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/

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Spiritual Punk 2–security in anarchy

Evenings, I close myself off, draw the curtains against the dark, and put myself into a capsule removed from the world outside.  I float through the ether, crawl across the glowing laptop screen in black words, or creep through layouts, options, displays, WordPress webs.  More bot insect than human, I am caught up in discussions on Al Jazeera, You tube, blogs, feeds, the web.

Where am I now?  The ashram lies outside my window, but I live spaces inaccessible to the time before. Before the unthinkable happened and my Merlin died. (Reading sagas of Merlin as a child, I used to wonder even then how Arthur carried on.) When people outside my window bustle along to bhajans, routines, preoccupations of their own, I am journeying into nebulous spheres, inner and outer.  The darklight of inner vision impels me to re-discoveries, past memories of a quicksilver being, into webs of interconnected worlds.  Paradoxically, that inner urge leads me outwards, out of safe communal haven, into realms often anti-social, chaotic, anarchic, miraculous.

People taunt me, rebuke me,
they call me crazy
but I see
the whole world is crazy–
Yes, friends, I am crazy.
The agony is now insufferable,
I am driven to destroy all
like the thunder and lightning,
torment and energy.
O friends, I’m crazy.
Bulleh Shah

Saved from years past, the yellowed scrapPhoto on 21-04-13 at 8.18 AM attests to a time that I sat in the big hall, morning and evening, to have darshan, a word now reified, empty of meaning.  In Sanskrit ‘darshan’ means sight, although Indians, especially Hindus, use the word to connote seeing the divine.  Visiting temples, we receive darshan of the particular idol (god) present. Often the devout see the symbols as real, possessed of miraculous powers. To visit one Shiva temple is not enough, another may offer different benefits. Ideally and philosophically, of course, the icon is only symbol for a God (a form describable in words) endowed with particular attributes. But,that God or form (Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi etc) offers a bridge to the formless, through faith. Outside the pale of human cognition, that formless Other is unknowable through reason or language. A three step process, Hindu worship moves from idol/icon to idealized form to formless Other outside the bounds of language.

The intricacies of Hindu philosophy are beyond me and this blog, but I suggest that acts of worship are never simple. Swami, living breathing body, was himself a symbol. Unpredictability and mystery framed his life, but so did massive social projects such as supplying water to outlying villages, relief to drought/famine victims, institutions like free hospitals, free schools and colleges.  The paradox unsettles easy formulas for his followers.  Though people remake his daily utterances into prophecies, their human reason writes these narratives. We sit secure in the confidence that we are the Chosen, privy to divine mysteries. World religions are constructed on such premises, why not particular communities?

In seamless social transition, the devout receive darshan of the marble tomb, now the center of the big hall. Tomb=avatar=god=formless brahman?  But, what if one step (the initial step) of the process is enough?  For the good devotees, the marble tomb is now harbinger of miracles and signs, a sanctified sight, metonym of the (dis)embodied Avatar.  The concrete symbol assuages doubts, affirms the codes of correct spiritual practice.  Having lived , fought, cried, argued with, and loved, a Magical Being, I spurn the cold concrete.  Societies need to continue along regulated tracks, as do those who require human shelter. Limping, fifty, and menopausal as I am, I do not.  I fight the good fight, punk to the last.   I struggle to rediscover the adventure of a living Merlin, the uncertainties of  a human god.

That god booted me out of the ashram on my mother’s death, but just as inexplicably called me back a few months later.  And, years down the line, he packed me off again–to sell our house in Chennai, falling down and decrepit–ten years after my Mum’s death and two years before his own, so ensuring my financial independence when he was gone.  Three years before Swami died, I wrote to him (sending the letter as usual by courier, one among hundreds of others) that the games in the hall were too much for me. I’d rather sit in the flat without darshan but in solitude.  In reply, he started coming by for drivessai_baba_car_darshan in the Prius, right by my garden.  Standing there, looking down at my Merlin, I found myself surprised often by his secret smiles, acknowledgement of a covert anti-social pact.  This, the same god who earlier used to question Mum if I so much as missed attendance in the hall for a couple of days.  Process is all, “kaalame devam” or “time is god.”  Swami was never static, he danced along with time, never missing a beat, a minute. He danced through life’s different stages, gleeful youth, solemn middle age, painful decay, but through it all those brown eyes darted ironic grace, joy in process, in entropy.

Knowing me better than I do myself, he spoke my unspoken self into being.   “You have no use for society, have you?”  Merlin observed once, his eyes compelling truth.  Bereft of words, I looked back at him, mumbling “nooooo  Swami.” He nodded in return.  That exchange warms me now as I type these words, disaffected by the world he’s left behind.  Who is to say that Swami is not punk? Sacrilegious and far out as it may sound, punk nihilism is an Other face of god that human societies cannot acknowledge–the terrifying Kali of Hindu mythology, the dancing Juggernaut Nataraja destroying all–the dance of  destruction contingent on the work of creation.   G-O-D=Generation-Organization-Destruction, in my Merlin’s own words.
Kali

This post continues in “Spiritual Punk 3″….