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My orthodox mother in law didn't really care about my period pain, but she had a cold water head bath workaround to ensure I continued with house work!
As a small girl, the only meaning of the word period was the subject wise division of school-time. After the morning prayer, the first period began, teacher came in, we wished good morning in sing-song way which was followed by a not so good forty-five-minute learning session. At the end of the forty-five minutes, the bell rang, signalling the end of the PERIOD. We thanked the teacher and out she went only to be replaced by another teacher and another period. This went on a loop on every school day. The only worry during these periods was homework, class work, no talking, minding your own business, sharing, caring, smiling, laughing etc, the usual antics that make up a normal school day. Of course, there were favourite periods and some not so likeable, but all were largely bearable.
As a growing up girl, the only time I saw copious amounts of blood was in the movies where doctors performed miraculous surgeries to save a character. That these surgeries and the picturisation, the medical science involved, were all very questionable, is a discussion for another time.
And then suddenly one night, a few days before I turned thirteen, I saw blood coming out of a body part, the mention of which was considered indecent and inappropriate. I was quite befuddled and had to tell my mom. She immediately said, in a hushed tone, “it is ok, this happens to every girl. It will repeat every month.” It was too much to process for my little mind but I just went with the flow (pardon the pun).
It was followed up by a list of dos and don’ts. Most important being, not entering the kitchen for three days, not touching the worshipping space and idols, other specific things and taking a full head bath after three days before entering the kitchen from fourth day onwards. I had no choice but to nod in agreement.
In fact, my mom, when she did not enter the kitchen during her periods used to tell us that she was drying clothes on the terrace and a crow touched her, that is why she needs to rest for three days. I used to find it so fascinating. I many a times accompanied her on the clothes drying visits to see if it happens, but obviously never saw it, because it was just a story. I had an elder sister and my mother herself had regular periods, but it was not openly discussed. And being a Marwari, the rules of staying away from the kitchen was strictly enforced. With or without a stain on your back, the whole household would know that you are chumming because you have to ask for water and food and also say no to the men folk who demand these from you. I used to find it very irritating and humiliating even, but rules were rules.
Biology lessons in the ninth grade cleared the concept of this otherwise taboo subject which was spoken about in hushed tones as if it was something horrible. When, it’s the core of procreation and continuity of life. But such were the times where women and their issues were kept under wraps, not up for discussion.
Slowly, the periods became a matter of routine, too. With all the restrictions of the outside world and the major discomfort in the inner world, periods were here to stay. Gradually everyone finds out their favourite corners, their comforts, and bides these difficult days. I, for one, had terribly painful periods. I used to literally squirm in pain and sometimes had to sleep after taking a painkiller. We never consulted a doctor because this was accepted as normal and was not that big a deal to warrant a doctor’s visit. And bearing this pain every month, I kept growing up. And part of the deal of growing up was to get married.
Here I was, married into a Marwari family, albeit with a boy of my choice (which was something I was head strong about despite knowing my Marwari family and their conviction in arranged marriages). Coming to periods, come rain or snow, summer or spring, festival or regular day, marriage or not, aunt flow visits regularly. And that’s a good thing. If she doesn’t visit regularly, one has to start making the rounds of gynaecologists. Although painful, my periods were regular. One painkiller and life went on as usual.
As we know, periods are called periods because they occur periodically, based on an individual’s cycle. Sometimes stress and anxiety are known to have delayed or caused them earlier, but largely, everyone has their own cycle, which ranges from 25-35 days generally. And mine were every 25 days.
After marriage, my in-laws, who stayed in a different town, visited very often, anytime they wished. The first time around, I had my periods when they were around. This is a Marwari household too, mind you. I as a dutiful daughter-in-law went and informed my mother-in-law. As I had seen in my house, I thought she’ll tell me to stay away from the kitchen because in everything else I had seen them much more orthodox than my own family.
Lo and behold! My ears weren’t ready for this, and my brain couldn’t make any sense of it. She said, “No problem! Just take a head bath and enter the kitchen.” This was before breakfast. I kept trying to make sense while dreading the early morning head bath, even if it was using hot water. I was wondering, of what use the head bath was. Head wasn’t bleeding and no amount of bathing would stop aunt flow’s enthusiasm when she visits, she just goes on and on until it’s time to leave, whether you bathe or not. I just walked away from the kitchen and went into my room. I sat there for 5 minutes, got up and went into the kitchen and started cooking.
Guess what? Cooked food service beats all rules and regulations. No one said anything and simply had everything I made. In hindsight, I feel I should’ve just taken a bath after lunch time and till then just chilled in my room. I made a statement that I didn’t believe in the useless rules, but actually I could’ve made that statement and stayed away from cooking if I had just not taken a bath. But there is always a bit of fear of how things will be and we try to comply, as much as we can, so foolishly I took a bath and did everything.
As the day progressed, stomach cramps started and I had a terrible pain. I cried alone in my room. In the evening it was business as usual. Everybody just sitting and waiting for me to cook. Not once, my mother-in-law, a lady herself, came to check if all was good with me, if I was having any trouble or any such thing. And so far, she hadn’t made me feel comfortable enough for me to share my pain with her and I wonder even if I did, would she care? Anyhow, I made dinner and everybody ate, despite aunt flow’s undesirable visit.
After this visit, thankfully for me, when they visited, I did not have my periods during that period. I didn’t know that aunt flow must visit when they visit for them to be sure that my reproductive organs are working fine and I’ll be able to produce a grandchild for them. Three, four visits later, my mother-in-law, not out of concern or in a caring tone, almost in a scolding way questions me point blank, “don’t you get your periods properly, is there any problem?” My jaws dropped at this question and I asked what was the reason for such a question. She replied saying we didn’t see you getting your periods. Really! Since when were they are supposed to know about my periods. She continued saying that we should know if there is a problem, already you’ve been married for 5 months.
It was one blow after another. Coming from a lady whose daughter got married a year before me and was miles away from being pregnant. She dared to question my periods and my reproductive ability when her daughter was still enjoying her married life (or maybe having reproduction issues, I didn’t know).
It was all too much for me. Not once she showed any concern during my periods when I suffered with cramps, she sat outside and enjoyed the food service by me despite my periods. Of course, I never followed the head bath thing. When I said this to my sister-in-law, she said, yeah I do the same, but early morning my husband, mother-in-law take care. I take a late bath and then enter. This arrangement was good enough too when you’ve got to live like this without choice. In my case, I had no help. I was seriously expected to wake up at 4 and take a head bath and supposedly be PURE enough to cook for all the people at home.
Thankfully, I had 2 successful pregnancies without any issues and regular periods before and after both of them and till date. I got two beautiful girls. I raised them as secularly as I could, and we imbibe all the positives from any culture and religion we can, to strive to become good human beings first and foremost.
And as it goes with girls, they grow up and before one knows, aunt flow starts visiting. Unlike my time, where there was a lot of misinformation and secrecy regarding the whole affair, I marked both my girls first periods as major milestones in their growing up. The day they both got their periods, we celebrated. I took them out for an ice cream treat. I made them comfortable about the whole thing, made them discuss it with their father and made my husband discuss it with them as they would discuss anything under the sun, without any weirdness.
Both my girls are completely frank and open about their periods. I pay attention to their needs, their pains and keep track of the regularity. They have heating water bags when stomach cramps are too much. I take them for check-ups when the pain is unbearable. They can as easily ask my husband for a sanitary pad as they can ask me. There is no oddness about it, and they are free to do everything if they are not suffering with period pain. Other than that, I tell them they’ve got to accept it as a part of their existence, as reality, as inevitable and go on in life, despite it. Reminds me of a time when my first one was tiny and used to wear diapers. She saw my pads one day and asked what it is, and I told her it’s Mumma’s diaper. Next day, we were in a medical store, and she pointed at the pads and screamed loudly, ”Mumma, see, your diaper.” I couldn’t help but laugh out loudly.”
The whole point I wanted to make through this article was that while the working female population is fighting for period leave and being granted the same in some places, what is to be done about the silly superstitions and beliefs about periods in large parts of India? The belief of staying away from the kitchen would’ve started when there wasn’t a proper hygienic way to absorb the flow. Slowly it became a way for ladies in joint families to relax and take these three days off from cooking and serving; it’s another matter that the treatment meted out isn’t always very nice. But I’m sure they don’t mind the off days.
But what about the silly work around of early morning head bath? This definitely was the brain child of a lazy mother-in-law who didn’t want to work but had to show that she followed the old rules to some extent and had to show that she made the house rules.
I think period break is good and it’s not just working women, but every woman deserves it, truly. But the bigger task here is to educate the larger population to shun the old systems and adapt. To change their ways and methods in dealing with this very scientific fact of a woman’s existence and of life itself!
Image source: a still from short film Ghar ki Murgi
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