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But each time Menaka remembered her mother, she would remember her mother sitting in the dingy room near the backyard for at least four days in a month.
Menaka stood outside the gate looking up at the old house. The gates and window grills seem to have received a fresh coat of paint. The traditional rice flour kolam at the gate, the jasmine creeper wound on a pole just beside the main entrance, and the tiny kitchen garden a little further ahead looked as they had the last time Menaka visited the house almost 7 years ago.
Time seemed to have stood still here, Menaka was well aware the inhabitants of this house had never been keen on moving with the times; however, exceptions were made when the convenience of certain members of the house mattered. The DTH dish antennae mounted on the terrace and the broadband cable stretching across the outer wall stood as proof of the same.
Menaka finally pushed the gate open and entered the house, but she stood still as she approached the main door and stood transfixed at the threshold.
On the wall right opposite the main door she saw the framed photograph hanging in the wall, the woman in the photo was clad in a bright red saree, the most beautiful smile etched on her face. Was she really happy or had she become adept at hiding her pain when the photograph was taken? The only person who could have answered this was the woman herself and with her, the answer had also been lost.
The image in the photo was the very image of her mother Menaka carried in her heart. She had been all of 17 when she lost her mother, that had been the day the house had ceased to be the comforting cocoon for her and receded to being just a red building.
“You have come this far, don’t change your mind now step in.” This voice brought Menaka back to the present, she turned to her right and saw her father standing there. They looked at each other and Menaka proceeded straight to her room. The father and daughter were meeting each other after years, but they were bereft of emotions towards each other. Her mother had been the bond between them and after losing her they only grew distant from each other. Initially it had only been an emotional chasm that only widened further with the physical distance between them.
Menaka had fond memories of her mother, Sumitra. Sumitra had been a calm-natured, soft-spoken woman who never raised her voice at anyone, but Menaka could confidently vouch for the fact that she was a strict mother.
Sumitra had been 21 when she was married off into an orthodox family which she realized much to her misfortune was steeped in superstition. Married life had been anything but the beautiful journey which she had dreamt of. Being married in a family, which believed in following every traditional dictate and rigmarole imposed by society, and married to a man who saw nothing wrong in even the baseless or humiliating practices, life after marriage was challenging for Sumitra.
Menaka was often told by her mother that she was the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise strictly controlled life. But each time Menaka remembered her mother, those dark memories seemed to gain precedence over the beautiful ones eventually. She would remember her mother sitting in the dingy room near the backyard for at least four days in a month.
As a little girl, she would be worried about why her mother was being punished each month. Spending time in a dingy room filled with rusty odour, having to sleep on a worn-out mat and eat bland food and not being allowed to interact with others is nothing short of punishment. But the one memory that stayed strong with Menaka was, her mother being ordered by her paternal grandmother to take the pills because there was a festival coming up, a puja organized or an event planned, or simply because it was an auspicious day. She was told in no clear terms that she “cannot get impure on such important days.” She could remember the conversation between her mother and father in a muffled tone at night, her mother was pleading with him to understand why she couldn’t be taking those pills this regularly and how she could already see the negative repercussions. But her father had ended the conversation by saying “following traditions and rituals is an important part of their life’s duties and it cannot be escaped neither should one try to.”
Menaka was 12 when she started menstruating, as her mother explained the importance of menstrual hygiene and how to follow the same all Menaka had felt was fear gnawing at her. With tear-laden eyes, she had asked her mother if she was also going to be punished for those 4 days every month like her mother. Sumitra was pained at her daughter’s question and she vowed to not let her daughter face the ordeal that she did. She had lived up to her promise even though it had meant waging a battle against the family and its biased beliefs. Menaka felt the hostility towards her by the other members of the family but her mother shielded her strongly. But the love and warmth that Menaka enjoyed in her mother’s care were short-lived.
Menaka was 15 when her mother started falling ill often. She had always known that her mother was not in the pink of her health, but she had not seen her writhing in pain for days together either. She had heavy menstrual bleeding and the pitiable condition she had to continue enduring during the days of menstruation only made it worse. This had forced Menaka to put her foot down and lock the despicable room near the backyard permanently. She had had to endure curses and abuses and was blamed for all the ill luck she would be bringing on the family by her blasphemous act. She had refused to budge, making it clear to one and all that no worship, belief, or tradition preceded her mother’s wellbeing. The only hostility that bothered her was her father’s coldness.
Soon after Menaka turned 16, Sumitra’s health worsened. She was having untimely vaginal bleeding before and started experiencing severe pelvic pain. When the pain and discomfort became unbearable, she reached out to her gynaecologist. The doctor had been alarmed on seeing her condition and ran several tests to only communicate that Sumitra had cervical cancer.
The news shattered Menaka. The doctor had berated her parents for not coming earlier. The cancer was in an advanced stage and the doctor was clear that she would give no false hopes. The treatment commenced and Menaka was there by her mother’s side through the entire process. But despite the doctor’s efforts and the medical treatment she lost her mother 6 months later. While Menaka struggled to come to grips with her loss, the rest of the family resigned to it as an act of fate. She heard her father telling an acquaintance “Who can go against the will of God, its all fate.” Something within her snapped on hearing those words, all she felt towards the rest of the family from that moment had been anger, bitterness, and resentment. Her coldness towards them, especially her father only grew.
A few days after her mother’s passing away, Menaka was sorting her mother’s belongings when she came across a strip of tablets that she knew were not a part of her cancer medication. A little research and she could piece two and two together that these were tablets taken for postponing her periods. She remembered that conversation between her parents many years ago, how her mother reluctantly consumed these pills regularly because she couldn’t be ‘impure’ during important days. She could not help thinking if only the family had been sensible, if only her father had cared about his wife over senseless traditions, her mother would have still been alive. It was her curiosity to know more about this pill or probably understand the ill effects of wrong use of medicines that she decided to pursue a career in pharmaceutical science. A decision that was again met with hostility by her family. She had managed to earn a scholarship and worked part-time jobs to cover her expenses.
Over the years the Menaka had actively participated in awareness campaigns to eradicate taboos surrounding menstruation and create awareness on women’s health and hygiene, but sadly the situation in her house remained the same.
Over the years Menaka had stopped coming home, for it hurt her to see that her own family was adamant about not correcting their warped thought process. But the phone call she received two days back from her sister-in-law had forced her to make this trip. As she sat in her room, holding her mother’s photograph she promised her, she wouldn’t let them sacrifice another woman on the altar of traditions and superstitions like her. She walked towards that dreaded room near the backyard and for a moment seeing the woman lying there curled in a foetal position, she felt like she was seeing her mother again and rage engulfed her. She marched in and spoke to the woman gently, helped her stand up, and walked with her to the main door. She could see several faces look at her with rage and there were her father and brother standing beside the door.
“Where do you think, you are taking my wife?” her brother demanded. “Don’t you know during those days she cannot be walking all over the house, making it impure,” it was one of her aunt.
“She needs medical help; can you people not see that? Instead, you have abandoned her to the murkiest corner of the house! What was the need of opening that room again?” Menaka shot out at them furiously.
“You never respected the people of this house, its traditions, and not even me. Now, why do you want to ruin those who have been living with discipline in the house?”
Menaka could control her anger no further on hearing her father’s words, “Yes discipline, traditions, mindless superstitions all of these are more important than human life in this house. Who knows that better than me? Your reverence to these traditions killed my mother, but I know it affected you in no way, the disciplined life was important wasn’t it? But Bhabhi will not become another sacrificial lamb at your alter of traditions.”
The unspoken words had been spoken out today. Menaka walked out of the house with her sister-in-law. Change she was going to bring, whether the family liked it or not. A right to dignified life was not a choice but a right which was not going to be snatched away from the women of the house only because the people residing had a warped and illogical understanding of a normal bodily function.
Image source: a still from the short film MAA
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