By Akhileshwari Ramagoud

Whisper. Giggle. Conspiratorial silence. Words that made no sense. Sudden drying up of conversation when one intruded on the girls who were discussing it in the classroom during a break. She doesn’t know. She’s too young, they said of the intruder-classmate. This was a fraternity that we did not know it as a fraternity. This was a group that shared a secret that they were unwilling to share with the rest. This was a group that showed a sense of superiority because they were in the know of things. This was my introduction to the monthly visitation of plague-of-a-kind on girls and women. That was in Class 7, I think.

This small group of girls was older than others in the class, and hence, more ‘experienced’ than me who had not yet ‘matured’ or begun to have menstruation. Subsequently, we too would use code words, innovating as we went along to indicate that we were menstruating. As far as I remember, the word ‘menstruation’ was never mentioned among us girls even when in college and when we were more mature and certainly more rebellious than in school. But, some things are not meant to be rebelled against. We are so conditioned that some things are not acceptable in respectable company. Just as we never said ‘breasts’, just as we never said ‘penis,’ or ‘fuck’ in our mother-tongue, as they were unmentionables, a woman’s periods too were unmentionable.

Come to think about, even today I don’t know the word for periods in Telugu, my mother tongue. I never knew I didn’t know. The shame and stigma attached to menstruation was so much that code words were developed in our daily language to indicate that a girl had begun to menstruate. As far as I remember, when one began to menstruate, it was called to “to be outside”. If one had to inform sister or mom, one said, “I am outside” or “I have become outside”(I know it sounds funny in English). A few others referred to it as “touch”, that is ‘muttu’ and ‘antu’. It is very ironical considering the woman became untouchable once she began to bleed. Among some, the fact of menstruation was conveyed by saying ‘I have become ineligible’ or loosely translated, it meant ‘I am of no use.’ Yet others call periods as ‘month’. To indicate one had become pregnant , one said, she/I missed my month! I checked out Google and the Telugu equivalent of menstruation was given as ‘ritu kramam’ or ‘ritu shravam’ the monthly cycle, or the monthly flow.

Discovery of blood

Most girls confess to have experienced horror and terror when they discovered blood in their panty or a blood stain on their dress. They were scared to death and kept crying for the next few days till the flow lessened and stopped.They were not prepared or informed either by their mother or a female relative what to expect as they reached the age of puberty. A cousin who is a grandmother now, was traumatised when she began to bleed. She did not the have the courage or closeness with her mother to tell her what was happening. She was scared that she was being punished by God for some bad thing she had done. She was even more scared of her mother’s scolding for offending God. In those days of the traditional wear of lahenga-blouse for the pre-puberty girls they did not wear a panty which led to the blood flowing down her legs. She finally confessed to an older female cousin who helped her to protect herself and also informed her mother.

If the bleeding and the physical pain and cramps associated with it for most girls was a terrible experience, the washing of the bloodied cloth-pad was even more horrifying although one got used to it over time. Some women confessed that for the first few months their mother washed the dirty pads (imagine the plight of the mother). The more privileged girls from rich and upper caste families on the other hand, didn’t have to undergo this horror of washing; either their maids washed them or the pads were given to the dhobi who would collect dirty clothes from every household in the morning and return them in the evening after washing and drying them. Yet another problem was to find a place to dry these cloths after washing them. We had to dry them away from the mainstream, in some nook or dark corner where nobody would see our ‘dirty’ linen and shame us forever in our own eyes. In our large house, there were plenty of dark and dingy and dusty corners where we could secretly dry the washed menstrual pieces of cloth.

Menstruating women don’t belong to Mainstream

Menstruation was ‘dirty’ during which a woman turned undesirable and had to be banished away from the house and even sight of men. She was not allowed to enter the kitchen and puja room; not allowed to touch others and ‘pollute’ them. At the first discovery of the period, she had to have a head bath, to wash away the the pollution by menstruation. After this in some houses, she was partly acceptable. In several others, that were Brahiminised, she was rendered ‘untouchable’ for four to five days. A friend of mine, a mother of two school-going children, confessed to her ‘period’ troubles with her father-in-law. He didn’t want her to be in the same house as she when she was having her periods. Her mother-in-law put up with his quirks her entire life, going away to her mother’s house every month in a nearby village. This went on for most period of her married life. But since they moved into city and an apartment, he could not afford the luxury of not being in the presence of a ‘dirty’ woman or ‘seeing her face’. He wanted her to go to a relative’s house since going to her mother’s house was impractical as it required several hours of travel. And which relative will keep her in her ‘polluted’ state considering all were Brahmins and perhaps had similar views on menstruating women. Her mother-in-law came out in her support on this issue and today, he doesn’t insist on her leaving the home on ‘those’ days. A compromise has been reached: she stays out of the sight of her father-in-law for four days a month. She should make all kinds of sounds to indicate her presence and he scoots into his room to avoid seeing her in her ‘impure’ state.

Another Aspect of Menstruating Women

There’s another aspect to women being kept away from all household activity during ‘those days’. In our ancestral house, there was a room kept aside permanently for menstruating women since it was a big household and every few days one woman or the other would be ‘outside’. My mother told gave me an entirely different picture of those four days.

This was after I was grown enough where ‘such things’ could be spoken between a mother and daughter. Those days when she got a break from the continuous household chores, was something of a holiday for her! She was very creative with her hands and it was during these days of ‘rest days’ that she could allow the full flow of her creativity. She worked with beads, making designs that were later framed by my father and hung on the walls. She embroidered table cloths and pillow covers. She crocheted. She dressed up porcelain dolls with dresses of beads.

When she came across a table cloth much later in life, she recalled how she and her first born daughter (in a line of 11 children) had together embroidered designs on it, each working simultaneously on different ends of the table cloth. She loved her free time and break from the routine. So, perhaps there was a deeper and more women-friendly reason for the ‘exclusion’ of menstruating women. She was given the much needed rest on those painful days when moods alter and involves plenty of discomfort? She also got her share of holiday from the regular, backbreaking household work. But why make her ‘polluted’ and impure and despicable? Perhaps a deliberate twisting of a tradition to run down women and show her as inferior and weak by the patriarchal system?

(The author, a senior journalist and academic, can be reached at [email protected])