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The Beat Within

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By Nandana Sen:

Lata is late again. I scramble around in panic, throwing towels over books, dragging buckets and pans under ever-multiplying leaks in the ceiling. Rain hammers down with the roar of ten thousand drums. Where could she be? I can’t be late for this meeting… Plus it’s Visarjan. Traffic mayhem. I shut my laptop down and cram it into my bag.

Lata breezes in fragrantly, three bedraggled champas in hand. Like Lata, they’re soaked and a little muddy. To my horror, she puts them in her hair.

“Where did you find those?” I bark out in shock.

“On the street, where else?” Lata’s answers are always questions.

“Sundari, they are dirty – “ I plead, using my nickname for her.

the-beat-within-1-1“Why? The rain gave them a proper dholai, no?” Lata giggles. “Yes it’s muddy, but it’s lovely outside. When was the last time you looked out the window? Really?”

Lata’s bangles jangle reproachfully as she starts banging plates around. She’s a fabulous girl, with every kind of beauty that more than justifies the nickname, but terrible with the dishes. I secretly re-wash them every day after she leaves.

“AIYO!” She yells as I rush to grab the lift. “Will you listen to that RACKET?”

Which one, I wonder, while Lata thunders on happily: “LOUDER than a hail storm, na?”

As I sprint to my cranky car, praying to Ma Durga that it starts, I get flashes from my first encounter with hail, which was as unseasonable as it was ill-timed. Divali, or Kaali Pujo in Kolkata, dedicated to the Goddess’s avenger avatar.

On an absurdly rainy Divali day, I watched lightning make strange broken figures dance on the pane, like stick puppets. Suddenly Ma burst into the room, eyes flashing like sparklers. She dragged Didi and me into the balcony, only to get bombarded by tiny pellets that were surprisingly painful. “Sheel porchhe!” Ma cried, as we jumped around in pure wonder, creating our own shadow dance of arati for the Goddess. We reached up into the sky to catch as many of the slippery little balls as we could hold in our hands, gathering them in an abundant anjali of hail. I don’t know why we felt such an urgency to collect the sheel, knowing they’d disappear just as suddenly, and inexplicably, as they had appeared in our cupped palms on that dark afternoon of worship.

After some coaxing, my car grudgingly splutters along the road. The rain is less brutal now, but an endless procession besieges us with drums, trumpets, and “Tenu Kala Chasma”. And all cars come to an unquestioning halt. A girl in a baggy kameez crosses the street: no more than 15, eyes lined with kohl, baby clutched to

A girl in a baggy kameez crosses the street: no more than 15, eyes lined with kohl, baby clutched to breast. Suddenly the rain speeds up, making devotees scramble in every direction. The girl quickly lifts her dress, covers her child. Her eyes catch mine and immediately focus.

the-beat-within-2-1“You’ll marry a fillum-star, Didi! 200%!” Beguiling smile. And the next moment: “We’re hungry.”

She takes the baby out. Pink dress with glittery hearts. Limbs cruelly tangled by nature. Mouth slack open, unseeing, unfocused eyes. Not as beautiful as her too-young mother, but dressed with unmitigated love. Matching pink ribbons, orange socks, a kajal beauty spot to ward off jealous eyes.

“Where’s your other earring, Didi?” she asks as I reach for my wallet. In my hurry, I’d flung on only one silver hoop.
The moment I take it off, she pounces.“Give it na? Diwali gift?”

Surprised, I hand it over. She immediately slips it onto her daughter’s frail wrist. A perfect baby bangle.

Years ago, my sister and I had invented a game about scales in life. We’d pass a big bath shop in Lansdowne Road, and Didi would yell, “I spy – a giant’s soup bowl!” I’d have to find it in seconds – ah, that huge jacuzzi at the window! Lighting diyas before Diwali, a solemn ritual overseen by our strict grandmother, I’d whisper, “I spy – a lilliput’s walking stick!” In a jiffy, Didi would pick up a used match. She came back from the U.S. with a flawless miniature umbrella, saved from her first (if untouched) pina colada. Didi had ordered the drink just so she could bring me a lilliput’s parasol.

A bus honks in my ear. An elderly man clambers out of it with some difficulty, newspaper stuffed under his arm, book in one hand, rebellious umbrella in the other (a little larger than the one I’d just remembered). The book almost slips out of his grasp, so he lets the umbrella go, which gaily spins into the monsoonal sky… Years ago, another umbrella had flown off in an embarrassing whirl, exposing my first almost-kiss to all of Eighth Grade… As the man staggers after the umbrella, the newspaper splashes down into mud. But he clutches on to his book for dear life.

On my way to school, I’d see an old man on the tram every day, reading a big red book. The letters on the cover looked like English but were inverted, or conjoined like Siamese twins. One day, caught in traffic as bad as today’s, I was watching a roadside puppeteer manoeuvre his dolls, Ma Kaali and Shib Thakur, into a hilarious fight. When I laughed, the old man peered at me over his glasses. “What language are you reading?” I blurted defensively.
“Russian,” he answered, in a Siberian tone.

“Oh! Tolstoy? Dostoevsky?” I hadn’t read them yet but was proud to know the names.

“It’s a dictionary,” he replied without taking his eyes off the page.

I was flabbergasted. “But… why?”

The old man sighed, realising I wasn’t about to stop.

“I’m looking for a word,” he said.

“Which one?” I persisted.

He gave up and closed his book.

“Well, I’m not sure, you see, as I heard it only once.”

I stared at him, perplexed.

“I do know I’ll remember it when I see it,” he added confidently.

“Do you know what letter it starts with?” I asked, my consternation rising.

He shook his head. “But I know what it means.”

“Then you need a thesaurus, not a dictionary!” I cried.

“I can’t find a Russian thesaurus in Kolkata.”

This time we sighed in unison.

“So, what does it mean?”

“Life,” he said simply. “But not the regular word for it. It’s archaic, not used anymore.”

To this day, I can’t decide if the old man’s quest was beautiful or immeasurably sad. He didn’t even notice Shiva and Kaali’s tantalising tussle. Wasn’t life itself passing him by as he searched for its obsolete synonym? Did he ever find it, I wonder, and if so, did repossessing that word make him feel life more intensely? My poet grandmother, meticulously passionate about words, told me once that words didn’t matter. Feelings did.

My grandmother liked my teen sweetheart, and though she trusted us enough to let us burn fireworks on the street late into Diwali night, Dimma wouldn’t allow us alone in my room at any time of day. So, every day after school, rain or shine, my love and I would walk to the Buddhist monastery by the lake, to listen to the rhythmic roll of the huge flat drum. Meanwhile, Dimma continued giving me rigorous lessons in moral rectitude. Not long after that, I was flying to America for college. After a teary goodbye, Dimma suddenly called me back.

“Shut the door,” she said with uncharacteristic urgency. “Remember the boy-girl stuff I told you?”

I nodded reassuringly. I could see she was stressed.

“Forget it all,” she hissed. “They’re just words.”

I stared speechless, as my poet grandmother effortlessly dismissed the significance of words, which were the very foundation of her own celebrity. “Feelings are much more important,” she whispered. “Enjoy every moment, every feeling – no matter what happens later.”

the-beat-within-3-1This was the matriarch who heartlessly dragged us out of bed every year before dawn, to listen to each word of the yearly broadcast of the Mahalaya – as every radio in the neighbourhood broke into exuberant prayer, celebrating the birth of the perfect Goddess.

That day, realising that distance would not allow her to guide me through my coming of age, Dimma had tried, with all her heart, to facilitate the inevitable birth of one (imperfect) woman. Little did she know that the birthing in question would prove to be impossibly long and laboured – and as yet, incomplete.

A month after I left home for college, the phone rang at 5.30 a.m. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Hello…” I mumbled groggily. “Is it Mahalaya?”

“NO, stupid!” Ma roared. “It’s 3 in the afternoon and the Dhakis just arrived. Can you hear their drums?”

I sat up, suddenly wide awake. Sure enough, I could hear their drums of celebration – booming in my heart, vibrating across continents, bursting through rain clouds thousands of miles away. Like our quiet drum in the monastery, echoing in my first love’s heart, every gong reverberating in my ear pressed to his chest. Like the carnival drums of Visarjan pulsating around me in every direction.

Lata was right – when was the last time I really looked out of the window? As I watch the old man chase his umbrella, and the child-mother tackle the next car, traffic comes to a surreal standstill. Drums throb all around me now, engulfing me completely, getting bizarrely louder and louder as the procession moves further away, until all that remains of me is a beating heart behind a steaming window under melting skies in a frozen city.

We all hear it, don’t we, each in our own way? That ceaseless drum beat – don’t you hear it too? When you pick muddy flowers off the street? When you yearn for long-lost words, or newfound hail? When you crave the garnish more than the cocktail? When you insist on loving every incidental feeling? Or every accidental baby? Yes, you do. It may be hard to listen to it through the noise, but you hear it. You’re hearing it right now.

It’s that beat within you that never stops pounding: “this is life it’s life it’s life it’s LIFE…”

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

This story was also published on The Wire.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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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