By Krupa Ge
This was before the time I got my first period. Before the time I had “the talk”, with my grandmother, who gave me vague clues about what would happen if I became a “woman”. I nodded along, not listening. Before I got my period on that very same day and thought I was dying.
True story. But it was definitely after the time many girls in my class had started getting their period. And to let those girls know that I knew a lot about menstruation, I’d say things like, “Are you okay? Bleeding too much?” loudly, to their horror. Things I’d picked up after listening to a relative tell someone else in the family that.
Honestly, I had no idea what it was. It maaney, getting your period. I thought you automatically sprouted breasts and became curvy because … my friend had breasts, I didn’t, and she had got her period. I didn’t even know it had something to do with those ink absorbing sanitary napkin ads on television.
When I was growing up, in most homes, women were asked to sit “outside” the house when they had their period. I am reliably informed that not much has changed now, though in apartment buildings the “outside” has become figurative. Even back then there were those more “liberal” parents who just didn’t want girls to come anywhere close to the prayer room. Lucky girls. Sigh.
A woman’s body is everyone’s business. Everyone wants a say. And everyone wants to know about whatever the hell is going on in there. Pretty much everyone who’s oldish in a house knows or wants to know if you have your period. Go to a prayer ceremony and ask some 45-year-old man why his wife isn’t in attendance, he will look you in the eye and say, “She has her period.” Eww, dude, too much information! Not because I find menstruation gross or talking about it gross. Even though it looks like he deserves kudos for not being squeamish or calling it “ladies problem” and is being open about his wife’s period. I cannot reconcile myself to the fact that sitting “outside” is still so normalised. His saying this with a lot of self-importance at a prayer takes on a whole different meaning, reminding me of what is expected of me when I have the same “condition”, letting a lot of people know about something personal about my body, so they can stay “unpolluted.” This is not in fact what it looks like. It is not an open conversation about periods. This is an open conversation about how some cultures view women who are having their period.
So going back to when I was young, I knew that women sat outside and skipped prayers when they had their period. But I had no clue what it actually was. Then, movies happened. The fact that there are aren’t many mainstream women filmmakers in South India brought a very different kind of trauma to my life. When I was growing up, whatever mainstream Tamil cinema I saw left a huge mark on me, in terms of society’s expectations from women. Just kidding! That stuff don’t mean nothing to me. What still rankles, however, is how they scared the lights out of tween me.
There was always a handful of Tamil films that insisted on alluding to that “moment” when a girl got her period. Like yeah, we are all so aware of our bodies as tweens and teens that we instantaneously know when we get our first period and not when we go to the loo much later or until someone else points it out, right? Right? How? I don’t even … Anyway.
In these films, I saw girls my age scream. A nasty bloodcurdling sort of scream. No, wait. Like the wail of a woman who is giving birth to a devil baby. The next thing you know, they are breaking into a song for her. Erecting a palm frond structure, dabbing her cheeks with sandal paste and, you know, announcing to the world that she’s now capable of bearing children. There is some half an hour to forty minutes dedicated to just this yellow water bathing ceremony event and the lead up to it, called manjal neerattu vizha in Tamil, in the movie Mann Vasanai directed by Bharatiraja.
Manjal neerattu vizhas are pretty big in Tamil Nadu. Halls are rented, chariots are involved, and then there are vinyl hoardings with the girl’s photo too. I once saw one for a girl, with a photo of all her male friends, along with the announcement of the function – date, location, etc.
I went to one of these vizhas as a girl in one such hall, held in honour of a girlfriend in class. A huge wedding hall, girl on red throne-like chair, video coverage, television sets all across the room that showed images of the girl, zooming in and out restlessly, of her face inside a heart, inside a square, diamond, hexagon and even, at one point, what looked like the outline of an underclothing item. I saw her for the first time in a saree that day. It was stunning. And a lot of jewellery. It was like a wedding … without a groom. Looked pretty perfect to me. A few months later, when I got my own yellow water ceremony, my folks didn’t go so far as to rent a hall, but a lot of people showed up at home on the fourth day.
When I found out that I had got my period as a little girl, I was a bit relieved, after a lot of reassurance from my mother and aunt that I was in fact not dying, just menstruating. There was no holding of stomach and wailing. (Although later on I would be introduced to the excruciatingly horrendous reality of cramps and PMS and there would be a lot of pain, holding of stomach as well as wailing.) There was none of that on that first day. I wondered why the women/girls involved in these kind of movies, playing the devil baby deliverer, did not object to this. Did they not have a say? Did the men not listen? Did the male writer/director not even bother to ask around to see what happened to women? These were questions that haunted me. I mean, not haunted. More like, made me wonder and laugh.
And these were not just mindless movies. Some of them have been called “realistic” and “raw”. Like the Kamal Hassan-starrer Mahanadi and the tragic love story, Kadhal. The latter even has a song that goes, “I flowered as soon as I saw him”. Right. Okay!
Krupa Ge used to write for newspapers. Now she writes fiction, mostly. She is also the founding editor of The Madras Mag – www.madrasmag.in.