By Swara Bhaskar:
I was 10 years old when my mother went to the USA to pursue a Ph.D at New York University. She was to be away for more than two years, and my brother and I were in the care of our loving and gruff Naval Officer father. A year later we went to visit my mother. After the initial days of basking in maternal love and care passed, my mother took me out to a local food outlet and sat me down, and began, “Swara, I have to talk to you about something. You are a growing girl now. I have to tell you about periods. Do you know what that is?” “Yes,” I replied my mouth full of chicken burger, “Divya’s sister gets it.” “Right…close your mouth when you eat…” said my mother and began the ‘period talk.’ Most of it was the usual mother-daughter conversation about the processes of the body, but my mother kept emphasizing on two things. One, that I may be alone when I get my period, so I should not be embarrassed to ask an adult I trust for help, and two, that it was an entirely natural body process and something I should never be ashamed of.
I returned to school in Delhi at the end of our summer vacation armed with more toys than I deserved, a hint of an American accent (if you please!) and exact knowledge about the menstrual process. Sure enough, a month later, I happened to go to the bathroom and discovered the tell tale stains in my under-pants. It began a life-long series of experiences proving the idiom ‘Mother is always right!’, but coming back to that fateful girl’s bathroom- I felt a bit shocked. However, I remembered that I was armed with knowledge. But then I felt angry. I didn’t know who I felt angry at, but I felt quite angry and it grew. I thought it was very unfair of God to have unleashed this upon me now, in school, just before the games period. I felt worried that I would no longer be able to play boisterous games, climb trees (not that I was an avid tree climber so I really don’t know why that was a concern) and run about. I wished I had been born a boy. Then I remembered my mother’s words, “Don’t be embarrassed.” She should have added, “Don’t be angry either.”
I braced myself and headed to the staff room. I peaked inside and found my friendly homeroom teacher Sukanya ma’am at her usual place. “Ma’am, I need to talk to you urgently.” The whole group of teachers looked up. “Privately”, I added. “I have got my period”, I announced in one breath when we were alone, “And I don’t have a sanitary napkin.” “Oh!” Sukanya ma’am replied attentive but not flustered. She handed me a five rupee note and said, “Here, go to the medical room and buy a sanitary napkin.” “What should I say?” I asked, worried that this rather public process of dealing with my first period was just not ending. “Just ask for a sanitary napkin.” She said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Don’t be embarrassed. It’s just menstruation, it’s not taboo!” “Oh sure!” I thought and headed to the medical room.
Sanitary napkin procured and worn, I felt better. This was not so bad. I could walk, I seemed normal, and no one seemed to notice. Perhaps despite this business of ‘becoming a woman’ life would not be so bad after all! In Homeroom period I went upto Sukanya ma’am and said, “Ma’am I will be absent for the next two days.” “Why?” She asked surprised.
“Because I have got my period.”
‘Hmmm…so what?’ I didn’t know myself why I had asked for leave relating it to my period. Was it some unconscious memory of hearing my grandmother narrate tales of her isolation in a room when she got her period as a young girl?
“Swara, you will get your period every month for 4-5 days each time for the next 30 years!!! If you start sitting at home during every period, do you know how many absences that will be?? How will you do any work, or anything at all?”
I hadn’t done the math clearly! I looked down sheepishly. Sukanya ma’am switched to a softer tone. “Swara, periods are a very normal and natural part of a woman’s life. All women in the world go through it. It’s a blessing actually that you have it. It shows that you are normal and healthy, and at some point you will be capable of giving birth. Do you know that in many cultures, including in parts of India, the onset of a girl’s period is a cause of celebration in the family and community?” (I instantly thanked God I wasn’t born in any of those cultures. A period party! Really? I definitely was not prepared for that.)
Sukanya ma’am continued, “You believe that girls are equal to boys right?” I nodded my head in affirmation fiercely. “Then don’t let periods stop you from leading a normal day. Reach your fullest capabilities, be unstoppable. And don’t you dare try to bunk school or classes claiming period troubles in the future.” I grinned and turned to leave. “Swara”, she called out. “And if people say things like you are polluted during your periods, you must eat from a different plate, don’t touch the pickle else it will go bad and things like that, don’t believe it. It’s all superstition.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! Try it and see. Touch the pickle.”
I stuck my finger into a bowl of pickle that evening. It didn’t go bad.
A teacher plays an important role in a student’s life, especially during menstruation when girls are scared, and shy away from discussing this even with their teachers. The Whisper Touch The Pickle Movement was in a way a great eye opener, students should not only break free from the taboo of not saying the word ‘periods’ but also, should stop shying away from discussing it. Girls should confide in their teachers, and teachers should encourage girls to talk freely with them about menstruation.
Happy Teachers Day Sukanya Ma’am! Thank you for that valuable lesson.