Published in Kathmandu Post on Feb 28…
(Navigating the rituals and myths, sorrows and shame that menstruation has come to be associated with in our part of the world.)
The place was murky, sunlight pushing to make its way through the lone window—but it was not allowed here, and its failed attempts to brighten and cheer rendered the atmosphere even more murky. Below the dark chimney sat my bed, much too big for a 10-year-old. My fourth grade books, bag, school clothes, shoes and socks were scattered here and there, along with a steel plate, glass and bowl, on which I would be served my meals, like a jailed convict, I remember thinking. Also lying around were my dolls, and the little pieces of cloth I would cut out to make dresses for them; ‘talatuli’ we called them. Yes, I was at a talatuli-playing age, blessed with all the innocence that implies.
“You’re a woman now,” the maid says.
“How? Please tell me.”
“Being Nachhuni makes you a woman. And because this is your first time, you can’t touch your father or your brother.”
“I’m a woman now?”
How horrible was that day? The flowing of blood from where you peed, and the realisation that that you have no control over that flow, can’t stop it, even when your body trembles and hurts. Being Nachhuni or ‘untouchable’ was something that had been happening to Ama and Kanchhi didi for ages, and you knew, vaguely, that it was going to happen to you too some day, but now that it had, it was a strange, uncomfortable sensation, and you had the distinct feeling of having committed a sin. The transition from childhood to womanhood was a confusing, painful and extremely sad shift, from what I could see at the time.
“Please don’t tell anyone.”
“No, we have to call your mother—you need to be hidden right away, we can’t have you seeing your father or brother,” she yells at me.
As I speak to Ama, I am shaking with fear. “Ama, Kanchhi Didi says I’ve become Nachhuni. It is true?”
“No, my dear. You’re just 10 years old. Hand the phone over to Kanchhi, I’ll scold her for putting ridiculous ideas in your head.”
That was 15 years ago.
I wasn’t aware back then that the blood I saw on my underclothes was a normal occurrence; that it was something every woman went through. The sight of those little spots of red against the fabric was alarming to the young me; they made me think of wounds and diseases and death. Ama finally checked my person thoroughly, and although she had initially believed me too young to be menstruating, she was now convinced and concluded that yes, I had indeed become Nachhuni.
I recall what followed with a feeling of great heaviness. That first time, I was kept in a separate room for a good two weeks or so, barred from contact with males, with only the women of the house visiting to bring me food and water. A prisoner in my own home, I lay there for so many days, untouched and unseen, movements curtailed, nothing to do all day, wondering what I’d been missing at school, and sick of playing by myself. What frustrated me even more was how everyone was so caught up in the rituals surrounding menstruation, but no one would actually talk about the facts of menstruation itself. No one told me that to menstruate is to bleed continuously and that you’re meant to collect all the blood in a piece of cloth or in a sanitary pad, or anything of that sort.
“Ama, I think I’m bleeding again.”
“Oh, you’ve become Nachhuni again.”
“Stop it right there, don’t come into the room! Don’t touch the food!”
What menstruation represented for me from that point onwards was four days a month of being ‘impure’—the mere touch of our hands considered ruinous. We were kept at a distance from fathers, brothers, told that touching them would cut down their life spans. We were prevented from entering various rooms, even prohibited contact with religious idols. Myth even goes so far as to say that if a menstruating woman were to touch a plant, it would perish then and there. That fear of possibly bringing ill-fortune upon others, especially your loved ones, is what drives us into submission. The treatment doled out to young menstruating girls is even more severe in villages where Chhaupadi is common, a practice associated with almost unimaginable suffering.
“Wake up, it’s Rishi Panchami today,” Ama calls out.
“You need to be cleansed after your first menstruation.”
It was 4 am, and women were gathered around me, only
clad in their
petticoats. Herbal sticks known as Datyauns, red and black mud, cow dung, and water with gold dipped in it, or ‘soonpani’, were all laid out in front of me. I was then ordered to brush my teeth with the stick 365 times, rub my head, shoulders, elbows, vagina, knees, ankles and toes the same number of times with the other materials, rinse them off another 365 times and finally take a bath under a nanglo.
“I’m not doing all this,” I protest. “It’s ridiculous.”
“You spoiled brat!” my sister yells.
“If you don’t do what you’re told, the sins you’ve committed while menstruating throughout the year will never be wiped clean,” my aunt warns.
I wonder why it is that we’re insistent on framing menstruation so negatively, and imposing such challenging rituals on our girls when they come of age—confined to dark rooms, told they’re ‘impure’, disallowed from this and that, made to sit through hours of purifying pujas every year—when it’s something that should’ve been glorified, taken to represent a beautiful milestone in the life of each woman. The word ‘nachhuni’ might humiliate, but the Sanskrit term for the same phenomenon—Rajaswala—makes more sense. ‘Rajas’ appears to refer to menstrual fluid on the surface, but it also symbolises feminine reproductive power on a deeper level, while ‘wala’ is the suffix. And that’s not just it; Sanskrit offers up another beautiful word for menstruation—Ritumati—where ‘ritu’ indicates periods or seasons and ‘mati’ defines one in possession of feminine power.
I’m determined that my own daughter shall be treated differently. The day she leaves her childhood behind, the day nature confers on her the pass to finally take the leap into womanhood, I will show her what a wonderful thing it is she’s going through, and that there is no shame, no sorrow in it. In the same way that poet Bhupi Sherchan compares the shining face of a girl who has menstruated for the first time to the glow of a candle in the poem Mainbattiko Sikha, I want to show my little girl that while there is pain in it, menstruation is also representatative of joyous, incredible things to come in the future. That time of month will no longer be associated with impurity, but with power: the power to create and perpetuate life on Earth.