Last month, as Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter headed towards the moon, a spate of ‘jokes’ appeared on one of my WhatsApp groups. One showed a bunch of clueless rural Indian women wondering how they would break the Karwa Chauth fast if humans started living on the moon.
(The day-long hunger fast — which north Indian wives observe to ensure that their husbands live long lives, because apparently the men can’t do it for themselves — can be broken only once the moon comes out around 8 pm.)
I forwarded the ‘joke’ to my husband, asking, “Do Indian men really think their wives are that dumb?” My previous message to him had been a list of instructions, since I was travelling for work and he had to – poor thing – manage the home on his own.
The long message included precise locations of the new body oil and liquid hand-wash refills in the bathroom cabinet, and all the utensils he would ever need in the kitchen, including where we keep the egg beater for omelettes. I had also added a list of groceries he had to buy.
While my better half chose to abstain from responding to my belligerent message – he may be an Indian husband but he is not that dumb – another man in my WhatsApp group ‘joked’ that men should their wives to the moon after the fast begins: “Now break the fast!”
In essence, let the fools die of hunger out there on the moon as the hapless husbands have been tortured enough on earth.
Now, call me a human being but this triggered all sorts of memories in my head. I remembered having Karwa Chauth nightmares for a decade during my first marriage to a north Indian, when I’d wake up sweating because I had unwittingly eaten during the fast in my dream.
I remembered friends and cousins sharing their own personal loathing of this ‘festival’ and its associated superstitions, rules and the ghastly symbolism that you as a woman are nothing and that your husband’s life is more precious than your own. I remembered my aunts using sickness and old age to finally give up the hated fast.
I myself gave it up as soon as I separated, and I never brought up the subject after marrying a south Indian. He and I prefer more efficient ways of ensuring each other’s longevity.
Not a single woman I know likes keeping Karwa Chauth. Not one. It’s not a choice, it’s a rule enforced by patriarchy, and a ritual designed to ‘show the wife her place’.
To then read a joke that made it seem like husbands are the poor sufferers, and wives are the ones who need to be punished triggered something violent in me.
“Why do Indian men make such cruel jokes about their wives?” I ranted at my husband on the phone. I thought of Photoshopping the reverse of every single ‘wife joke’ I had read on Teachers’ Day on WhatsApp – visuals showing wives running behind husbands with a rolling pin to ‘teach’ them, or men reminding one another to thank their wives on Teachers’ Day for all the ‘lectures’ they’d received.
Would it be funny if a meme showed a man running behind his wife with a stick, or shouting at her for not cooking right or not doing the housework or not sleeping with him when he wanted sex?
No. Those wouldn’t be jokes.
In an uncomfortably large number of Indian homes, they’d be the truth.
My husband heard out my rant with tactful assent. He agreed we need to speak up when we believe injustice is being done, and he agreed ‘wife jokes’ are unfair and hurtful.
He then proceeded to ask me in which folder I had saved his passport-sized photo on the computer, where his passport was because he needed to apply for a visa, where does one buy dog food from, how much was he supposed to pay the milkman, and what should he say to the banker who had turned up at the door to coerce him to buy insurance?
Indian men are lucky that Indian wives never make ‘husband jokes’, though we have enough fodder. They should keep Karwa Chauth in gratitude to us instead. Then everyone can be hungry together.
First published in eShe’s October 2019 issue