The two Indias and the maladies of a stigma that affects innocent lives.
Recently I saw the poster of a film called Phullu, which has a man sprawled across on what is obviously a sanitary napkin. A decade ago something like that would have been politically incorrect and embarrassing, but today as I looked at the poster without an iota of discomfort, it transported me back to my teenage years.
We were twelve years old. She was a lefty. So when my best friend and I sat on our chairs that came with attached ovals for a desk, it looked like a make-shift couch. We were perfect for each other, even our chairs fitted perfectly - a match made in heaven. At that time if someone had told me that our friendship wasn’t forever, I would’ve laughed at them. But, it didn’t last and how, or should I say why.
Growing up amidst three older brothers and a household that was quintessentially patriarchal and regressive, meant that she was the one I could pour my heart out to - over jam and jelly sandwiches during lunch breaks. As for her, she was the only child. Loneliness found us and we found each other.
Two years later that all was going to change as womanhood gripped us by our ovaries, and tore the two of us apart the way it tore our bodies apart internally.
No shame in menstruation. Image source: thenewsteller.com
The evening I got my period my mother wasn’t home. No one had bothered to educate me about these things. As a result I was confused, helpless and clueless. On returning, my mother inspected my underpants like a seasoned detective, holding it up daintily with two fingers. She gestured the maid to leave us as I welled up, fearing a scolding I didn’t deserve. In a soft but stern voice my mother explained what had happened - I had become impure. I was no longer her fairy princess, I was now changing into a woman and I had to guard this information with a world of care and caution, else people would find out and not like me.
“Respect is the only thing that makes a woman. Without respect, you will be like those women who stand on the road late at night,” my mother explained in a grave voice. “Remember how mean they looked darling? Do you want to be like that?”
“No Mummy,” I replied obediently.
“Good girl. Now go on and stick this on your underwear and don’t ever tell anyone else about this. Ok? Especially boys…” she directed and sent me off without explaining what was really happening, or why.
Click here to learn more
I was an obedient child. There wasn’t any other way I was taught to be. So I followed my mother’s orders and kept my dirty little secret to myself, not even sharing it with my best friend, who knew every single unnecessary detail about my life.
A few months later I walked into school one morning and found her waiting in her seat bubbling with information she wanted to share. In the washroom I entered the cubicle with her like so many times before, but less than a second later I ran out, leaving her there shocked and devastated. She couldn’t fathom why I had slapped her so hard.
She spent the entirety of the first four classes sniffing and crying until lunch break came - our sacred hour, and I passed on the wisdom my mother had bestowed on me.
Periods are not a secret anymore. Image source: standardissuemagazine.com
“You shouldn’t have shown that to me! That’s dirty. You’re supposed to keep it a secret. Didn’t your mother tell you?” I patronized my friend.
“It’s not dirty! It’s normal. All girls have it. My mother did speak to me. She had already told me something like this might happen. She told my father too. They think I am growing up and to celebrate they gave me a glass of wine but it was bitter so I didn’t have it,” she said, blowing her nose into a tissue.
I didn’t know how to react. Was she saying that my mother had lied to me? Did my mother lie to me? Was I the only dirty person? How can her parents give her alcohol? Confused, I had drifted away, which resulted in a temporary dousing of the fire. We were fine even till then.
End period shaming. Image source: giphy.com
Another year went by as the gap between us kept widening.
In the first year after we got our period, I was the only one who noticed our relationship shifting. I was now only a listener. I had stopped sharing because I was too ashamed to share what I was really going through, and listening to her experiences made me feel smaller. I mistook her sharing for gloating because in reality I had begun resenting her.
When she told me about the first bra her mother bought her, I didn’t have an equally appealing story to return. Hers was a light pink with chocolate coloured hearts (I remember), mine was an excruciatingly tight sports bra that ensured my breasts looked as small as they possibly could.
When she told me how painful her first waxing session was, I couldn’t be happy for her silky smooth limbs because I couldn’t stop staring at my own hairy, obnoxious ones. I just moved uncomfortably trying to hide them by tucking them under the chair.
What for her were the joys of growing up, for me was a punishment - the blood, the hair, the aching breasts, all of it. I couldn’t bask in my youth because I was being told at home to lock it up in a box and keep it as far away as possible. What for her meant an outing with her mother, for me was a taboo hushed up with the glares of my mother’s cautioning eyes.
I spent one night at hers and returned home with glowing legs and arms. I ran to my mother to show her what my friend had gifted me. I felt beautiful until she slapped me and called her a bad influence. I cried myself to sleep that night, blaming my best friend for getting me into trouble. Mother was right. She was trouble. Or so I thought. Trapped within the shackles of my own household, I only felt resentful towards her. A resentment I could no longer hide. She bore with it for a long time until one day I invited her home for lunch.
She asked my mother for some newspaper to throw her pad away, and after she was done in the toilet she walked proudly into the kitchen and dumped it in the garbage bin.
“This girl has no manners! How can she enter our kitchen like that, that unholy dirty little she-devil,” said my mother to me at a decibel she thought wasn’t audible. But it was, and it was also the last straw.
My best friend walked out of my house that afternoon leaving a note that read:
I have tried to be your friend but I don’t understand you anymore. You don’t share anything anymore. You have changed. Also your mother hates me. She is such a meanie!!
For as long as she reminded me of what I was missing, for as long as the grass on her side was greener, I only felt anger. With that note however I chose to wipe her out of my life, because she had told me the truth about my life as it was. And it was bitter.
It took me many years to change the way I felt about myself and about women in general. Looking at life through a prism different from the one at home, made me address the issue of menstruation and stigmas in a mature and objective way. Having a partner, who doesn’t abstain from making love to me even when I bleed has helped me embrace my own body and the complexities that come with it. Moving to Mumbai has also given me perspective about my family. For years I believed periods had shred my friendship to bits. But that day as I stared at the poster, I realized the real nail in the coffin was not my period, but the entire world of taboo around it.
Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day) is a global platform that brings together non-profits, government agencies, the private sector, the media and individuals to promote Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). Menstrual Hygiene day is celebrated to break the silence and build awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Vandana Khaitan
Cover photo credit: pinterest