Menarche, or the beginning of periods during puberty, can be a confusing time for a girl. This is the story of how my mother explained it to me in simple terms.
It begins when I was in class 7. Many of my classmates already had begun their periods but I hadn’t.
In Assam, there is a tradition known as “Shanti biya” or “Tuloni biya” — a ‘Small Marriage’, where the girl is married to a banana tree after the girl has her first periods. I came to know of this function for first time on being invited to one of my school seniors’ Shanti biya. I was in class 3 then, and it did not bother me much. But, the thought that her parents were getting her married at such a small age made me both sad and angry.
After that I was invited to many of my class mates’ Tuloni Biya, basically from class five or six. In this marriage the rituals were the same as that of the traditional Assamese marriage. However, I could never find the husband, and was left confused every time.
But, whenever I asked them the question they didn’t say much and said, “As if you don’t know?” When I answered that I didn’t know, they would make fun of me and say I was acting. So finally I decided to talk with my mother about it.
This is one of the many times that I discussed things openly with my Ma, and she gave me the correct knowledge without hiding anything from me. I asked the same question to my mother, “Why are my friends getting married at such a young age? And if they are getting married then why don’t they go and stay with their husbands just like you? Where are their husbands?”
She held me close and said, “It’s not her marriage, darling. It’s her transformation from a girl to a lady that is being celebrated.”
I asked, “Girl to a lady? How?”
She remained silent for a few minutes and then slowly said, “We all girls have to pass through this. Let me try and explain this to you. Mmmmm, you know that we women have a special power of giving birth to babies, right?”
I nodded my head, “Yes.”
Then she continued, “But, for this, our body isn’t ready when we are girls. So to transform from a girl to a lady who has the capability of carrying the baby, our body transforms. The first step towards this transformation is we bleed.”
I was shocked, “Bleed? I mean bleed from where?”
She smiled and took me in her arms and said, “From your private part.”
“No, no, no, I don’t want to bleed,” I said. Then I asked worriedly, “Does it pain just like when it pains when we get cut?”
She smiled again and said, “Pain, yes it pains a bit, but then dear it’s the truth that every girl has to pass through it”.
“Even Moudi, and Tulidi (My cousin elder sisters) bleed, like bleed, bleed?”
Ma answered, “Yes, they too.”
Scratching my head I said abruptly, “Ohhh, then it’s OK!”
I was relieved a bit. It might be because now I learnt that my elder sisters also have the same phenomenon and somewhere it’s not unnatural or out of the world something, it’s natural.
But, questions always pop up in the small, curious, rapidly growing mind. So, I asked, “When will it happen? And shall it remain for the rest of my life, like will I bleed always for rest of my life?”
Ma smiled and answered, “It shall occur when your body is ready for it. You will know, and no worries, Ma will teach you everything. And no, you don’t bleed throughout your life. It occurs for about four to five days in a month and then you are all right.”
This got me more relieved and I said, “But what is this Shanti Biya all about?”
Ma said, “This is a ritual dear, that celebrates a girl’s menarche and signifies the entry of her into womanhood. The main purpose of these rituals is to educate the girl about the changes her body is or will be going through. In Hindi it’s known as ‘Ritusuddhi’. In Assam here we call it Shanti Biya or Tuloni Biya.”
“The rituals,” she continued, “basically take place for seven days where the girl is made to learn how to keep herself properly hygienic and clean during this period. All the ingredients used during the rituals are hygienic and have very good health benefits. Like, say, haldi (turmeric) which is applied during bathing the girl, is a natural antibiotic.”
“She is given healthy food, basically loads of fruits to eat. During this time the water and iron content of the body decreases because of continuous bleeding. Her body goes through drastic hormonal changes so it is better that high protein intake like red meat is eliminated for the first few months during menstruation. The requirement of micro nutrients in one’s body at that time increases a lot. Moreover, since the girl is not used to these changes, it’s important to educate her. So these rituals were made to educate her about the precautions to take and hygiene to be maintained. That is why, darling, this Shanti Biya takes place to educate the girl about the changes in her body and how to deal with them monthly and also the feast is for celebrating her entry in womanhood.”
“Achaa, mmmm, OK!” I nodded.
“But, see during this time the girl is emotionally very much stressed so one should never make fun of her. During the periods she needs to be pampered and given utmost comfort not making her feel awkward or guilty about herself. So now that you know what this Shanti Biya is all about, never make fun of a girl going through this. Because you should know that what she is passing through today you will pass through the same phase one day or other. Got it? Joyee?”
I gave my most cunning smile and said, “OK. But then do I get a bigger bowl of payash for behaving well?”
Ma placed my face in between her soft palms and kissed me saying, “Yes, of course my darling but then you promise me never to disrespect a girl having periods and shall try to comfort her in every way possible.”
I kissed Ma back on her cheeks and said, “Yes, Ma, I promise, pakka, God Promise!”
Ma said, “Then toh you get a bowl of payash but only if you give me to eat too from your bowl.”
Ma and I started laughing heartily.
Although years have passed by and I have learnt more about this phenomenon scientifically, but still today, this simple and short lesson from Ma is fresh in my subconscious mind. Even today, whenever I learn that my colleague has her periods I try to be conscious not to hurt her with my words, and see to it that no one makes fun of her, and I check if she feels any discomfort during this period.
This was my first lesson on Menarche where I learnt the scientific reality of it and even got lessons on respecting it. Education on menstruation is important. For both sexes male or female. The things which are excluded, or talked of in a hush hush way often becomes more interesting to children. Nothing should be hidden, neither should it be presented in a vulgar or creepy way. It should be presented in a beautiful way with truth, and only that truth that is age appropriate. Once you know the reason behind every cause then it’s easier to react to it in the right way.