Monks of the Body Beautiful

I sit here in another’s space, blue couch, and busily ornamented, textured white walls–outsider’s space in which I decide that, after the gap of more than a year, I must write again.  On Facebook today, I happened upon a post that suggested that writing = thought.  I would qualify that writing=responsible thought.  If I take the trouble to put words onscreen or on paper, I hold myself accountable now and later.  They may come back to haunt me.

Living in another’s house, on a fitness program, or whateverelse, all paid up, is a peculiarly ambiguous venture.  You pay to abdicate control over yourself –you relinquish your habits and philosophies, store them on a safe shelf in the home you  leave.  You may or may not use them again when you return fit and re-shaped, another self.  As as my project takes place in India, the rules and expectations are left unvoiced but obtrude suddenly at unexpected junctures.  I am left to stumble about, bring my middle aged, overweight, body and mind into the upmarket dwelling of a young, fit couple.  To clarify, I have embarked on a fitness bootcamp for a couple of months (ideally), in Kodaikanal, a small hillstation in Tamil Nadu, South India.  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_boot_campboot campThe fitness program is run in the house of the trainers, a small but exclusive dwelling in a gated community and cannot cater to many residential clients.  Currently we are but two, Rishabh, a young chubby man about town from Mumbai, India’s largest city, and me, from an ashram in an village of Andhra Pradesh.

P—, our trainer, believes in what he does, his particular philosophy of body and mind, and expects you to follow him without undue questions.  At 34, he is proud, justifiably, of his toned, beautiful body, and his attractive, slim wife who is 6 years younger.  And I, a middle aged, 53 year old, funky, bisexual feminist, have to negotiate the undercurrents.  Often I realize K— the wife will say or suggest something, only to withdraw her ideas in the face of her P—‘s disapproval.  K— is thin, fit, rather overzealous about her weight and her house.  As I’ve been there in my own OCD of cleanliness, I cannot help but recognize the symptoms but reap the benefits of the attention to home, decor, and appearance.

The irony here is that the couple appear thoroughly westernized, a paradox of young India:  P— dresses in top of the line sports clothes, wears thirty thousand rupee designer sunglasses, K— models Abercrombie and Fitch figure hugging clothes.  p n k[check out the controversy over that company’s policies– http://www.businessinsider.in/Abercrombie-Fitch-Refuses-To-Make-Clothes-For-Large-Women/articleshow/21136601.cms] The ‘westernization’ or ‘with it’ exterior however does not penetrate skin deep: husband and wife are products of Indian sindhi conservative culture.  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sindhis_in_India]  P—‘s mother handed over her precious son to the willing hands of his young wife who now caters to his needs, while maintaining her body, a not uncommon role in India.  P— finds any suggestion of fat unappealing, un-hot.  The couple, please note, are almost white skinned, as are most of the Sindhi community, so naturally the label of ‘un-hot’  extends to cover the darker skinned denizens, the majority, in fact, of the Indian sub-continent!

They are proud to announce they do not want children.  “We are going to be monks, renunciants,” K— tells me.  P— confirms, “We are without desires, our lifestyle is only temporary.”  buddhist_monkOf course, I find the discouse seductive.  The couple are into Vipasana meditation and K— has just returned from a month’s training in the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala for her advanced yoga instructor’s certificate.  The spotless house and vintage furnishings with the requisite fittings and physical comforts, all western amenities, are, as I mentioned earlier, equally enticing.  I note the delivery of  a Bose mini speaker system for the gym, the huge flat screen tv that dominates the living room.  In fact when I turn on the lower end channel, P— chides me, “hey, which channel are you watching, dude, go for the HD.”  His subscriptions are only to  the premier channels that offer high definition tv.

He is dedicated to the body.   The discipline necessary for a beautiful bod–hard training and conditioning, restriction of food–is full time, obsessive, a yoga in itself.  And charming K— teaches us yoga, chanting the mantras and re-telling buddhist fables to the other ‘client’ here, the young boy of 23 from Bombay, privileged, wealthy, and overweight, but totally submissive to P—‘s will, uber guru of fitness.  The three of them are a little thrown by me, the overweight ashram dweller who has a tattoo, dresses a little too street–a single woman who lives in an ashram but cannot take mantras or chants.  No brand names for me, but, obviously I must be okay in the pocket to be able to afford the plush bootcamp.

Young Rishabh, the Bombayite, quizzes me one day when we are having dinner tete à tete, with K— and P— out on a dinner date:  “how do you fund yourself?”  I reply that I live on the proceeds of selling my house, on the interest.  “Do you have investments?”  he probes, “how do you spend your time in the ashram?” And I account for my day to day schedule.  The problem with me is that I am not easily quantifiable, I do not ‘fit’,  my freakishness is both my strength and a dilemma for the others.  Ah, new India, now almost a fascist Modi India whose values rest on the Rupee, the bank account, and the body that money can buy all the while vociferously reaffirming an ancient misogynistic culture.  [http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/gupshup/modis-new-india.html]  The Monks of the 21st century.

 Liu Xue Hybrid Sculptures


Liu Xue Hybrid Sculptures

 

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Bloodletting II: my bloody sexualities

In a country like India with so many taboos about periods, my Mum was curiously casual about her first child’s coming of age. [see a description of taboos and problems in India here- http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/29/opinion/the-taboo-of-menstruation.html?_r=1& ] Only nine, and overweight as I was, my period shocked both her and me. In the 1970s, most girls started much later at about 13 or 14 years.  “Well, you got it early, so it’ll end early,” was her consolation.  I wish those words had come true, but they didn’t quite prove prophetic.  I ended my monthly blooding only at 50, a nice round figure. Forty-one years of ‘maturity’ proved useless as the idea of having kids left me cold.  I’m not into marriage either, being single, grâce à dieu, is the best choice I’ve ever made in life!

I’d like to reclaim the time of monthly periods as empowering, but, I have to admit, I’m a little relieved at the onset of menopause.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

[see men’s research on goddess worship and period power: http://www.metaformia.org/articles/menstruating-women-menstruating-goddesses/; http://indianstemples.blogspot.in/2012_12_01_archive.html]  If only menopause didn’t arrive with various aches and sudden stiffnesses in a body shocked by the sudden withdrawal of hormones. The withdrawal itself wasn’t too hard a process for me, given some of my friends’ sufferings. More scanty, the period became more painful and frequent as well. My problem was towards the end–I’d be sure I was going in for a feverish virus, when, lo and behold, I’d see blood. Grateful for the abrupt bloodiness, I’d know the pain and stiffness would leave, and that I didn’t have the ‘flu.

Back to Mum. Warning me not to get too close to the boys (for months I would not allow any boy even to brush past me), she took off to attend a wedding. Already in her forties by then, Mum had tutored me in the art of using clean, old cloths to wrap between my legs. Torn from thin, cotton saris that had been saved for that purpose, I’d throw them away unless the blood flow was minimal.  Only then, would we wash and reuse them.  Looking back down the years, I find that my Mum’s method was ecologically sound as well as hygienic.

Quite apart from the nuisance of bleeding inconspicuously, I’ve noticed that there’s always weird stuff happening at “that time of the month.” My period was a trouble magnet. The time of my first period, for instance, my schoolmates and I were in the thick of rehearsals for “Tulips of Amsterdam,” a major school performance where the younger kids swayed onstage in bright orange stretch pants and short blouses. Plump as I was as a child, those seventies stretch pants proved more traumatic with thick wads of cloth between my legs. Sundry girls would comment, “hey, Grievs, you look kinda boyish down there.” Those ghastly stretches pants defined every contour and crevice. Hiding the news of my ‘maturity,’ I kept my bleeds deathly secret: if anyone deduced the cause of my ironic ‘boyishness’, they kept quiet about it.

More troubles followed when Dad decided to treat the family with a summer holiday in England, a year or so later. Trips abroad were a big deal in the days of protectionist India, especially trips for the entire family.  In Brockley, London we put up my uncle’s house.  Uncle K— had married a Britisher, Jean, and had actually disappeared from the visible face of the earth for a while to escape his mother’s demand that he qualified as a doctor. periodMy Aunt Jean wass a kind, solid Englishwoman, and she made us kids feel welcome when my Dad and Mum deserted us for a romantic twosome in Paris.  Naturally, with wonderful timing, my period made its appearance. Too shy to say anything to my aunt, I was at a loss about where to throw the used cloths. As children will, I wrapped and stuffed them into a bottom drawer, just hoping the whole mess would disappear. The smell grew stronger by the day and Mum didn’t appear, but Aunt Jean getting a whiff, during her housekeeping, discovered my shameful secret. I don’t remember much about the trauma of getting caught, but Jean was an understanding woman.  She showed me where I could throw the bloody detritus with no fuss.

Thank the Goddess, any Goddess, I found that sanitary pads existed about a year later. Leafing through one of my Mum’s woman’s magazines, (‘Femina‘ or ‘Eve’s Weekly‘ most likely) I came upon ‘Kotex‘ and its elastic belts. [of all writers, V.S. Naipaul comments on these two women’s mags, the first of their kind in the country, see http://books.google.co.in/books?id=BDBSzbe252kC&pg=PT117&lpg=PT117&dq=eve%27s+weekly,+femina&source=bl&ots=rChVNrDH8a&sig=8HRDDH8e_U7Yk9LqglP13JaCtdI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=bZ-RUdDHF4LorQfXmYCwBQ&ved=0CGsQ6AEwBg] After that first awesome discovery of pads, I read women’s magazines assiduously in hopes of finding more tips.  At eighteen, I tried tampons, not really knowing how or where to push them in. But, after several tries, squatting in the bathroom, I managed.

Over Mum’s and her sister’s anxiety (probably, they worried about breaking the hymen), I used Johnson’s ob’s regularly, preferring to push the tampon in with my fingers instead of a plastic inserter.  I found obs heaven sent in their practicality.  [See skywind’s comment to http://philobiblion.blogspot.in/2005/11/menstruation-why-is-it-so-hard-to-say.html] I loved that I could continue to go swimming even during my period. As the oldest child, I was forced to embark on a continual journey of discovery about my body, given that my mother was a generation older than other mums, only married at 34.  [more about my mum in a post to come]

image on Tom Tom Magazine

image on Tom Tom Magazine

Despite her worries, my mother yielded to my wishes, allowing me a freedom of mind and body. Not having a son, my father made sure I was never inhibited by my gender: I dreamt of becoming a fireman or a policeman, both macha fantasies. Unhampered by her female body as a child,  Grie was feminist even before knowing the word. Growing up with two intellectuals for parents, I was trained in deconstruction as I learned to mouth syllables.  Nothing was taken for granted at home, even the concept of religion, hindu and catholic as Mum and Dad were. Though Swami was a given, his visits home reinforced my parents’ ideas.

Even marriage as an institution was questioned.  A poignant memory recurs:  suddenly one visit, Swami looks over toward us, my younger sister and me.  We were only about 11 and 13 years old.  He gazes at us, and grumbles, “One of them has marriage madness.”  Sure I was the one being accused because I was in the throes of a hidden crush on David Cassidy, scrawling “Mrs. David Cassidy in my notebooks, I trembled. Fortunately for me, Swami’s finger pointed at my sister. Not really understanding the exchange at the time, I was only thrilled to have escaped with my pash undetected.

Later, after being sent to the States, in therapy there for being abused by an older woman in the college in Anantapur, I realized what that accusation meant. Marriage as an end in itself, a social identity, was challenged by Swami. Though he warned me on leaving for the States, “Don’t change partners like shirts,” when I returned having done exactly that, he teased, “You did change them like shirts, didn’t you? Girls and boys.”  True enough, after the abuse in college, I had needed to check out my sexuality for myself.  Under Swami’s mocking guidance, I learned to see sexuality as a spectrum. We position ourselves on one end of the spectrum, as lesbian or gay, or, on the other, as straight hetero, but bodily attraction is a slippery slope. Given different contexts, we are pulled toward people, men and women, to whom we may not be attracted at first glance. I know I’m going to piss off a lot of folks with this view, but it’s what I’ve learned through life.

Swami was a strange being, androgynous though physically of the male gender. Growing with him through different stages in my life, I’ve realized that rational classifications don’t apply in his case.  If I’m a feminist, a woman who likes being a woman and feels equal if not better than the men around, my perspective is  shaped through him. Though the society Swami moved in is homo-social, a segregated society, with women often belittled, Swami undercut those social morés frequently. For example, in a private address to a bunch of male students in college, with women sitting in an adjoining room, Swami remarked, tauntingly:
Spiral_Goddess_symbol_neo-pagan.svg“In the early days of Indian culture, women like Gargi and Maitreyi [women ascetics] were treated on a par with men, wearing the sacred thread and debating philosophy. Made jealous by their prowess, the men took the sacred thread and made it into the ‘mangalsutra’ so that the women could be put to serving the men tea and coffee.” [check out a sexist and caste-ist explanation of the sacred thread here: http://ajitvadakayil.blogspot.in/2013/04/upanayanam-sacred-thread-ceremony-of.html]

An astringent comment on the patriarchalism of Indian culture, Swami’s words go unnoticed, and unremembered in favor of other sayings on the role of women as mothers. But I was present, and of course, Swami’s rebuttal of men’s superiority went straight into my fierce woman’s heart, especially since I had just returned from the States after writing a feminist thesis. On my return to India, I had feared the set up in the ashram–men and women segregated, with women consistently put down. Swami’s deconstruction of Indian his-story gave me courage.  And so, I stayed on with the being I love most on earth, and learned to trust myself loving him. I am woman and strong, loving and loved….

Check out the blogs listed, wonderful indian women on the PERIODhttp://madperiodwoman.wordpress.com/
http://youngfeminists.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/menstruating-goddesses/
articles & tips: http://menstrupedia.com/blog/
discussion: http://newint.org/cgi-bin/new.comments.pl?action=rss&article_key=/blog/2012/05/11/becoming-woman-india/index.html
for a young western feminist, see- http://sketchbookradical.wordpress.com/

Bloodletting I: women & our periods

A few days ago, my maid, Shymala, requested a day off.  She warned me well ahead, about five days in advance.  More and more excited as the day approached, she filled me in on the little details about the ceremony of opening a new temple in her parents’ village, just about half an hour away.  “Gangamma” is a goddess of the arid southern ghats, a water goddess, harbinger of rains if properly propitiated.   An avenging god, Gangamma hunts down the rapist chieftain of  her village who tries to molest her.  In her dreadful wrath, she assumes various guises, each more angry than the other (almost akin to Kali).  Finally, disguising herself as Palegadu’s (the chieftain’s) overlord, she lures the rapist from his hiding place to kill him.  Today, the villagers appease her fury with a jatera or festival.  They hope to calm her down that she may bless them with rain.  So in the scrublands of Rayalseema resides a woman deity who is an icon of rage against men’s misdirected sexuality.  Feminist icon would you say?

On the day looked forward to so eagerly, Shymala arrives at my door with tears in her eyes.

“What on earth’s the matter?” I question.

“My ‘date’s’ come, I can’t go today.” [check out other euphemisms for periods at http://www.mum.org/words.html some funny stuff!]

“Date, what date? Oh, oh, don’t tell me you’ve got your periods? So what, its your mother’s house. Why can’t you go there?” I’m really puzzled now.

“It’s a pooja: they are sanctifying a new temple. I can’t go because of my period, it’s not allowed,” Shymala explains to me.

“But, don’t go to the temple, just go and stay at home, in your parents’ house,” I retort.

“No, no, I’m not supposed to go the first two days of my period.”

“You mean you can’t even go to your mum’s house? There must be other women there, some maybe having their period.” I’m angry here.

“No, no, it’s a small village, I can’t go, even to the house.”

“Isn’t the idol of a female deity? You told me that it was Gangamma.”  You know, dear reader, if you’ve come this far what Gangamma the fierce represents!

“Even then, I can’t go.”

That was it, final edict.   Shymala stayed back in Puttaparthi, and all the rest of the big joint family–husband, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law (who is also her grandmother), brothers-in-law, and various assorted kids all went off to celebrate the installation of Gangamma’s idol. Yes, she left the next day to see her mum, but only after the pooja/ ritual was over and Gangamma safely set up without the contamination of Shymala’s monthly blood.

Only about 23 years, Shymala seems younger than her actual age.  As an only daughter, her parents had been fiercely protective of her, even removing her from school when she refused to continue after getting her period.  Beginning to menstruate when she was about 14, she worried about walking down alone to get to school. Menstruation is a big deal, not only for the girl, but also for her family in the villages of Andhra Pradesh, and most of India as well. Often, the event calls for public ceremony.

 Photo: "Tamil Coming of Age – Manjal Neerattu Vizha" by Richard Clarke


Photo: “Tamil Coming of Age – Manjal Neerattu Vizha” by Richard Clarke

A couple of years ago, I and a couple of friends drove into the only decent hotel on the outskirts of Puttaparthi, a Government of India Tourism enterprise.  The entire place, quite huge, was lit up with strings of lights, and we were told that they would’t be serving dinner as the hotel had been booked up for a private function.   Noticing that Ramachandran, clerk at the University, was hovering in the background, Padma, next to me, murmured,
“I know what’s going on, it’s Ramachandran’s daughter’s maturity.  I remember now–quite a few people were invited.”

What d’you mean by ‘maturity’,” I asked, genuinely at sea.

Don’t you know, some people celebrate a girl’s first period like a wedding!

“Isn’t that embarrassing? Can’t believe people still go in for that sort of thing, first time I’m seeing it. It may be a big deal, but this? Ramachandran’s only a clerk, must have spent a good bit on this shindig.”

Padma duly filled me in, at least what she knew about common hindu practices, being a Tamilian who lived in the States.  The girl had to sit, dolled up and garlanded (as in the pic), receiving well wishes and gifts from the people invited.  I couldn’t quite take it all in as I knew that menstruating women suffered from varied restrictions. The same girl, now bedecked and the object of good wishes on her coming of age, would later be outcast, banished from religious festivals, unclean because of her period.   Padma, quite oblivious of my reservations, continued with her own memories (she’s in her 70’s):

“In our big old house in Madras we lived altogether, my grandparents, their only son and his wife (my parents) and us children.  When my mother entered as a young bride, during her periods she was made to stay for three days in a large room behind the house. Even meals were brought to her separately, and the dishes kept apart because they’d been contaminated.  For three days, the women were not allowed to bathe because they would sully  the bathroom.  On the final day, the women would go to a nearby tank to bathe, then only would they enter the house. Even my older sister kept to her room upstairs at that time.  Only I was free from restrictions, growing up.”  Padma added, laughing, “I feel it was not totally negative as the women could use the time off, to relax, to sleep longer.” [see comment by Padmini in http://philobiblion.blogspot.in/2005/11/menstruation-why-is-it-so-hard-to-say.html] [compare Mari Marcel who sees the positive like my friend- http://newint.org/blog/2012/05/11/becoming-woman-india/]
August 2011, ink pen on paper. Sketch courtesy, Katherine C.

August 2011, ink pen on paper. Sketch courtesy, Katherine C.

As Katherine C. aptly writes in pithy prose, “The fact is that menstruation is a bodily function of most female-bodied persons on the globe. It has also been condemned, shamed, and ridiculed by Western and other patriarchal societies into something so dirty and so repulsive that cultural taboos against even its mere mention exist strongly right up to the present.* Menstruating women have been called “unclean,” “polluted and polluting,” and “posionous.” Menstrual blood has been said to cause failure of crops, disease, madness in dogs, and castration in men. Menstruating women have been sequestered away, forbade from food preparation, and starved. Then they were shamed, silenced, and made sport of. This is the history of the Period.” [http://sketchbookradical.wordpress.com/%5D.

Ramachandran’s daughter sitting on a float, with people invited to celebrate her first period, was an archaic embarrassment to me.  There she sat, object for future transactions of marriage and dowry, made ready to be bought and sold as a commodity while folks rejoiced. Indian women, with the red dots on their foreheads, their toe rings after marriage, and their ‘mangalsutras‘ or wedding necklaces are branded as possessions for men.  And, without any visible external markers, not even a ring, married Indian men are free to roam, no Gangamma to keep them in check these days.

Though I told Shymala to remain at her parental home for three nights to make up for her banishment, she was back in Puttaparthi after two nights.
“Why doesn’t she stay another night, and come back later in the day?” I enquire of  her grandmother who helps me out in Shymala’s absence.
“It’s Friday. Women are not allowed to travel on Friday.”
Or, as I later learnt from Shymala, they’re not allowed to travel on full moon, on no moon, and other prohibited days; but men can travel any old day. Hearing these edicts, I mutter,
“You know why women are not allowed to travel about, don’t you? Your men want to tie you up and keep you at home.”
She laughs, these restrictions are just part of her life, and she accepts her lot, albeit with some tears.

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This post will continue in “Bloodletting II”