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.
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/]
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.