Ties that bind
Indian culture has very clear ideas about what constitutes a 'good' woman. A wife must be blindly devoted to her husband. A daughter must be obedient and respectful. A good sister is loving and affectionate.
India's many festivals embody these views. One of the most popular was celebrated recently in New Delhi and the rest of northern India. It is called raksha bandan, after the sacred thread called rakhi that a sister ties around her brother's wrist to express her love for him. This fragile thread is regarded as stronger than iron chains in binding siblings together. The brother in return pledges to protect his sister and gives her a present or cash.
The night before raksha bandan, the street markets were packed as women choose a rakhi (they range from the elegant to the gaudy) for the big day. Since millions of women are married and have to travel to their brothers' homes, the roads of the capital were clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
It is such an important festival that only a woman incarcerated in jail would not feel guilty if she was unable to make it. The day of rakhi this year saw many New Delhi streets flooded by monsoon rains, but women just hitched up their best silk saris and waded through the muddy waters to their brothers' homes. It is one of those festivals that reveals the greater value placed by Indian culture on men than women. Nor is it the only one. Wives have an annual ordeal to suffer called karva chauth, when they fast all day to ensure the well-being and long life of their beloved spouses. The fast is broken only when the moon appears.
For many modern, educated women, these rituals are pure hocus-pocus - but they go along with them passively. It requires too much of an effort to rebel against such entrenched customs. And who wants to scandalise a mother-in-law by refusing to ensure her darling son's welfare?
'It's a joke and a stupid superstition,' said public-relations executive Anuradha Verma. 'They say your husband will fall sick or die if you don't do it, but what about women in the west? Do their husbands die? But I do it because I began it 20 years ago to please my mother-in-law, and it would be too much of a statement to stop now.'
Ms Verma's mother also performs a fast every year, one day before Diwali - the Hindu festival of lights. This fast is performed by mothers praying for long lives for their sons.
And what ritual or prayer do husbands, fathers and brothers perform to demonstrate their undying love for their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers? There is not a single corresponding rite devoted to women. Every karva chauth, a few kind husbands joke that they, too, will starve themselves all day as a gesture of solidarity with their wives. But that noble intention invariably collapses when lunch is on the table.