I had just turned eleven when I first bled. I wasn’t aware what I was going through. I remember running up to Amma crying loudly. “Amma, call Acha back. I am dying. I have cancer.”
That’s what Indian cinema and two cancer deaths in the extended family did to my tiny mind.
In hushed voice Amma silenced me.
“Shhhh…You’re a big girl now. Stay away from everyone. All men. Including your father.”
And then she dialled a few numbers from the PCO. Wrote a few inland letters. She bought a pattu pavadai (traditional silk dress for young girls in South India) dress material and got it stitched within a day citing emergency. On the fourth day, she made me take bath early in the morning and made me wear the new pattu pavadai. Amma then adorned me the few gold jewellery that were available at home. She had also bought lots of bangles. And I also wore a jasmine gajra (flower garland) on my blunt cut hair.
Acha’s cousin brother and his wife arrived for a lavish lunch. They were the only relatives we had around at that time. They scanned me from head to toe and passed a wicked smile each. Ammayi also winked at me. And then they gifted me a dress and some sweets and namkeen.
I was confused. It wasn’t my birthday. Neither were we going to attend any family function. Why all this fuss?
Utterly confused, I ran out to the terrace while Amma shouted from behind, “Sit quietly. You’re a big girl now. Don’t let the birds fly over your head.”
“You’re a big girl now.”
That’s what Acha also told a five-year-old me when he left for the mid-east.
The ten-year-old could never understand what all this fuss was about. It was only later that I realized that it was a practice to announce to the world that we now have a fertile girl to marry off. In our native place, the ceremony is almost as elaborate as an engagement.
I remember the letter from my grandfather that we received a few days later. He had mentioned that he went to the astrologer and he had said that the day of onset was auspicious. The nakshatra and celestial alignment of planets were good. Seriously!
From then on my life changed drastically. I remember Amma asking me to stay away from boys and men of all ages, including Dad. I hated her for saying that last part because I was my Dad’s darling always. But looking at the newspapers and listening to the radio headlines these days I completely understand why she said what she said. The only trouble, I was too young to comprehend.
The first summer vacation after this grand celebration and like always we were there at our grandparents place. Everything remained the same till my monthly periods started. I was suddenly isolated. A corner in the verandah of the house was where I was made to stay for the next four days. A mat, a blanket, a plate and a glass were given to me and I was asked not to enter the main house and the kitchen. The plate and glass had to be washed outside the house. I had to take bath in the pond along with the mat, clothes and utensils that I used (or of people who touched me by mistake) even while I didn’t know swimming. The tap water which was the same water from the pond pumped up into the water tank supposedly could not make me pure. If it was not for Mom who helped me with the dipping in the pond part, I would have drowned the very first time. Our backyard was full of snakes and other creepy crawlies and I had to use the toilet which was behind the house, in the backyard. It had a separate bucket and mug for menstruating females of the house. Detailed story of the toilet here in this post: Do you know how necessary sanitation is? Suddenly I hated them all because I was being punished for no fault of mine.
One afternoon while everyone was taking a nap, I wandered through the backyard and went much closer to the Snake Shrine (Paambu Kaavu). I was always curious about going inside the shrine and taking a closer look at the stone idols but I was also scared as I had spotted cobras and other varieties there. I picked up a stone playfully and threw it inside the shrine. Ammamma had just woken up and was at the back-door closer to the shrine. She furiously asked me to get into the verandah. She told me a story about the curse of the Snake God and told me that if menstruating girls entered the snake shrine, they would never be able to bear children. The very next day the temple priest was summoned and some shudhi pooja was performed.
Years later, when I got married to a Garhwali and entered a completely different household with different rituals and traditions I had difficulty accepting them. It started off with adding a small piece of chappati in the tiffin box in addition to the three I had already packed for hubby because eating three chappatis was not considered shubh (lucky). The first monthly periods in that house was another shocker. I was told by my mother-in-law to light the pooja lamp. I refused citing my periods. She told me that in their household men are not ‘informed’ of such things and so I should light the lamp and pray as usual. Really!! Imagine my plight! I kept cursing myself every time I committed that ‘sin’ unwillingly.
Few years down the line, I had trouble conceiving and I remembered these episodes. The naive young girl I was then, I honestly believed that I was being punished for that stone that I threw during my childhood and the many times I have lighted the lamp while I was ‘impure’. Only later did I come to know that it was nothing but a gynecological disorder which was treated successfully.
I am now thirty-seven (I’ll be in a few days) and have access to so much information and views of so many people from around the world. I now understand that most of these rituals and traditions are baseless or their true meanings and existence have been misconstrued over the years. And the day my eldest daughter was born in February 2006, I promised myself that she’ll not go through what I have been through. I’ll empower her with all the necessary information that she needs to know. I’ll tell her that the Krishna that her mother prays daily is just an idol that helps her mom concentrate and meditate. The Krishna that her mother lights a lamp daily for only provides her some peace and sanity. He can show you the different ways because He resides within you or rather He is your own soul, but you have to choose the path for yourself. I’ll tell her that He will not punish her if she utters his name while menstruating. He’ll not punish her if she chants a mantra during those four-five days. Even Draupadi had called Krishna for help when Dushasana tried to disrobe her. It is mentioned in the religious texts that she was menstruating at that point in time. If Krishna could punish people for their sins He would have come down long back and punished sinners like the rapists of innocent children before punishing mere mortals like us for such silly matters.
I do pray. I do chant my mantras before sleeping. All this for my peace. Honestly I do not visit a temple during those days. Not because I’m scared of His punishment, but because I’m not interested in becoming an issue for the believers. My relationship with God is purely mine. It is not bound by any ritual or tradition or visit to a temple. My temple is my home.
And menses or periods is nothing but a biological occurrence, nature’s way of helping your body mature and be ready for reproduction. In short, it simply means you’re healthy. So be proud of the fact that you’re bleeding. There is no need to be ashamed of. No need to feel ‘impure’. No need to feel like an outcast.
Surprisingly, my grandmother was still a fairly mature lady and did give me quite a bit of logical explanations as to why the girls are made to live in a corner of the house like untouchables. She had mentioned that in older days when the joint family system was prevalent, this was how the elders of the family ensured that every female of the house got their share of rest from the backbreaking household work. And taking bath in the pond was to ensure availability of enough water and good personal hygiene. But she could still not explain why we still carried on with so many of those traditions and rituals even when we had the necessary knowledge and amenities required.
As a mother responsible to impart the right information to my child, I have already shared about this phenomenon with the firstborn because I don’t want her to be scared to bits like I was on my first period.
This post is written for WriteTribe‘s #PeriodPride Blogging Competition in association with Naari. The intent is not to hurt any person, any religion, any region or any community but to spread awareness.