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A pad and a bra change the equation of your life and you wonder if growing up is such a big embarrassment, a sinuous trail beyond your capacity to traverse, a virus that gnaws at your childhood.
She hands me a cloth, folded in several layers, from an old bed sheet I remember we used for the family king size bed. That was when we stayed in junior officers service quarters in Durgapur- the steel city of eastern India. It had faded blue peacock patterns in the middle and catalpa leaves around the border. The blue would soon turn red, blood red.
“Put it” she pauses as if she does not recognize me anymore and completes ‘there’. I evade her eyes, my mind clammy just like the red molasses trickling below. Hesitantly I say, ’This?’ and take my first pad.
Last year I had heard Baba ask Maa, “Mamoni, hasn’t started yet?”.
“No. There is no hurry.” She replied, her tone barricading further investigation.
“Have you…?” Baba tried to speak again.
“No. There is no hurry.” She interrupted brusquely and walked away.
I was 12 and I understood the conversation. But when it comes to my Maa, I try to act naive, more naive than I am. She likes it that way. I like her liking me that way. I want her to be a friend. She prefers to be just a mother. That is where I guess the fault lines lie. The buds on my breasts and the flow down there got us too close for comfort. We are more functional in our relationship than emotional. I have known her like that, a martinet, but I could have done better with something closer, softer, motherly. One rainy day I took a chance, returning from the school drenched, I spoke with pert brightness about a friend and a boy who had proposed to her.
“You go to school to do all this?”
I receded. She got me a glass of warm milk and applied mustard oil on my hair, rubbing it gently with the tip of her fingers, tying my loose strands in a tight ponytail. Her opaqueness baffled me. She was either black or white, yes or no, good or bad and the line that divided was bold Arial 96. I know one more person like that- my grandmother, my mother’s mother- Arial, Bold, 100. “This is the only way to make mango pickles, rest is all this new generation’s codswallop,” she would say covering the mouth of the glazed ceramic martaban with a white muslin cloth and tying a hard knot. I wondered why they tied everything so hard, like an airtight container. Everything needs a bit of air, isn’t it?
So when it happened, yesterday evening, I truly had no idea how to access her. The underwear had stains. It is one thing to know, another to experience, and quite another to talk it to your mother, my Maa. I let it trickle the entire evening. After dinner when she was wiping the kitchen clean, close to sparkle, I uttered, “Maa, I have blood on my underwear.”
She looked at me, her face devoid of any emotion, though I saw her shoulders droop and I noticed her wipe something from the corners of her eyes.
In the bathroom, she used a ball of cotton to touch me there and we saw it again- the blood and some hairs, growing long and curly. I closed my eyes, overcome by shame, mortified at what stood between me and her. I cannot forget the night, a night bigger than all the nights I have spent or will spend. I can say that with surety. Like a frozen popsicle, I lay on the bed, next to my two younger brothers, my thighs raised, like shards of glass around my thing, the stuffed cotton kept me awake. Will I ever sleep after today, I ruminate the entire night, careful not to disturb the little ones, careful not to stain the bed sheet, careful not to twist, careful not to turn, careful not to itch, careful not to breathe.
In the morning, my yellow tunic had a big red stain and I wanted to die. My skin felt hot as my father came and patted my forehead. “You will be fine Mamoni. Don’t worry”, saying this he left for work, and the little ones left for school. That day I missed school. That day I missed going to the playground. That day, I missed seeing my friends and talking to them. That day I missed walking, running, jumping. That day I missed living and that day I realized something has changed in my life forever.
“Use this bedsheet for your days. Cut and make a triple layer. You can later throw them in the dustbin wrapped in a newspaper. You don’t need to wash it and use it again.”
That is the long and short of all that I got that day- An old bedsheet, few words, me and memories of cut pieces of her petticoat, Baba’s vests, pyjamas hanging in some obscure corner of the terrace, close to the water tank, smelling of rin soap and stale blood.
I keep the small bedding in the middle and pull up my underwear. Walking normally is impossible.
A week later, she hands me my brassier, two in one pack, like twins in one womb. “You should start wearing it now” is all that she says.
In the storeroom, I fidget with the pack with Rupa imprint on it and a number indicating the size. “How does Maa know my size? She never measured? Quizzically, I look at the pair of someone’s breasts on the pack and feel envious of her porcelain skin and compare my buds, now a bit rounder and fuller. Not impressed with my bump, not knowing how to wear, where to tighten and where to clasp, I struggle, snot streaming clear from my nose. Soaked in yet another wave of shame, I put it on, awkwardly, ready to face the world and my mother. She gives me a look and continues kneading the dough.
I despise every bit of my existence, I hate the hairs under the armpits, the one that falls on the bathroom floor and entangles with soap scum to clog the drain, the band around my chest, and the barbed wires separating me from my Maa. The change feels stifling, all the more when you did not see it coming, and when it came, there is none to hold your hands and guide your way. A pad and a bra change the equation of your life and you wonder if growing up is such a big embarrassment, a sinuous trail beyond your capacity to traverse, a virus that gnaws at your childhood. And then one day you are all grown up, ready for the world but unrecognizable to one own self.
Months have passed and the king-size bedsheet is now shorter, the bra has turned yellowish and the elastic bands have become loose. One strap needed a stitch which I managed with a needle and a thread. The black knot sits on the white brassiere like a stain. I have got used to stains and have contingency plans to handle it my way. I have a bony frame but I flow heavy down there. Some days the lower abdominal pains are beyond what my body can endure but what is impossibly unbearable is the loneliness that washes me at home as I yearn for something to develop between me and Maa.
Durgapur is a small town and I have a small circle of friends, modern girls from HemSheela Modern school. We overstuff ourselves when it comes to phuchkaas in Bidhannagar, we overdress during Durga Pooja, and some of us dream of living in America with Nick Jonas. Our fathers, mostly communists (my father closer to Karl Marx) congregate near Sohini Sweets. Over gur sandesh and tea they debate over middle-class politics, the price of rui mach and the state of the factory. Our mothers though come across in a variety of shades and my looks the most opaque, almost always in incognito mode.
As I write, I smell like a stale fish down there which I mask under a heavy skirt and Nycil talcum powder. I need a pad, the ones they gave in school but it lasted only two days. Maa needs to get me sanitary pads, the ones many of my friends use, or another king-size bed sheet maybe.
The pad that I am using right now is made out of a technique called Khaandavi (the Gujarati snack that Hinal made me taste at school. Whoa, I must say, how does one manage so many layers?) Anyways, I own the copyright of Khaandavi. Essentially it is a lifesaver trick for the poor.
Aah! This word. How poor is a poor man and his family? Are we poor? Can we not afford a pack of sanitary napkins each month? My siblings and I and our needs have learned to be patient with Baba, a Transmission Line Engineer at Durgapur Steel Plant. How can it be; I don’t see poverty hanging on the DIY decorative pieces in the living room nor can I smell it from the chicken curry served on Sundays.
It’s quite another thing that the best pieces are first served to Baba, the leg pieces to my younger brothers, then comes my turn, and Maa is usually left with anything floating in the thick brown gravy. Does Baba care to see through the gravy? Does Maa question? Why doesn’t she use a sanitary pad for herself? Isn’t an Msc Botany enough education to understand hygiene? Should I ask for a leg piece and a pad? The questions bounce frantically in my head like a pinball.
It sounds insane but Maa never bothered to check on me and how I managed. It hurt my heart. Once after the movie Padman, an NGO on a survey visited our community and we had three packs of sanitary pads given to us as a free sample. The other day, I mustered some words and asked Maa, “Do we have any pad?” in a voice I couldn’t hear while dusting the furniture, carefully avoiding her eyes. She said yes and directed me to a box where it was kept. I heaved a sigh of relief and for two days I walked like human beings walk, like girls my age walk. The treasure soon got over.
Coming back to the technique, it’s simple, effective, uncomfortable, and according to my biology teacher -unhygienic. Make a four-layer cloth pad once and each time it soaks, just wrap a new cloth over it. The top portion remains clean, the inside keeps soaking and drying and soaking and drying. The cycle continues for four days until the flow recedes and what you are wearing is not a pad but a small baby pillow underneath.
See, it’s simple and smart, isn’t it? Haha! sometimes my eyes tear up at my own ingenuity. We all save. Big deal. The only downside to it, this technique smells. Try to stay away from people, if possible your own self too. The underwear loses its grip due to the weight but you can always keep pulling it up. Big deal.
I am yet to figure out a technique for the bra though. The bluing does add some shine but we need more than that to feel good. Should I talk to Maa? A schoolgirl needs more than just two bras if hygiene is also a priority. One day, when Maa gets me a new bra, I will relieve the old one of the burden and put it to some good use- How about a pad? As I try to imagine the construct, from the gap between the door and the hinges, I see Maa cleaning the dining table, the table mats, picking grains of rice fallen on the floor. I smile. She is such a stickler for cleanliness.
First published here.
Image source: shutterstock
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