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I was taught that a menstruating woman was impure, and that sex always causes pregnancy, among other things, by my mother and teachers, and had to search for my own answers later.
While watching the film Padman set in rural India, and which shows the menstrual myths amongst the rural un-educated or under educated women, I realised that the scene is not much different in urban India. Growing up in an urban family, having a sophisticated, working mother, I too was socialized into believing that menstrual blood is dirty.
When I had my first period at the age of 12, I was given an irresponsible crash course on reproduction. Years later a few of the things I was told then would come back to haunt me, and I would find out on my own about the mysteries of reproduction.
As a child I was only told this by my mother: that every month an egg is released and it waits for getting fertilized by a sperm, and when it doesn’t, it’s expelled from the body along with the lining (endometrium) formed in her uterus. This was all the information I was given (even if technically correct), and on which I survived for many years to come, till I myself sought information about reproduction and the female body.
Along with the idea of ‘dirty blood’ being expelled from the body, I was also inculcated with the idea of women’s untouchability during their menstruation by my educated, urban mother.
As a child I always saw that in those 5 days my mother wouldn’t perform puja, and would instead instruct me to perform it. I also noticed how my mother would avoid my touch while I was on my periods while she performed puja. For years to come she would always justify this as something she did out of her own choice; just a harmless practice that she followed.
No, in urban India, a woman is probably not banished from the kitchen or made to spend her nights in the veranda while she menstruated, but the fundamental idea that menstruation is something ‘profane’ as opposed to the idea of ‘sacred’ pervaded my middle class urban home, and does so in many urban homes even today. A few of my friends were socialized with even weirder notions about menstruation. I had a friend who was told that women need to shampoo their hair after their fourth day, or she would still be ‘impure’, and she followed it.
At school, great care was taken by girls so as not to stain their white uniforms on their menstrual days.
Our school which happened to be a co-ed school, never provided information on menstruation. It was a school were chapters on plant reproduction were taught more zealously and in greater detail than human reproduction, where questions from a boy of class 7 about how the sperm gets to meet the ova was shushed by “That is not in the syllabus” by our biology teacher.
For many years I was under the impression that unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy at all times. I didn’t know about the process of ovulation – the cycle of 28 days, and that women are fertile for 2 days in each cycle,… I sought out this information at a much older age.
I had also come to know about the existence of tampons much later, when I was seeking out relevant information about menstrual hygiene by myself. When I came to know about tampons, I had asked my mother why hadn’t she inform me about their existence during my teenage years. To which my mother had replied, that she thought tampons couldn’t be used by ‘unmarried’ women. Here by ‘unmarried’ what she really meant is ‘virgin’!
While the dialogue around menstruation in the West and other developed countries is mostly about dispelling myths about tampons, and the idea that you can’t get pregnant when you are menstruating, in our country and many developing and underdeveloped countries we are still fighting to dispel the myth of menstrual blood being ‘dirty’.
Not only do we have to fight with others to allow ourselves to accept our own bodies, we also have to grow up with inadequate information as imparted by our parents and teachers, and finally we also had to face the consequences of being imparted inadequate information.
Of course children hitting puberty in today’s times don’t necessarily have to face the problems we did as a 90s and early 2000s’ children. The internet was only used then to obtain information for doing school project work; the infinite corpus of knowledge that the internet contained was unknown by children of that time. As a result children such as us grew up into ill-prepared, ill-informed women.
Header image is a still from the movie Queen
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I huffed, puffed and panted up the hill, taking many rest breaks along the way. My calf muscles pained, my heart protested, and my breathing became heavy at one stage.
“Let’s turn back,” my husband remarked. We stood at the foot of Shravanbelagola – one of the most revered Jain pilgrimage centres. “We will not climb the hill,” he continued.
My husband and I were vacationing in Karnataka. It was the month of May, and even at the early hour of 8 am in the morning, the sun scorched our backs. After visiting Bangalore and Mysore, we had made a planned stop at this holy site in the Southern part of the state en route to Hosur. Even while planning our vacation, my husband was very excited at the prospect of visiting this place and the 18 m high statue of Lord Gometeshwara, considered one of the world’s tallest free-standing monolithic statues.
What we hadn’t bargained for was there would be 1001 granite steps that needed to be climbed to have a close-up view of this colossal magic three thousand feet above sea level on a hilltop. It would be an understatement to term it as an arduous climb.
Every daughter, no matter how old, yearns to come home to her parents' place - ‘Home’ to us is where we were brought up with great care till marriage served us an eviction notice.
Every year Dugga comes home with her children and stays with her parents for ten days. These ten days are filled with fun and festivity. On the tenth day, everyone gathers to feed her sweets and bids her a teary-eyed adieu. ‘Dugga’ is no one but our Goddess Durga whose annual trip to Earth is scheduled in Autumn. She might be a Goddess to all. But to us, she is the next-door girl who returns home to stay with her parents.
When I was a child, I would cry on the day of Dashami (immersion) and ask Ma, “Why can’t she come again?” My mother would always smile back.
I mouthed the same dialogue as a 23-year-old, who was home for Durga Puja. This time, my mother graced me with a reply. “Durga is fortunate to come home at least once. But many have never been home after marriage.”
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