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Wednesday 2 November 2016

#PeriodPride: Rags of shame

'How time has flown past!' Lakshmi mused as she waved to Devi and Maya from her kitchen window. 'They'll be back again with mounds of shopping, where is the place to stuff all that they buy, I can't imagine!' she exclaimed to herself. Devi her only daughter, Maya and Siya her granddaughters were home for the holidays and she couldn't be happier. Little Siya was playing with her new Barbie kitchen-set that her doting thatha had bought her. She was busily pouring out cups of tea adorably decked in her saree - her mum's dupatta that her pati had obligingly wrapped around her tiny frame.
By late evening the two girls were back home, as expected over-laden with shopping bags. Lakshmi pretended to be angry and scolded them,'Why do you buy so much? And where is the need to buy more sarees for me, I hardly have any occasions to wear what I have in my cupboard!'
'Ma, I know you love it! Come on, I know you wanted to buy this one, but you will never spend on yourself!' chided Devi.
Lakshmi felt her eyes moisten as she ladled bowls of piping hot food and lovingly hand-fed her darling angels, Maya and Siya. She was glad that her daughter and granddaughters were born in a different era and blessed with all they could wish for and more.
'Ma, what happened? What are you thinking? Tell me no?' said Devi seeing her mother's emotional mood.
'Nothing, just happy that you girls have all your hearts desire. It made me think of my own childhood. But let it be, we are happy now and that's all that matters.'
'Tell me Ma, I know you had a tough childhood but you've never really spoken much about it. I would like to know more.'
'Yes, those were hard days....' Lakshmi paused and finally decided she had to share this with her daughter after all these years.
'You know Devi, I was the fifth daughter in my family, my mother - your pati had had two consequent deliveries, two male babies who died at infancy just before I was born - I the seventh child and the fifth daughter was born to her at a relatively old age of 36.
I was probably the most unwanted child in the family. Underweight from birth, undernourished through childhood, I was always an after-thought in the family, an additional burden, one more girl to be raised and married off. 
My older sisters were way older than me and I played with their children whenever they came home for their deliveries or on holidays. I never complained that I only got to wear old clothes all through my childhood, old books to study or old toys that my nieces and nephews left behind, I just thought that's the way things were supposed to be. 

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As I grew older, I started noticing things, things only a deprived child can understand. I saw my nieces who were slightly younger than me wearing new clothes for Diwali or their birthdays while I wore my usual clothes even on those days. My mother made kheer/sweets on those days, gifted her grand-children on those days but when it came to me, she avoided the expense. But I dismissed all of it when I saw my poor old father, overburdened by work and responsibility.
We lived in a chawl those days, which had a common toilet block on the ground floor. I hated visiting the toilet and suppressed natural body urges as long as I could...sometimes managing with only one visit in the entire day.
As time passed, I started maturing but I was ashamed about the changes my body was undergoing. My mother never encouraged such talk and I hid my growing body with over-large clothes. I knew a little about periods, having had four sisters above me. I had seen them being isolated on 'those days', served food separately, not allowed to touch or mingle with anybody. But what really happened during a period I never knew. 
I was thirteen when my first period happened. I was appalled when I woke up early one morning with stomach cramps and saw a stain on the bedding roll I slept on. 
I timidly went up to wake my mother, 'Amma, I got it, please give me some cloth,' I managed. Having raised a family full of females, she quite easily understood this cryptic message. She got up crossly and rummaged in an old trunk and came up with a bundle of old rags. 
'Go tear these up and use it. Then come back and clean the mess you've created on the mattress,' was all she said. 'And don't touch anything for the next three days,' she called out to me as I awkwardly made my way to the toilet on the ground-floor. 
That was the last time I had any talk with my mother about my periods. She never asked me whether my tummy hurt or even if I had enough cloth. By a non-communicative method - rolling my mattress in the balcony instead of along with the rest of the mattresses, I let her know, I had my periods. I felt ashamed of my monthly curse and hated it. I had to wash the blood-soaked rag in the dirty toilet without even running water and set them to dry in hidden corners in the balcony. They were my rags of shame.
Eventually, over the next few months I ran out of cloth and I was too shy to ask for more. I was down to my last cloth. I washed it and wrung it dry as best as I could and reused the same wet cloth. One of my visiting elder sisters noticed wet patches wherever I sat and took pity on me and gave me some rag cloths to use. But she never said anything to my mother, probably she had been through such times herself. 
My mother was not a unkind woman, it was just how things were those days. She had a large family of daughters, grandchildren to take care of, meager income and overburdened with too much responsibility. I don't hold any grudge against her, she did the best she could. 
All the same, I decided when I had you my dear daughter, I would never let you feel bad about yourself, your body or the miracle that happens to your body every single month.'
Lakshmi looked at Devi whose eyes were now streaming as she heard the forlorn story of her mother's childhood.
'Yes amma, you did your best, I always had you to depend on! How tenderly you explained everything to me when I was twelve. I never had to wear or wash a rag cloth, you always bought me the best sanitary pads, even though I saw you still using pieces of cloth for yourself. I never felt embarrassed or ashamed of my periods and that's just the way I shall raise Maya and Siya, proud to be a girl, proud of the monthly period. Thank you amma, for always being there for me.'
Lakshmi dried Devi's tears and said, 'I know you will be the best mother Devi. Now get up, your father will be home soon. I'll surprise him with the new saree you've bought for me.'


Note: This is a true story, the names of the characters in the story have been changed to protect their identity.

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