as the artist continued to draw.
Women continued to flit around the room, and eventually most of them stopped by the cushions where I was and started up a conversation. K introduced me to some of the ladies she knew, and I even got in an introduction myself when S showed up and it turned out she’d not met K yet. (Boy, was I proud!) Everyone cooed over the designs in our group, smiled and joked, and the women who were already finished and dry fed those of us with pasty hands snacks and tea. Every few conversations, however, contained the one question I’d not really prepared myself for: “Are you fasting tomorrow?”
Hmmm. The first time, I just kind of brushed it off. I was going to wade in slowly. I really wasn’t sure if “crashing” a pooja was something I should do. After the seventh or eighth time I was asked, I was starting to feel like “well, I sure could stand to miss a meal or two”, and decidedly said, “Yes. Yes, OK. I will.” K smiled and laughed – “Nothing. Not even water! And it’s from sunrise to moonrise – which means about 10 p.m. here.”
Okaaaay. Food, no worries. But water? In INDIA. Where it’s HOT???!! Um. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? I was determined to try it. Especially since it seemed like some of the women were throwing down a gauntlet. Smiling, but there was definitely a question hanging in the air.
Two hours after I’d arrived, I made the rounds, thanked I for setting everything up, and headed home with drying goop on my hands. The DiploBoys had some friends over for a playdate, and they rushed over to me to ask me something – probably asking for ice cream, or candy, or a chainsaw – I’ve no idea, because DiploBoy 2 took one look at my hands and ran to his room screaming. Turns out, I’d forgotten to mention to anyone what I was planning to do that afternoon, and in DB2’s words, “It freaks me OUT!!”
By this time, half of the paste was crusting off and falling all over my clean floor like so many mice droppings. I don’t clean the floors, so having a mess doesn’t bother me in that way, but I like L and V and I don’t want them quitting anytime soon, so I parked myself at the table and sat down to wait out more drying time.
Only one problem. I had dinner guests coming in two hours.
So I set the timer for 6 p.m., gave L some marching orders regarding feeding the kids, and waited. And waited. At 6 p.m., I went into the bathroom, grabbed a body brush, and began to scrape/scrub all the dried paste off of my skin. It took about 40 minutes and I totally defiled my bathroom sink. I still may have to worry about V and L quitting.
The designs at this point were a medium reddish brown. My right hand had been done about an hour before the left, and it was a shade or two darker. Examining my hands, I found only a few scuffmarks, and figured that for a first-timer, that was pretty darn good.
When DiploDad came home, I didn’t get the freaked out screaming, but I did get the eyebrow raise. Kind of like I did when I got braids when we were in Ghana. Then I got the quirky little smile that says, “You are so freaking crazy, but that’s why I love you (when you’re not making me crazy)” and I melted. Sigh.
After a lovely evening with friends that ended WAY too late, we packed the DiploBoys off to bed and hit the sack. At about 1:30 a.m. I awoke and drank some water, then passed back out until about 9:30 a.m. When the alarm went off, my first instinct was to reach for the water on my nightstand, but it wasn’t there. Oh yeah, right. I looked down at my hands and noticed the mendhi was really getting dark – almost black in some places.
I heard DiploDad asking the kids what they wanted for breakfast and thank G-d they said cereal, because if he’d started frying bacon, he would not have gotten that long life I was fasting for. I dragged myself out of bed, freshened up, and took DiploBoy 2 to soccer.
A few of the ladies noticed the mendhi, and so did my driver, K. Yes, I’m fasting, I said. Yes, the “Indian way” – no water even. After soccer, DB2 and I headed to the American Womens’ Club charity shopping mela at a local swanky hotel to do some early Christmas shopping. DB2 was in a sweet mood, but he was hungry again, and because we had some time to kill before the mela opened, and because I am clearly a masochist, I took him to the hotel’s patisserie for a “snack”. DB2 kept trying to “share”, which was sweet, and he was so confused as to what possessed his mother to deny herself some of his Black Forest Cherry parfait. Finally, the mela opened, we escaped the enveloping smells of chocolate, vanilla, and sugar, and headed off to my second (wait – third) favorite thing – shopping. By the time we got home, it was lunchtime, so I headed to my room to go read while DiploDad fed the boys.
While I was in my self-imposed exile, I realized that I actually hadn’t RSVP’d for the pooja, so I texted S and asked if she thought it would be a problem. Nope! Came the answer – others were just calling in. So I called the hostess, apologized for my timing, and RSVP’d.
“Hello, is N there, please?”
“Hi N, my name is DiploMom and I live in C block, and I’m sorry for my timing, but would it be OK if I attend the pooja this afternoon?”
“I’m sorry – your name again? I missed it.”
“DiploMom. I – “
“Oh, I know who you are! Are you fasting today?”
“Well, yes. I didn’t really consider it initially, but after some encouragement, I decided to go ahead. So if it’s not too late, I’d like to attend this afternoon.”
“Oh, not at all! Flat A###. See you soon!”
Brilliant. Now what do I do? I googled, but when you can’t spell what you’ve gotten yourself into, you really don’t come up with much, do you? I’d deleted my old WhatsApp message and neglected to write down the name of the ritual. So I texted S, told her I was going, and thankfully my phone was soon flooded with information – what to wear, what to bring, what she was wearing – whew.
“Wear anything Indian. Jewelry. Bring a thali – a plate of some sort, any kind. Put some rice on it, and some almonds. I’ll give you some red powder, and a few more things when you stop by.”
A plate, easy. I have more sets of dishes than Crate & Barrel, and I brought most of them with me. But which one? Floors at our complex are marble – bad news for dishes. Maybe a plastic plate? Nice idea, but the only plastic plates we own have a pirate skull and crossbones on them. Probably not a good idea. Eventually, I settled on a pretty little dessert plate that DB2 had painted on my birthday one year. Colorful. Meaningful. Pretty. I put some rice on the plate. Next up, almonds. Digging through the cupboards, I discovered only Chili and Lime or Habanero flavor, so I did the only thing that I reasonably could: rinsed them off and hoped that the pooja did not involve anyone besides me eating them.
Shortly before the pooja, I put on my only Indian clothes, grabbed my makeshift thali, and went to go get S. On the way out the door, DiploDad asked me, “What do you want to do about dinner tonight?” Gah. I was doing really well with this fast thing until he asked that.
When we arrived at the pooja, N’s door was decorated with marigold garlands, and two bowls filled with water and a floating design made of marigold petals, rose petals, and tuberose petals stood next to the door. We took off our shoes and stepped inside. Wow. Some more garlands were draped over the door, the Ganesha in the entryway was decorated and a candle was lit, and some garlands with big balls of marigold blossoms hung from the ceiling. One round of the pooja was already going on, and women were sitting in a circle, passing their thalis around and a few were chanting along to the music that was playing in the background. But the most amazing thing was the women. Pretty much everyone was in a sari, and most women wore orange, red, or some shade of pink. K wore yellow, and one woman had on a vibrant green. They all had on a lot of jewelry, most of it very large and ornate in style. I just may have to up my bling factor if I choose to hang with the Divas.
It was fascinating watching the pooja. I felt a little out of place for a moment, and then that feeling was replaced by awe and appreciation. The women waiting their turn were chatting quietly, but every so often, a loud giggle would break free, and the ladies would clasp hands, smile and shush each other. In short, just like girlfriends do. That’s what the Divas were – girlfriends. All gathered together to share their marital lives, their love for their husband, and their devotion to their Gods, and I had been invited to be a part of it. Wow. S explained that the prayer was the story of Siva and Parvati and their children, and that it was in Punjabi.
Soon it was our turn, and I found a place on the floor next to one of the co-hostesses and an older woman I’d never seen before. Following along, I put my thali on the floor and stared at the altar in the middle of the circle. A low wooden table had been spread with a red cloth with swastikas printed on it, and incense was burning in the center. Eventually, the music started again. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my neighbors and mimicked them. We raised the thali to our lips, then our forehead, and then our lips again and then passed it to the right. When our own thali came back to us, we repeated the gesture, placed our thali on the floor, then repeated it again and passed it to the right again. We did this seven times. While we were doing this, I noticed the variety of thalis. S had a beautiful silver one, with many little silver pots and a silver lamp. One woman had a basket. A lot of women had steel or silver. Most everyone had rice on her thali. Some had sugar, some had fruit, some almonds, and there were a few beautifully embroidered bags that obscured the contents. One woman had a clay pot filled with cashews. Everyone had a lamp burning with oil. Except me. I was rocking a tealight.
The mood was joyous and relaxed. The thalis came a little faster, and we were soon passing two at a time, one hand on each thali. Except for me. The older lady on my left didn’t exactly think I was up to it, and try as I might; I just felt a little wave of something rolling off her. Unease? Discomfort? Hostility? Thank goodness a woman across the circle chose that moment to gift me with the most beautiful smile. At the end of the pooja, we rose and everyone began chatting in earnest. By this time, a lot of the ladies felt comfortable with me, and I was starting to remember more names. R, a lady who lives a few floors above us, asked it I would do this again next year, and I said that I definitely would. I thanked N for hosting and including me, and S and I said our goodbyes and got ready to leave as the next group of ladies took our place on the floor. On the way out, N explained to me the next steps, and asked me if I was going to take tea. Turns out, there are many interpretations of “fasting”. Some women take tea. Some women take juice. Some women take only fruit. Apparently, I was earning some serious marg (street) cred with the “not even water” fast. Completely accidentally. Our co-hostess handed me a small silk purse on the way out, which made me feel slightly horrible for my late RSVP.
S and I walked home to wait for the moon to rise. I stayed over at her house for about an hour before going home and we chatted. I really like her – we bonded over being “no mommies”, and commiserated about the fact that our kids are constantly saying that other kids get to do stuff they don’t, like play video games until their eyes pop out of their heads, or watch R-rated films. I guess some things are universal.
After I headed home, I opened up the little silk purse and discovered a packet of golden raisins, a packet of cashews, a small clay lamp, and a packet of glasslike bracelets. Traditional gifts from one sister to another.
After tucking the kids into bed, I started gathering the things for the final pooja together. Thali plate, check. Glass of water, check. Husband, check. Sieve to view the moon through . . . . Indian women have large sieves that have a ridge on them so that you can put a candle in it while you view the moon. I have a small spoon-like gadget that you use to take corn fritters out of a deep fryer. Sigh.
By 9 p.m., the WhatsApp Diva group was blowing up my phone. “Where’s the mooooon!??” “Delhi girls are finished with dinner!” DiploDad got his blackberry out and using his night sky app, determined that the moon was out and right behind the building blocking part of our view. Sure, I could wait another 2 hours, but the other C building Divas were taking matters into their own hands and heading downstairs to the garden. I gathered my things and told DiploDad to come along, and he started to pout!
“Is anyone else going to be there?”
“I don’t know! Maybe? It’s not a group pooja though; it’s you and me.”
“I don’t want to go downstairs, do we have to do this?”
“Are you kidding me???!!! I haven’t even had a drink of water for almost 18 hours and you’re asking me this?”
“Okay, okay, okay. I guess I want to live a long time, anyway.”
To be fair, I think he was less reluctant to do the ritual than he was to go downstairs in his shorts and Captain America T-shirt.
When we got down to the lobby, the lobby attendants did a double take and then pointed to left in the middle of the road in between blocks B and C. When we got there, two other ladies were there with their husbands, looking at the moon through sieves. I noted with a smirk to DiploDad that the husbands were also in shorts and T-shirts. DiploDad held the thali and my glass of water while I fixed my sieve on the moon. I took the water from him and poured some out to the moon. Then, I took the sieve and looked at DiploDad. I dipped my finger in the water, put it into the red powder, and put a streak of red on DiploDad’s forehead. Then he did the same and put it up into my hairline and gave me a bindi. Then he gave me some water to drink and fed me an almond, and it was over.
When I got back home, I put my tealight in my palm plant on the balcony and put my thread there to join it. DiploDad gave me a big hug and a kiss. He set out some of the leftovers from our dinner the night before, and helped me make up a plate. Oddly enough, I wasn’t really hungry or thirsty, but I knew that I had to eat and drink.
The experience was lovely, spiritual, spiritual and oh, so fascinating. I was very glad I participated, and I am planning to do it again next year. It was nice to have one day where you think of your husband and think of what you would give up for him and to show him in little ways that he is more important to you than even food or drink. And to thank whatever Gods May Be for his life and his love.