EVERYONE IS SYMPATHETIC of a pregnant woman. But in my opinion, pregnancy is only a 10-month torment which might happen once or twice in a woman’s life. On the other hand, the torment a woman goes through each month when she is not pregnant is a life sentence. Freedom, Stayfree, Whisper–advertisements of these sanitary napkins show carefree women who wake up fresh and happy in the mornings while I see young girls from poor families stare longingly at these sanitary napkins in medical shops. I never experienced this longing as a young girl because I didn’t even know the existence of sanitary napkins when I started my period.
Delayed periods is actually a boon that poverty bestows on poor girls. I was 16 when my periods started. Those days we had just one meal a day. Even that wasn’t an assured one! It was my last year at school, around the half-yearly exams. My family organized a small celebration for me. It was exciting, but I couldn’t fully understand what was going on. I had no pain for the first six months. Then, during menstruation, I started to experience heavy flow of blood. I had to walk for about two km to reach school; there was no money to pay for the bus ticket. Only a few scraps of old cloth were folded and kept in place to hold the blood flow all day. I had to keep folding in and folding out the wet and dry parts of the cloth.
Thankfully, I studied in a girl’s school. As for the toilets in a government school, is there any need to elaborate on their conditions? There was no water and the recess break was just ten minutes within which all the girls in the class had to use the toilet. I used to be scared to ask for the teacher’s permission to use the toilet during the classes. By the time I returned home walking, the blood-stained cloth scratched and caused bloody rashes between the thighs.
At home, the toilet was always closed. We lived in a huge compound where one toilet was shared by ten families. There were no taps in the toilet and we had to carry water twice or thrice. During my period, I wanted to use the toilet in the night as well. The owner’s son, a scoundrel, dared touch my breasts in the dark. I couldn’t ask my mother to go with me because my siblings (brother and sister) were still being breastfed. Asking my father to accompany me was possible but I was embarrassed.
I joined ITI after school. Pain around the hip bone started. It was as if a sharp object was being pierced through my hips. In the stomach, the intense pain extended till the urethra, accompanied by heaviness of the head and intense drowsiness. In addition, there were frequent bouts of vomiting, heavy flow of blood for more than four days, and nausea. I didn’t feel like eating and in fact, used to be unable to eat. I craved a soda or a cool drink but that was a huge luxury we couldn’t afford. I used to lie down and scream amma, amma and roll on the ground in pain. The screaming and rolling would go down after swallowing a paralgon tablet, and I lapsed into a tired half-sleep. When the four days for over, it was real freedom!
I visited the ESI (Employee State Insurance) hospital with my mother. The doctor said that there was no medicine for this ache and the pain would be gone after marriage. Since I thought marriage was just exchanging garlands, I wondered why I shouldn’t wear them right away and get rid of the pain. That was the level of knowledge I had then and I was too uncomfortable to ask my mother about it. With time, the pain became worse. Although the ITI was only for girls, there were male lecturers for some classes. Once, between classes, before the next lecturer came, I went to the toilet quickly to change the cloth. The cloth fell down; the lecturer must have seen it. That day, I died of humiliation and shame.
It must have been 1977-78 when I read about sanitary napkins in the weekly magazines. I asked my friend Sharada about them. She was one of the rich girls in our class. She said that sanitary napkins were held in place by an elastic belt. I couldn’t ask for money at home. The polytechnic was about seven km away from home and one had to change two buses to reach the polytechnic. At home, they usually gave me enough money only for one bus (25 paise). I walked the entire distance and saved money. When I got the sanitary pad, it looked so beautiful and neat. I used it once and brought it home safely in a packet. I was wondering why I hadn’t thought of this earlier. I started washing the napkin with soap; it fell to pieces.
I was completely unaware of the idea of use-and-throw. And the price of one day’s freedom was a several-kilometer-long walk! Even today when I think of it, it hurts.
After my studies, I got a job in an electrical shop for a salary of Rs 100 per month. My siblings would now get at least one meal for sure. I was at peace. My work was from 9:00 in the morning to 8:00 in the night. The shop was about five km away from home. I used the bus during the first 10 days of the month and walk the rest of the days. A close friend also started working in that shop. Her presence gave me a lot of confidence. We would longingly wait for the shop owner to order tea twice a day, morning and evening. When we actually got the tea depended on the owner’s mood. Especially during my period, I craved that one tea desperately.
At times, stock taking would happen on the days when I had my periods. We had to climb on a ladder, remove the things from the top shelves, dust them, and then list them. My friend and I would do this together. The pain would be excruciating. One day, my friend gathered some guts and told the owner to assign stock-taking to men. Well, her family didn’t depend on her salary unlike mine. For me, just the thought of my siblings would silence me at such times.
The shop owners had actually rented out a big house. The toilet in that house did not have a ceiling. One could easily peep into the toilet from neighboring terraces, shops and houses. There was scarcity of water as well. If the second day of my period fell on a Sunday, I did not have to take leave. At other times, I took leave and the owner questioned me angrily. My sense of self never let me cry before him. I controlled my tears and worked. One day, the wife of one the owners came to the shop. She was a compassionate person though she came from a rich family. Seeing me looking extremely tired, she asked, “why are you looking so ill?” I replied, “what to do, I wish I could die, but I am unable to.” I was 20 at that time. She felt very bad.
Then, one day, she took me to a female doctor, who prescribed some medicines. But they were of no use. The doctor said that there were no medicines other than painkillers and that using other medicines could lead to side effects. She said, “after marriage, the pain will be gone.” Given my family situation, I did not need marriage then. Earlier, I had heard that the pain would go if the uterus was removed. I asked the doctor if removing the uterus was an option. The doctor smiled pensively and said, “it cannot be done at this age, my dear.” I didn’t see any doctor after that day, and the owner also stopped scolding me if I took leave.
After a few days, I got a better job. However, it wasn’t good enough to for me to afford napkins. Instead of the cloth, I started using rolls and rolls of cotton. Even if the pain continued, the abrasions around the thighs reduced greatly. That was a great joy.
After I got married, my husband’s eyes filled with tears seeing me in such pain. That eased my pain greatly. In fact, I even felt proud. In the second month, he was slightly upset. In the third month, he left for a movie. When asked, he said, “what do I do when you are under so much pain? At least, I’ll go and watch a movie.” I was numb with grief. Of course, he can’t take away my pain. But if he was under such pain, would I look around for joy?
During menstruation, I also used to vomit in the night. Before marriage, my mother, brother or sister used to massage my back as I vomited and give me warm water to drink. It was a great relief. One night, after marriage, I woke up my husband and ran to the bathroom to vomit. As I vomited, I realized that there was no one to massage my back. I returned to bed to see my husband sleeping. I was horrified but consoled myself saying that perhaps he didn’t hear me call. When I asked him, he said, “you were just vomiting; why should I wake up for that?” It hurt badly.
He’s actually not a male chauvinist. He treated my family as if they were his family. He never beat me. But he hurt me with his scathing words, just like any regular man. I am not sure whether the incident I just described would affect men. In all probability, they will think that I am making a big deal out small things. But it’s funny that men, who need their wives to take care of them even for a headache, call women the weaker sex!
Male readers and even some female readers might find this piece boring. Today’s middle class women enjoy ‘freedom’ and so they can afford to be ‘carefree’ as well. But, even today, these things are still a huge problem for women from poor families. I don’t know whether this is a woman’s problem or the poor person’s problem.
When women take off on certain days, the sarcastic smiles of their male colleagues, their talk about how women use this as an excuse to not work, managers who remind women about responsibility at work, women who suffer all this in silence, being unable to voice their problems to their managers, etc…these are things that even women from middle class households suffer every day.
I recently read in the newspaper that about 65% of households in India do not have proper toilet facilities. Both in the villages and the cities, women must finish excretion early in the morning and wait until nightfall. Severe pain affects some unlucky women like me. However, blood flow and tiredness during those days are things that all women go through. These days, I take leave when the pain is unbearable. Moreover, my office has proper toilet facilities. Indeed, life has changed quite a lot for me. But it hasn’t changed for house maids, salesgirls who must remain standing the whole day, girls who study in corporation schools, etc. I think they aren’t as naïve as I used to be. They must be aware that there’s ‘freedom’ for women, and that that ‘freedom’ is beyond their reach.
Last month, I was at the medical shop buying sanitary napkins. There was some drainage work happening on the road. I saw a 16-year-old girl carrying the pebbles to be mixed with the concrete. She was dark and beautiful. She was wearing a faded polyester skirt; perhaps bought for her puberty function. I remembered wearing such a new skirt at my puberty function. Filling the container with pebbles, she looked around to see if someone would help her lift it. There was no one. She didn’t even ask anyone. Gnashing her teeth, she lifted the container herself. A sharp pain shot through me. I remembered the days of stock-taking in that electrical shop. That young girl returned to refill the container. I felt a little proud at that sight.
(This article was first published in vinavu.com.)