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.
[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. My 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]
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:
“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 PERIOD–http://madperiodwoman.wordpress.com/
articles & tips: http://menstrupedia.com/blog/
for a young western feminist, see- http://sketchbookradical.wordpress.com/
- Bloodletting: women & our periods (quiescentbeing.wordpress.com)
- Of fools like me – eccentrics in a spiritual asylum (quiescentbeing.wordpress.com)
- A dance through death – of non-human beings (quiescentbeing.wordpress.com)
- Spiritual punk 3 [death day rituals] (quiescentbeing.wordpress.com)