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Meet the teen who fasted for 34 days

Arthur J Pais | October 06, 2008

Eva MehtaDo not ask 17-year-old Eva Mehta if her recent 34-day fast during the Jain holy season of Paryushan Parva, that she brought to an end recently and which has merited considerable notice in the mainstream media, was intended to get into the record books. Don't ask her, too, what if anything she personally gained from the fast.

"If any records are broken during the fasting, let them be," says the Evanston, Illinois, teenager who made headlines with her odyssey, which even entailed missing the first week of classes. "I did not fast to break any records, and though I prayed every hour during the fasting -- like I do every day -- I did not ask God for any favors for myself. I kept reciting my favorite prayer Navakar Mahamantra, and all that I was thinking of in my own small way was that I could ask God to give peace to everyone."

Eva, whose 17th birthday 'celebrations' involved no cakes and candles, as the day fell during the period of her fast, says, "I was happy to have joy in my heart and peace in my mind."

She says part of the reason she fasted -- and she quickly points out that she had not planned to do it for more than a few days -- was to pay tribute to her late grandmother, Sushilaben Shah. "She used to fast a lot, and she has taught me the importance of prayers, the importance of many virtues, why we should be kind to all creatures, and she got me to read many Jain holy scriptures."

Fasting for a few days during the holy month is common among Jains. "But some people want to continue fasting, and they pray to God to give them the strength," says Eva, adding that fasting always helps her clarify thoughts, become less materialistic, and think of being more helpful to the needy.

Ten years ago, her cousin Sheveta Shah, who also lived in Illinois, had fasted for 31 days when she too was a teenager. When she decided to prolong her fast, Eva asked Sheveta for advice. "She told me to be resolute and to drink a lot of boiled water," Eva laughs.

Eva prepared for the fast -- initially assuming it would last a week or so -- by gradually reducing, over a period of time, her food intake. She recalls how during this period she used to dream of food -- her favorite Gujarati dishes, and even the vegetarian pasta dishes she is fond of.

"But I would tell myself that I am fasting for a reason, and that I won't give in to temptation," she says. She asked God for more strength and  in an interesting move that has been picked up by the mainstream media and bloggers, especially those who write on health, diet and such issues � she took to pinching her ear whenever hunger pangs became overwhelming.

The marathon fast was not monitored by independent observers, though community physicians helped monitor her vital signs as her fast entered its second week and then extended beyond. "This was not a competition, she was not thinking of setting a record," said Dipak Doshi, chairman of the Jain Mandir in Bartlett, not far from Eva's Evanston home.

"This was purely an act of devotion. She did not even want word to go around about her fast. We came to know about it more than a week after she had started it."

Doshi said as Eva entered the final week of her fast, she had already shed over 25 pounds and her weight had dropped to 110. Eva looked frail, "but there was joy on her face," Doshi said. "We could look into her eyes and feel she had indeed been fasting, taking only water, and that too never after sunset."

"She is not a kid who craved attention," he said. "She did not even want any felicitation by the congregation."

The Chicago media discovered of her feat only when word from Eva's school reached the ears of other parents, and filtered through to journalists. But Eva steered clear of talking of her 'feat'. When she spoke to journalists, the interactions were always minimal, and always for one reason: to underline the importance of fasting, meditation and prayer, and to point out how it could inspire individuals and through them, the community at large.

As the fast lengthened and Eva weakened, her parents pitched in to an increasing degree. During the last eight days of her fast, Eva was brought to the temple in a borrowed wheelchair in the family van by mother Smita, a bank teller, and father Subhash, who helps out in a local firm.

During her visits to the temple, she was much sought after by the congregation, and despite her physical exhaustion, Eva refused to consider herself an invalid, and engaged in brief conversations with the faithful. Mother Smita recalls how on one visit, when she saw the congregation dancing, she insisted on getting off her wheelchair and joining them.

When she reached the 30-day mark, she decided to extend it by a few more days, and sought her parents' permission. She factored in the fact that she would need a few days to rest and recover before going back to school. "There was no problem in getting a week off school," she said. "The school superintendent knew I was doing it for a religious reason."

Interestingly, when she returned to school, her classmates and teachers did not treat her like some record-setting instant celebrity, but engaged her in substantive discussions on Jainism, and on the concept of fasting in that religion.

Doshi points out that fasts are widely prevalent within the local community. At the Bartlett temple, he says, at least 44 people had fasted for over a week, and some for as many as 16 days. "They were hearing on a daily basis how Eva was doing on her fast. She was a big inspiration to all."

Over 40 other devotees performed the atthai (to give up food and water, or only food, for eight successive days), two performed maun atthai (which incorporates the vow of silence into the above) and one person did chauvihar atthai (no water or food for 8 days). Eva Mehta was the only one who undertook the masaksaman, giving up food and all kinds of drinks except water for a whole month.

Eva is no stranger to fasting -- she has been doing it from the time she was 13, starting out with a 13-day fast, and increasing the period by a few days each year. Her parents were fully supportive, but also realistic. Her father told her he felt no doubt that she could go the whole month, but pointed out that she should not hesitate to alert them at any point if she felt she couldn't continue, and needed to stop. Smita had the same message, telling her daughter that if she felt sick, she should end the fast.

"In our tradition, we believe that if a person ends a fast days before the target because of medical reasons or an unforeseen emergency, that person will get the punya [blessings] for the intended period," Doshi adds.  

Eva is not at this point thinking of whether she wants to do another marathon next year. Father Subhash says he is sure his daughter can break her record, but that is not the point -- he says he will encourage her to fast for just three, four days or so, as he does not want her to miss school again for any reason.

Eva has her own ambitions, the main one being to become a doctor. "Over the years, so many people in my family and so many family friends and doctors have helped me whenever I have fallen sick," she says. "I look around the world and I tell myself, I too want to help people. I want to help many, many people, especially children."

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