In the 1960s in Chettupuzha, a small village in rural Kerala, my grandmother gets her first period. She was informed by her mother that she would find spots of blood on her saree (underwear was not as common as it is today) so she is not taken aback completely – though there is not much more she knows about menstruation. Then the celebrations begin.
In a community defined by religion, caste, and gender, but only yet to crave the comforts of wealth and higher education, a girl’s first period is a call for festivity, a commemoration of her ability to bear the fruit of life, a recognition of her readiness for matrimonial life.
Her mother dutifully arranges separate cutlery and unfolds a makeshift bed on the floor, letting my grandmother know where and how she would spend every period of her life. Carrying armfuls of laddoos and grinning ear to ear, all her neighbours congratulate her, much to her apathy. She does not know why so many people have arrived to make a performance out of such an intimate and personal experience, but she smiles and accepts the sweets. After all, restricted from entering the kitchen for the duration of her period, she would be forced to eat what she considers cattle fodder – tasteless and derogatory.
Twenty years later, my mother bleeds for the first time. There is no celebration, no hoopla or commotion. Much like her own mother two decades ago, she does not know anything about menstruation except to watch out for blood stains. My mother does not tell her friends, no neighbours are invited, and the world keeps spinning, a girl’s life thoroughly changed but unnoticed by everyone else. She begins to fear white skirts. She tries to remember when visits to the temple are acceptable. She wonders if everyone can smell, hear, see, or sense that she is on her period. She memorises code words: aunt flow, on the rag, time of the month, “I’m down.” She is forced into silence.
The cycle of ignorance is perpetuated by silence. We choose not to talk about our bodies, afraid of taking up too much space. We do not want to embarrass ourselves, or worse, cause discomfort to those around us (especially our male peers). But things are changing.
When I first get my period, I tell my friends almost immediately, excited to finally join those who had already reached that stage of maturity I was so curious about. My mother tells me about the phases of the menstrual cycle, simplified for her squeamish daughter to understand. I Google every question that pops into my head and I, though anxious about period stains and upset about not being able to swim for a few weeks during the summer, feel confident in my growth. “My body is powerful,” I think. Of course, I grow up hiding my pads, censoring my period discussions around boys, and wondering why period product ads used blue liquid instead of red, but I watch the world around me change – from whispering about periods in the girls’ locker room, to seeing it front and centre in movies, TV shows, and pop culture.
Undoubtedly, the conversation has slowly transformed. There is a long way to go, but it is moving forward. As it becomes more inclusive and expansive, I am reminded of the generations before me and the ways in which the female body was, and still is, dissected and scrutinised for its natural processes. This just makes it all the more important to speak up, diversify the conversation, and learn about the experiences of others. Silence begets ignorance. The only resolution is dialogue.