When I got my first period, I was taken by no surprise considering the fact that I was well-informed about this transition from sensitization workshops in school and parents alike. So it was a normal process for me, something that was expected. But the drama began when the news spread to my ‘ajji’.
My maternal grandmother, hailing from a traditional South Indian family, believed in following age-old norms. Summer vacations began, and I went to my ajji’s house, but little did I know what awaited me. “We have organised a pooja to celebrate your transition to a woman,” said my ajji persuasively in Kannada. As I recollect now, it was a little difficult for me to comprehend what exactly she meant by that equivocal statement at that point in time. But my dubious thoughts were clarified the next day when all the preparations began. I was dressed in a bright purple sari with intricately designed jewellery and a fake braided extension with flowers (moggina jade) was attached to my unsettled short hair. I was made to sit on a ‘royal seat’, the pandit began the mantras, and the ladies began their artis. All my distant maternal relatives and their close friends came to give me their ‘much needed’ blessings, and handed over extravagant gifts and shagun. “She has become a grown up lady now!” was the phrase pervading in each group assembled at the ‘festival’.
I was amazed by the extent of attention I received on that day; I felt like I had made my family proud. But such a public ‘celebration’ with all its good intentions didn’t render a positive message to me psychologically, because to me menstruation was a natural part of life, not something to be publicized. That got me thinking, we live in a society where wide social disparities still exist between different generations and their perceptions. While my mother ordinarily accepted this change, my grandmother conventionally felt the need to publicly celebrate it. Well, by no means do I blame her for this, but a thought definitely perplexed me: “Why is that we don’t celebrate the transition of a boy to a man, so as to say, why not have a function when a male child develops his first moustache?” This idea may sound absurd to you but at that moment I couldn’t stop wondering as to why a natural phenomenon common to all persons assigned female at birth has historically been perceived in such a different sense. On further research I found out that such traditions which mark the fertility of women are common to several Indian states. From “Manjal Neerattu Vizha” (Turmeric Bathing Ceremony) in Tamil Nadu to “Tuloni Biya” (Small Wedding) in Assam; these ceremonies cut across boundaries and are uniquely celebrated.
In Tamil Nadu, highly traditional families believe in lavishly celebrating the oncoming of puberty in females; they send out invitation cards, make announcements through posters, and also film the entire process with fancy editing (a norm that is usually followed in modern Indian weddings). My own experience seemed somewhat minuscule, in comparison to the extent of Manjal Neerattu Vizha celebrations.
The whole concept of ritually secluding the girl, organizing public gatherings, and doing havans and poojas for weeks, makes this transition feel very different from normal. Instead the focus should be on ensuring that the girl is provided with nourishment and her health is taken good care of, as she tends to be prone to anemia at this stage.
For these reasons, we, as a society, need to collectively rethink the way we ‘celebrate’ the transition into womanhood.