Right from Pliney the Elder to our “ammas” and “ammis”, a generation ago, they’ve all propagated the belief that women are unclean during those days. Most of us have unquestioningly followed practices that maintain that women are unclean when they menstruate. Right or wrong, we are conditioned not to touch the bottle of pickles or enter the innermost sanctum of the temple on days when we have our period? In the olden days women would have been locked up, now we are modern or post modern, our kids belong to the generations X or Y, yet whisper napkins are still stashed away in a black plastic bag, the same that is used by the butcher for packing meat, fish, poultry – things that are unclean.
I remember that with the exception of one extremely witty and ruthlessly badass “mami”, a crusader of sorts of the feminist ideology, all females in my family, including my very own mother forbade me touching the bottle of pickles on days I had my period. Pickles turned bad, if even the shadow of a menstruating woman fell on it, I was told. So no sour pickles on days when Aunt Flo came visiting. I could not touch the holy basil, it would wilt, I could not wash my hair, I would turn bald. Milk would curdle and curd would fail to set, and to this day I do not make my favorite curd rice when I have my period.
Long before I started menstruating, I had my own funny belief. I have no recollection when its seeds were sown. Was it on the day I first encountered the bright blobs of red and cried out, “Chachi is dying. Can’t you all see she’s bleeding”, only to be hushed up by the adults of the family. Nobody told me what had happened. Nobody warned me. And my impressionable child mind held only the worst of scenarios. “Chachi” later had a case of schizophrenia. Only, during those days schizophrenia or bipolar disorder were not the terms in popular use. The doctors always diagnosed any aberrant behavior as a case of madness. Or was it my strict convent school upbringing?
I was educated in an all girls’ convent school. When I had my first period, I believed it was a punishment from God for reading Sidney Sheldon on the sly. Before you start laughing at my foolishness, remember I was only twelve years old, was living in the times when Google and the World Wide Web were not even in vitro. The only reliable bits information that I could glean about the male and female anatomy was through the ICSE biology text books. Those unfortunately were suitably censored to prevent the more precocious amongst us from knowing more than what was required.
The reproductive system diagrams were wholesome and clean and we were left to divine things using our fertile imaginations and bits of gossips that we had heard from the more experienced siblings. The teachers found the chapter on the reproductive system tiresome and skipped it. Digestive and endocrine systems were without doubt easier to deal with. There would be no unaccounted for giggles from the back benchers in the classroom, there would be no blushing, no nudging and no pencil throwing. We would all be as we were supposed to be – clean, thoroughly clean in the absence of that ghastly chapter. The ideal convent girl in her spotless shoes, prim skirt and blouse, back ramrod straight after a round of PT, and every strand of hair in place or neatly tucked in elastic bands. The Convent Sisters vouchsafed that any stray hair or lock would be snipped right away and we had no reason to doubt them. Extremely sharp eyed, they were also disciplinarians to the boot. Life in school resembled a boot camp, with sisters resembling janitors. Their habit, we were sure of had secret pockets and when not caressing the mean looking steel ruler that had whacked many a truant palm, their stingy fingers ferreted into the secret pocket habit to twiddle with an extremely sharp pair of scissors.
I felt unclean, immensely unclean when I first spotted the rust stains on my oversized white cotton bloomers. The bright red blood could only mean two things. Either I was going mad or I was dying. I was dying in some shameful way of a disease that would not only necessitate a permanent exile from home but also humiliation, like chachis’. The marks that I left on the chair, the bed and the cushion scared me. What if my parents knew? What if they knew I had been a bad girl? How would the Sisters react in school? Would I be berated in front of the entire class? Would my friends laugh at me and consider me dirty? Would they know that I had been reading adult books for cheap pleasure?
Yeah, I had been reading papa’s books. I was reading his Sidney Sheldon and his Jeffery Archers. They were not meant for me. I had been explicitly warned beforehand not to touch that section, I could read the classics, but I found Catherine’s rant for Heathcliff boring, beyond belief. Sidney Sheldon and his heroines were interesting. They knew how to get things done and lead interesting lives unlike Catherine who was stuck up in the damned Moor. Like the apple in the devil’s hand in the Garden of Eden, the Sidney Sheldon tempted, beseeched me, “just one look and I’ll open the gates of a new world for you.” I was curious to know more and so God struck me not with his lightning bolt but with bleeding from my nether regions. I prayed to God in all the three languages I knew, Hindi, English and Bengali. I would be a good girl. I would not spit and curse. I would not fool papa and pretend to solve the quadratic equations while I was secretly drawing anorexic females on the board, I would not touch papa’s books. But then God failed me. The bleeding just wouldn’t stop.
It’s been ages now since that incident, there were many who have laughed at my naivety. (Now I know I am at my creative best during those days.) Funnily, it was the Sisters who were most sympathetic, my ma just laughed when I told her what had happened. My class Sister took me in my wet to the bone skirt to the innermost sanctum of her office where she kept dozens of neatly ironed navy blue skirts for days such as these. She also taught me how to tie my first pad. That happened after I had cried my eyes out for being a very very bad girl.
This blogathon is supported by the Maya App, used by 6.5 million women worldwide to take charge of their periods and health.”