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Colour Me Dark: Writer-Actor-Activist Nandana Sen On Adolescence And Sexual Violence

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By Nandana Sen:

“Oof, so hot!” grumbles Shibur Ma as she squats to wipe the floor. “Good day for Holi. What will you wear, Ria Didi? Not that one, no, are you mad? Washed it only yesterday! How about this old red dress? Ah, it’s missing a hook, I’ll fix it now. Know what happened today when I was mending Shibu’s shirt? That green one he got for Pujo?”

Shibur Ma is an unbeatable talker whose thoughts are never not in rapid transit. The only way to shut her up is to ask her what her name is. Then she halts mid-sentence, frowns at the floor, and tries to remember it. When she was fourteen – exactly my age – she gave birth to Shibu, and everyone’s called her “Shibur Ma” ever since.

“Well, the needle broke. It broke clean in half! That means serious bad luck,” she rattles on. “Bindu’s needle broke the day her husband got run over by the truck. Baap re, Bindu is so stingy! Yesterday I asked her for a tiny bit of jaggery . . .”

“Ugh, jaggery,” I grimace, tuning her out as I chew my daily dose of raw turmeric with jaggery. Not my favourite. It tastes yucky but Ma insists that it’s good for glowing skin. The morning smells of soft spring heat. We had to write an essay on “My Favourite Season” this week, and, of course, I chose spring. Because it’s hot enough to splash around in the rain, but not so hot that you get scalded (and darkened) if you step into the sun.

And Holi is by far my favourite holiday. Of course, it celebrates spring, youth, fertility and all that, but for us, Holi is all about playing with your mates – yes, it’s about colours, pranks, friends, fun, laughter. Thamma says it’s also about divine love. She knows all these songs by heart about how Krishna and Radha played Holi under the full moon, throwing petals and pollen at each other. (And made passionate love afterwards, I’m sure, though Thamma doesn’t sing about that.) Frankly, I think making a grand mess with dyed dust and coloured water, like we do now, is way more exciting than waving flowers at one another in moonlight.

Know why Holi is my favourite? Because you can break the rules without getting grounded. You can wear your rattiest clothes. You can take your singing lessons looking like a gaudy, graphic nightmare. You can hide in the balcony with gubaras filled with tinted water, and pick anyone on the street to attack. I love watching the little balloons burst on contact, spilling their gooey slush all over the victim’s clothes. That’s totally my favourite moment.

According to Ma, though, girls like me have to be careful on Holi. Only loose girls play colours with boys they don’t know, she says, and boys can sometimes force unaccompanied girls to play Holi with them. The rowdy boys from the camp behind the station get drunk during Holi, and no girl is safe around them then, says Ma.

I squeeze into my red dress. I hated that dress when it was given to me two years ago, but now that it tightly hugs my body and ends six inches above my knees, it’s my favourite. On any other day I wouldn’t be allowed to go out in it, but today is different. And red is my favourite colour too. Actually, I’d never cared for red till my last birthday, when Ved gave me a red T-shirt, whispering, “Isn’t red sexy?” I instantly fell in love with red. I’d fallen in love with Ved a long time ago.

I was 10 and he 13, and we were doing the Cinderella play at school. I was the Ugly Stepsister who cuts off her heel to fit the shoe; Cinderella was a twelve-year-old with rosy cheeks and an unquestionable bosom. Ved, of course, was the Prince. He lived down the street in a five-story house, not a flat like ours, and everyone knew that he was a wonder-boy. Always top in class, Junior Debate Champion, Finalist in the Under-Sixteen Tennis Tournament. He was also the best-looking boy I’d ever seen, with a smile that shone solidly from miles away, like Howrah Bridge in sunlight. I worshipped him from a distance, and though I was on the debate team too, I never had the guts to speak to him. But as I was walking home after the first rehearsal, Ved stopped his bike to tell me he’d rather marry me than Cinderella.

You may have guessed this already but, yes: Ved Lahiri is my absolute favourite. I get to see a lot of him now, as this year he became President of Youth Connection, the boys’ club in our neighbourhood. The boys plant trees, collect funds for Saraswati Puja, and on Saturday nights, take turns substituting for the Night Watchman (who guards us against the camp rowdies), so he can have a night off. Ved and I don’t “go out,” of course. Nice 14-year-old girls don’t do that, where I live. They wait. So I’m waiting. Ved hasn’t mentioned marriage again, but I’m sure it’ll crop up again one day.

The doorbell rings. Shompa and Nidhi walk in, arguing.

“She can’t come. Impossible. What will people think of us?”

“I know, but I couldn’t . . .”

“I can’t believe she had the nerve to ask… Can we please just hurry and leave before she arrives?”

We got a problem. Bharati stopped by Nidhi’s house this morning to say she’d like to play Holi with us. Nidhi said we didn’t have enough abir for four people, but Bharati said no problem, she’d bring her own colours. She’d finish her work at the Boses’ and come right on over to my place.

When we were little, Bharati was a part of our group and we’d all play together. Bharati’s mother Kelor Bou was a good cook and a Brahmin, and used to work for Nidhi’s family. Everyone knew that Kelo had left her the morning after their wedding, so Nidhi’s mother had kept her on for many years – until she found out that Kelor Bou was living with a low-caste sweeper. Shibur Ma says that Kelor Bou had worn sindoor every day for twenty years, like a good wife. Then she met her street-sweeper and scrubbed her sindoor off with a dishrag.

Bharati was utterly fearless, didn’t have to go to school, could eat very hot green chillies like they were grapes, and ran faster than all of us. We accepted her because she was better than us. In fact, of all the girls my age, Bharati was my favourite. One time, when a bone got stuck in Lallu’s throat and he started to gag and growl, we got very scared – we all loved him, but he was a street dog after all. Bharati’s hand had disappeared inside Lallu’s mouth as she pried open his jaw and pulled the bone out. And when we got locked into Shompa’s room by mistake, Bharati climbed out of the window, tiptoed along the rainwater pipe, jumped off the water tank and unlocked the door for all of us. But all that was a very long time ago. Now she scrubs floors and dishes every day for the Boses, the Mukherjees, and the Singhs. How can she play Holi with us?

The doorbell rings. “Ved Babu is here!” announces Shibur Ma. Shompa and Nidhi wink at each other and vanish into the balcony. I feel my heart bouncing around somewhere inside my tummy, as if it’s on a trampoline or a pogo stick. Ved goes to the kitchen first and puts abir on Ma’s feet, as she makes malpuas. Then he strides into my study – and just looks at me. At my legs, my arms, the dress clinging to my body. I drown in a whirlpool of delicious panic as he walks up to me slowly and puts a scorching red sun in the middle of my forehead. Just like sindoor. Super gently, like he’s touching something that could break so easily. At this moment, I feel sure that I’m precious beyond words and ridiculously beautiful. With trembling fingers, I put an uneven patch of green on his forehead. Ved’s hand rests on my cheek, just for a moment. Then he’s gone.

“Let’s GO, Mrs. Lahiri!” yells Shompa as soon as Ved is out of earshot. The day passes in no time, like in a dream. Nidhi and Shompa tell all our friends that Ved has “married” me this morning. We eat so many sweets that we have to skip lunch. We shoot everybody with our water pistols, all except a few notoriously cranky grown-ups. We cover with shocking-pink abir the faces of every kid we meet who’s smaller than us. We steal ice-lollies from the cart and spray the ice cream man with purple water when he chases us. From the window in the study, we throw gubaras at fifty-seven persons and miss only four times. An amazing day. For sure, my favourite Holi ever.

After the girls go home, I step into the balcony to look at the colour-splashed road below. When I shut my eyes, all I can see is colour. Opening them slowly, still in a trance, I see the unrecognisable faces of familiar people laugh and shout. Everyone looks happy. There’s a girl standing right below our building whose face is covered with black abir, a kind I’ve never seen before. She must have got some of it in her eyes too, for she’s rubbing them hard. Her dress is dripping wet and incredibly messy, just like ours had been, and has a gaping tear through which you can see most of her back. She must be very cold, for her back is trembling. I hear muffled sobs – wait, she isn’t crying, is she? The girl looks around quickly to make sure no one has noticed her tears, and then she looks up. It’s Bharati.

At night, as Shibur Ma rubs coconut oil into my shampooed hair to get the last grains of colour out, I tell her that I saw Bharati crying. “Well, don’t tell your Ma I’m telling you this,” she says, rounding her eyes. She gets my word of honour, and starts braiding my hair. “The boys jumped on Bharati, and threw her on the ground. They ripped her dress off and splattered her with mud and grease and . . . Well, she should never have gone near them. A fine training that Kelor Bou has given her daughter . . .”

The boys from the camp have always looked so… poor and helpless. Somehow I never really believed that they were dangerous. Or that something like this could happen to someone I know. Even Bharati.

I shut my eyes. All I can see is colour. Enormous gubaras are bombarding me, thick colours clotting into sticky words – “friends” … “play” . . . “love” … “spring” . . . “youth”. . .

“I… I never thought those boys from the camp could do such a thing…” I whisper.

“Oh no, not them.” Shibur Ma stirs sugar into my glass of warm milk. “The boys down the street. You know, Ved Babu and his lot. Well, she should know that boys will be boys, shouldn’t she?”

Nandana Sen tweets at @nandanadevsen and is on Facebook here. Her series ‘Youth Matters’ will appear on YKA every month.


Copyright © 2016 by Nandana Dev Sen
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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