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All due respect, or just subservience?

Date

Sushi Das

'Finally, my mother would take a large sieve and hold it up to view the moon through it. It showed respect.'

'Finally, my mother would take a large sieve and hold it up to view the moon through it. It showed respect.'

FOR tens of millions of women around the world, Friday was a very special day. From sunrise - which in Australia was 6.12am - they refused to eat a morsel of food or drink even a drop of water, until moonrise - which happened to be at exactly 10.59pm local time. Why? To demonstrate undying devotion to their husbands and to pray they live a long life.

When these famished women finally sat down to eat, they would have looked beautiful in their finest clothes. This is what married Hindu women do every year on the fourth day after a full moon in the Hindu lunisolar calendar month of Kartik, which this year fell on November 2.

Countless Indian women have performed this ritual for centuries. On Friday night, millions more observed this sacrificial fast for their husbands regardless of whether they live in India or the vast diaspora across the globe in cities such as London, New York, Vancouver, Durban, Dubai, Singapore and now, in ever larger numbers, Melbourne and Sydney.

In Australia, as we simmer down after the misogyny debate and ramp up into the Australia-in-the-Asian-Century debate, what are we to make of this fasting ritual known as Kurwa Chauth? (It's pronounced exactly as it is spelt.) Does husband worship seem out of place these days? If East and West are to learn more about each other so we can do better trade, might understanding each other's culture be a starting point?

The Kurwa Chauth ritual varies from place to place but the theme is the same: that a woman makes a sacrifice for a man to achieve mutual wedded bliss. I have watched my mother perform this ritual year after year with a fervour I often find bewildering. As the day wears on and her hunger intensifies, she begins to prepare the evening's feast, setting aside a small piece of confectionary for later.

Then she dresses up and waits for the moon to rise before she and her family can eat. There were many times the entire family would be standing in the garden of our London home, looking skyward turning circles in the hope that someone might see the moon slip out from behind a miserable dark cloud so we could all get on with eating.

Once my mother saw the moon she would pray for her husband to be guarded against an untimely demise and for his life to be filled with happiness. Finally, she would take a large sieve and hold it up to view the moon through it. It showed respect. It's inauspicious to view such a powerful symbol directly.

Then she would turn to face her husband and look at him through the sieve. Following this, she would reach down to touch his feet, the tips of her fingers caressing the toes of his shoes.

It is a most arresting gesture of respect - enough to take your breath away. One human reaching to touch another's feet. A woman dressed in her loveliest sari demonstrating her devotion through sacrifice, bending down to afford the greatest respect in the world to the man with whom she has her most sacred bond.

My father would place his hand softly on her head, take her gently by the shoulders and bring her level with him. They would embrace for the tiniest of moments, perhaps the smallest fraction of time in the universe. And in that fleeting, ethereal slice of time, I saw between my parents a flicker of affection that burst my heart.

Finally, my father would take some confectionary and place it in my mother's mouth, and with that small, intimate gesture he, at last, broke her sacrificial fast.

Kurwa Chauth is an undeniably uplifting ritual motivated by the positive forces of infinite love, selflessness and devotion - a tribute to the institution of marriage. But it also catapults women into the past and tethers them to a mode of thinking that is completely out of step with the modern world.

It's a ceremony that poleaxes many modern women: They are simultaneously moved and offended by it. As the novelist Shashi Tharoor once pointed out: ''Where a Western woman misses a meal in the interests of her figure, her Indian sister dedicates her starvation to a cause, usually a male one.''

So, is it time to abandon this arcane practice embedded so deeply in one of the most patriarchal societies? I suspect few Indian women who migrate to Western countries such as Australia are likely to leave this bit of their culture at New Delhi airport.

Interesting though, isn't it, that what at first, through Western eyes, seems so unfathomably sexist, is perhaps a little more understandable once explained through an Eastern lens. Me? I'm still not convinced subservience isn't lurking around here.

Sushi Das is an Age opinion editor and the author of Deranged Marriage.

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