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For five days, when we bleed and suffer from the cramps, it’s absolutely fine to demand the much-needed rest for our body. Proudly declare, yes, we bleed!
The year was 1992. We were a bunch of over-enthusiastic teenagers looking forward to the school picnic. The bus arrived and we lined up to board. That’s when the teacher-in-charge dropped a query. “Is there anyone on her periods?” We kept looking at each other. If we said ‘yes,’ we had no idea what would ensue, But if we said ‘no,’ we had no inkling how it would affect our outing!
Those days, period as a topic was NOT to be discussed. It was a topic no-one dared to discuss – only a hushed conversation between the mates. Very few teachers took pains to explain menstrual hygiene to us.
There were students who missed school. If they dared to cite the reason (which was in most cases severe cramps) they were branded ‘delicate darlings.’ Comparison was drawn between them and the regular school-goers who never missed a day. Not even during their periods. Complaining of cramps during periods or heavy flow was unacceptable.
On the other hand, when the corporate approached our school for a session on menstrual health, the administration gave them a warm welcome. Sanitary napkins were distributed to each and every student free of cost and a pad-bank was created in school. The hypocrisy stank.
If we asked for permission between classes to change pads, we were not allowed. Changing pads was never counted as an excuse. However, when the students stained their blue skirts, they were ridiculed and bullied. Teachers found them dirty and messy. Yes, periods were dirty!
Going back to our picnic, when none of us mustered enough courage to speak up, the teacher decided to check our panties by feeling them. We stood in fear and humiliation as she went around checking each one of us. The ones who were bleeding were shamed for lying and hauled up. Bleeding was an offence, you see. It was shameful to bleed!
During a family wedding, my sister had complained of severe cramps. It was impossible for her to move around. My anxious parents hovered around her administering medicines and stayed away from the festivities.
The relatives did not lose an opportunity to give us a piece of their mind. “Everyone gets periods and cramps. Don’t give unnecessary importance to them. Teach your daughters to tolerate the pain. Else how will they bear the pain of childbirth?” Don’t you know periods are about increasing the threshold of pain?
Periods are secondary. Don’t give it too much importance. Time and again we were reminded.
On the other hand, at the home front, I had a wonderful family who stood by me through my journey of menstruation. It was late in the night when I found a streak of red in my panties.
I screamed in fright, “Mamma, blood dysentery!” Ma knew what was wrong. She made me lie down between her and Baba that night. I was ten years old and the discomfort was bothering me.
While Baba stroked my forehead, Ma explained the process called menstruation. The next morning I came down with a fever. My elder sister took turns in changing my pad. She did it with great care.
Baba was the one who bought the pads for us. He would be the one we would shout for from the washroom. “Baba, I am down. Can you get me a pad?” And within minutes a hand would appear through the narrow slit handing us one. Even now, when I am down, my septuagenarian father who is lost in his own world makes it a point to enquire about my menstrual health.
Periods bring back memories of a morning I know treasure. I woke up one morning in dismay. My nightwear was soggy. The bed sheet was soaked red. I made it to the washroom hastily to clean up. My sleep disturbed and my mood spoilt. Irritated, I prepared tea and started my day early. Ma had woken up by then.
Outside the sky had darkened. The soft cumulus clouds had changed color. They had thickened and had grown darker. Soon, thunder roared and rain lashed down.
My mother ran out from her bedroom exclaiming, “Borsha eshey geche, borsha eshey geche.” (Monsoon has arrived) She stood outside, stretching her hands out. Her face was dotted with the drops… her damp sari clung to her frail body but the happiness on her face was unmatched. I sat holding my cup guiltily wondering why I couldn’t rejoice!
Ma shouted out to me. The lightning crackled. “Come here. Get drenched. The first of the showers are the best… best for your body. Come and get wet. Don’t think twice.”
“But Ma…I am down. My periods have started.”
“So what? Why should that stop you? Let your body soak in the first shower! Come here! Join me.”
I held her hand and stepped in the midst of the shower; our face turned towards the sky. The drops fell on me one after the other. A tiny shiver ran down my spine as I felt the drops coursing down my body. The anxiety about periods and the pad I was wearing was forgotten. Who cares!
Changing into dry clothes, we had sat down sipping chai. That’s when Ma told me a story.
“It’s not just you who bleeds, my dear girl. Every woman bleeds. Even Mother Earth. Even the Goddesses! Let me tell you about the Bleeding Goddess!”
“Bleeding Goddess, what? Are you serious?”
“Yes yes. We do have a Goddess who bleeds.”
“Do we worship her?”
“Oh yes we do. She is one of the most powerful deities.”
And she told me the story. Lord Shiva got married to Sati, the daughter of King Daksha against his wishes. The King did not take a liking to his new son-in-law. What kind of a man did his daughter marry? Someone who smoked ganja, was semi-clad, ash smeared all over his body, kept a snake for company, had no riches and roamed around in wild places? How would he keep his princess happy! He would never forgive his daughter for her poor choice.
But Sati and Shiva was a happy couple. Both of them were aware of the King’s displeasure. They were never invited home or to the events he organised. When the king organised an elaborate Yajna, he did not invite his daughter and son-in-law.
Sati yearned to meet her family. She tried to persuade Shiva to attend the ceremony but he refused. Finally he relented. Sati arrived at her father’s palace where Daksha insulted her badly. Overcome with rage, she immolated herself.
When Shiva heard about her demise, he arrived there, beheaded the king and destroyed the Yajna. Putting the body of his beloved on his shoulders he began his tandava . The world shook and begged for mercy. But the grief-stricken Shiva paid no heed to it.
All the Gods and Goddesses approached Lord Vishnu for help. Shiva had to be stopped or they would all be destroyed. Vishnu sent his Sudarshan Chakra. It cut Sati’s body into 51 pieces, distributing them into 51 locations. These locations, where Sati’s body fell became the 51 Shakti Peeth or the centre of immense energy/Shakti.
They say that Sati’s Yoni (vagina) fell in the Nilachal hills of Guwahati, Assam. The site came to be worshipped and gained immense popularity. Every year, when the monsoons arrive, they say that the reigning deity of the temple, Goddess Kamakhya bleeds.
The temple is shut for four days. No one is allowed inside and no worship happens. The Goddess is allowed privacy to rest her body as she prepares herself for the next chapter. Then the temple is reopened after four days and she is worshipped with great fanfare. The loin cloth by then has turned red.
Devotees break into exultant cries informing everyone about the Devi’s yearly menstrual cycle. A piece of the red cloth is a possession and treasured by one and all. This phenomenon happens on the seventh day of the month Ashad, the month of monsoon in the lunar calendar.
Known as Ambubachi, there is also a scientific reason. As soon as monsoon sets in, the water from the natural spring in the temple mixes with the red Hematorite in the soil turning the Devi’s cloth red. Worshipping and getting a Darshan of the menstruating goddess is a privilege.
That morning my mother told me that I should be proud of my periods. Like me the Goddess bleeds, like her even our Mother Earth bleeds. Yes this is also the time when the earth is swollen. The advent of the monsoon is symbolic.
All kind of agricultural activities are stopped allowing the earth to rest and replenish herself. No ploughing, no sowing. Everything comes to a standstill till she gets to rest it out. After this she is deemed fit for cultivation. It’s almost like a woman who is shedding her uterine lining and getting ready to conceive and deliver. This story has stayed with me till now.
I was in when we had gone for a trip to Bhubaneswar. One of the girls in our group informed us that her periods had started. Atypical of a heritage site, there were no toilets in sight. Something had to be done before she stained her clothes, we decided.
The boys in our group had probably sensed our predicament. They volunteered to form a circle facing out, while the girls formed an inner circle guarding our friend. She put on the pad. That day I realised how a world of difference it would make if our generation acts differently. Yes, the future lies within us!
At work, my first posting was with the state government. The department initially had no designated toilets for women. Later when they came up with separate toilets for women, no bins were provided to dispose the pads.
Men would often use our toilets when theirs were occupied. The pads would be an embarrassment to the men, it was decided. Either we put on two or three layers to last us the day (a shift comprised nine hours) or we simply went to the nearest home of a colleague to change. Menstrual hygiene was never a priority.
Menstruation was a priority only during religious events and weddings. Places of worship were out of bounds for menstruating woman. It’s believed that she is impure and should not enter. Another school of thought chooses to believe that menstruating women are in possession of unnaturally high energy which can impact the deities in the temple. Menstruation is thus unholy.
Dates of marriage are usually fixed after consulting the almanac. It also depends upon the probable date of menstruation. Subtle enquiries are made about the bride’s last date of periods.
One would think that it is to spare the bride the discomfort during a special milestone. But NO, I was proved wrong. A menstruating woman cannot undergo the holy process of a marriage ceremony. Declaring the last date is also mandatory. Do you know why? It is to keep a tab that the woman who has come into the household is menstruating and has no unwanted pregnancy growing inside her womb. It is another tool to ascertain the bride’s fidelity.
Despite all the adversities, I remember my mother’s message to me.
Menstruation is a natural process and should not be looked down upon. We women should talk openly about it. There is no taboo. If the Goddess can bleed then why can’t we? This question by my mother has remained with me. And yes she has always given us the freedom to rest it out.
Those five days, when we bleed and suffer from the cramps, it’s absolutely fine to demand the much-needed rest for our body. Don’t buy your napkins in shame. No need to hide them. Proudly declare, yes, we bleed! We bleed with pride! Let’s create a generation which takes pride.
Note: June 22 was Ambubachi in Assam. Few days back, Orissa celebrated Raja Parba, a similar festival.
A version of this was first published here.
Picture credits: YouTube
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Sreemati Sen Karmakar holds a Masters in Social Work (MSW) From Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She
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