A Growing (And Fasting) Boy
Last year, we went to meet a cousin’s son for a reason that sounded very somber to me: The 8-year-old had fasted for five out of the eight days of a Jain holy festival called Paryushan. The boy, small for his age, sat on the sofa, quiet and with a dignified grace rarely seen in kids that young. I had met him at my wedding and a few times over the years since. On those occasions, he had been a boisterous fellow, playing, flying kites, and cutting others’ kites with gay abandon.
But that day, he looked smaller, almost sunken in the large sofa. His cheeks had gone in and his cheekbones had come out. The bright red shirt he wore fell loosely on him. The most affected feature, his eyes, had dark circles underneath that made his face look tiny. His skin was paler. I was shocked to see him in that state even as the mother told us how he had only drank boiled water during his five-day fast. He also read religious literature, went to the temple and attended school.
“He has lost 3 kilos,” his mother told me.
I nodded my head with a poker face. To me (a foodie), Paryushan demands too Herculean a task. I may never do it or ask it of my child. “How did you do it?” I asked the little boy later. He had broken his fast just that morning, but had been unable to eat much after such a long stretch with no food.
He spoke in a low but confident voice, with a steady demeanour. “I just could. No problem.”
I tried a different angle. “Didn’t you miss your favourite food made by mum during this period? Or that packet of chips?”
He smiled, but did not answer; he didn’t seem too tired to speak, he just seemed… calm.
I realized that somewhere, this boy was undergoing a change: he had realized his own inner strength. The surprising thing is, he’s not unique; a huge number of kids, aged anywhere between 4 and 18, fast during Paryushan alongside adults. Some eat on alternate days; some skip one meal; some don’t eat salt and stick to boiled food, while some only drink water, like my relative’s son. There is a long list of possible fasts one could observe, but all, naturally, require a mind-boggling degree of self-deprivation.
Apart from Jains, Muslims observe fasts as well, during Ramadan. Entire families, including kids, don’t eat till sunset for 30 straight days. But growing up in Delhi, I was more familiar with the excitement of langar, when the Sikh kids of the colony distributed Rooh Afza mixed with milk to passersby and, later, gulped down the rest with a few lucky neighbours, like me. I also knew the fun of decorating a jhulan on Janmashtami and expecting praise from the elders. We even got little knick knacks as a prize for our efforts.
So, holidays or religious observances that require kids to fast, for me, are a little difficult to digest (excuse the pun). How do they do it? Children are highly suggestible, says Dr Hansal Bhachech, psychiatrist and author in Ahmedabad.
“When they are suggested by their parents that fasting is okay, they believe it. Our feelings can be adjusted by strong suggestibility and hunger is a feeling,” he says. Dr Bhachech, in his practice, has come across many children as well as adults who have fasted for long periods.
Physiologically, he says, the human body fights it out the first three days of any fast. After the third day, the body enters what is known as starvation mode, when it starts using up its fat and energy stores. “This is why people consider the first three days (of a fast) as crucial,” Dr Bhachech says. “After that, the body can last till the fat is being used up. When a person enters starvation mode, he doesn’t crave food.”
Psychologically, fasting is viewed by many as transformative. For children, it may be a long-term change. Children who are asked to fast or attend spiritual lectures develop an understanding that such practices are good — and that not following them is not good. While a basic knowledge of good and bad typically develops after the age of 10, in these kids, it develops sooner. Consequently, they learn what guilt is. And with their early understanding of guilt, they tend to become more careful people. They understand restrained gratification to be a positive trait, Dr Bhachech says.
The benefit to learning self-control at such a young age is that these children learn to mange their expectations and wait patiently for delayed gratification. “The foundation is set, to say the least. The parents will have to nurture the child thereafter, like telling him that if he could master his hunger, he can master anything,” he says.
For the rest of that evening, we all spoke at length – ironically, over several plates of khaman, chakna and mithai – about how the young boy had pulled it off and how he would now practice fasting every year. The boy, however, didn’t eat any of the delicious nashta plated in front of him. From where I stood, his will power had already started winning.