Reading Aspi’s & Co’s entertaining accounts of period-related woes brought back a few memories my own. Chief among them is the day N, my best friend since kindergarten, came armed with a scandalous piece of information for a sleepover.
“Do you know what this means?” she asked, writing down the word “period” apropos of absolutely nothing.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, what is it then?” she challenged.
“The thing we have at school?” I said, wondering if she’d suddenly gone mad. “English period, Math period, etc?”
“Ha!” she replied with considerable satisfaction. “So you don’t know what it means.”
And proceeded to spill the gory beans all over my bed. We were only eight at the time (or were we seven?) so I don’t remember where she got hold of her information – from her older sisters or maybe it was because her mother used to be a nurse or perhaps her parents just believed in early sex education, but I remember being absolutely appalled. You bled from where? And this was normal? I thought she was putting me on. To this day, I’m a little freaked out by the whole process – although this is probably because she combined that lesson in human plumbing with another bit of valuable information: “rape”.
So in my mind, the words “school”, “rape” and “period” are sort of jumbled together in a creepy alphabet soup. Which, I suppose, explains my overwhelming sense of relief once I was done with school.
Unfortunately for me, I soon found out that she wasn’t kidding. She and I have lost touch over the years but I’ll always remember her for her valuable inputs into my vocabulary. I guess it’s an unfortunate issue to be remembered for, but hey! at least she left a lifelong impression.
When my turn came, my mom took me to the doctor and let her explain everything to me. Then she sent my dad out to buy me some sanitary napkins. He handed them over to me with the stoic expression I was to recognize well in the years to come – he got the same look on his face when my mother made him buy me training bras when I became a teenager (I guess they weren’t available in India then? Or not of a quality that she liked. I don’t know why Indian lingerie is so crap but it simply is) and checked me in at the gynecologist’s coz my mother couldn’t remember all my medical information. My dad is awesome.
There are communities out there that celebrate a girl’s first period as her first step into womanhood and I understand where that comes from – along with all the bother and unpleasantness of a monthly bloodletting, there’s also a feeling of entering a new club. For example, at last I knew what those mysterious little packages in my mother’s cupboard were. My mother still insisted that tampons were for “married ladies” and wouldn’t tell me how to use them but she was very free with old wives’ tales, superstitions and stories of how it used to be “when I was a little girl”. And of course, once the aunts got to hear – in that mysterious jungle vine way all relatives come to know everything about everyone else – that I’d crossed that line of no return, I got a earful of What it Meant to be a Menstruating Female in Ye Olde Hindoo Household.
For one thing you never talked about it. What I’m doing right now? Grounds for a stoning, I believe. And when you did talk about it, it was to enforce a kind of apartheid – the period-afflicted one had to keep to herself, take an extra shower, and make sure that their clothes didn’t touch anybody else’s. No visits to the temple were allowed and you weren’t allowed to touch anyone who might be going to the temple, either. And on the last day of her cycle, no puja would be performed at home until the afflicted person had scrubbed herself thoroughly and put every single piece of cloth she might have touched over the week into the wash. Also, there was to be no entering kitchens, puja rooms, or sleeping on beds.
“What? They kicked you out of the house?” I asked in a hushed voice.
The aunts laughed uproariously. “No, we slept on the floor on rattan mats.”
It was like I was meeting people from another century or a parallel universe. I was tempted to ask if they’d discovered fire in their day.
“I kept up the mat thing even after I was married,” Auntie #1 confided, lounging about in a pair of denims, her short hair stirred gently by the fan’s breeze, looking as if she’d never dream of doing such a thing much less actually do it. “I remember it was one of the few things I took with me to your uncle’s first posting as a doctor.”
“So you took it with you to America, too?” I asked, my mind boggling at the thought. Yours would too if you ever met her.
“Don’t be silly,” she said crisply. “You think I lugged a rattan mat to America? But it was a shock when I got there, I can tell you.”
“Male gynecologist?” asked Auntie #2 sympathetically.
Auntie #1 agreed. “And people will talk about it openly – men and women. At parties even.”
“Now that,” said Auntie #3, “is taking it too far.”
“Nonsense,” said Auntie #1, turning her attention to me. “There’s no need for you to act all embarrassed about these things, okay? It’s all normal.”
I agreed meekly. Somehow this didn’t seem the place to admit that it had never occurred to me that this was something to be embarrassed about. I also wondered when I’d get the chance to be not embarassed – who was I supposed to be discussing my period with? The boys at school? The ones that almost melted into a giggling red puddle every time we had an anatomy lesson? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Auntie #3 sighed. “I remember the first time I got my monthly,” she said. “I was such an idiot, I didn’t know what was going on. It was the day they were holding that big pooja for the house and I wanted to eat the sweets so I went and sat down near the priests.”
“No!” cried everybody in unison, aghast.
“And I don’t know what happened to me,” she continued in the tone one usually reserved for tales of the supernatural. “But all of a sudden I got up and hopped away.”
“Um, what?” I asked carefully.
“I got up and hopped away.”
We all stared at her.
“What do you mean you ‘hopped away’?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I hopped away,” she said, making little hopping motions with her hand. “It was like God was guiding me. I hopped and hopped and hopped until I fell down unconscious.”
God makes the sinners hop. Which is, without doubt, my all time favorite story about menstruation.