Stories, mythological, moral or tales of valor have always been an integral part of everyone’s childhood.
We had Champak, Gokulam, Tinkle, Chandamama, Chacha Choudary, Amar Chitra Katha, Lotpot, Balarama, Kallikudukka, TinTin, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton and so on for our company during childhood. I also read the Phantom and Indrajal comics that Dad had left behind while leaving for the Mid East. During our summer vacations, we adored the stories of Krishna, Ramayana, Bhagavatha, Manjula of the Guruvayoor Manjulaal fame, Kuroor Amma, Maariamma, Poonthanam and so on that were told by Ammamma (grandmother) and Mema (Mom’s sister). Mom never told us any stories. She grew up in an English convent and I guess that kept her aloof from all of these stories or maybe she thought she wasn’t a good story-teller.
Being from a highly conservative and orthodox Nair family from the Palakkad district in Kerala, our household followed lots of religious rituals and traditions. First Friday (Muppettu Velliyazcha) of every new month according to the Malayalam calendar, we would have a Mahalakshmi Pooja at home performed by my Ammavan (Mom’s brother). Noorum Paalum offered to Nagaraja, Nagayakshi, Brahmarakshassu and Paambumaar in the Paambu Kaavu (Abode of Snakes) situated within the compound of the house on every Aayilyam Nakshatram (one of the 27 nakshatras or stars). Naivedyam to be offered to Lord Shiva on Mondays and Krishna on Thursdays. Manjal (Turmeric) bath offered to Goddess Parvathi quite a few times in the month. And Vaavu bali (offering made to ancestors) and so on. The front yard of the house was smeared with cow-dung paste for shhudi on auspicious days. We would be seen running around the compound plucking flowers, thulasi (basil) leaves or koovalam (bel or wood apple) leaves. Other small chores for us included removing chaff from popped rice, cutting banana leaves and cleaning them, washing the brass lamps and other items of the temple. In short, my summer vacations revolved around this house, the temple, the rituals and the traditions.
I attained puberty as soon as I celebrated my eleventh birthday. Too young everyone said. My Mom wrote urgent letters to my grandparents and made few frantic calls to friends and relatives. New clothes were bought for me and I was adorned with all the gold jewellery that she had at the moment. My relatives, uncles and aunts rushed in with new clothes, sweets and gifts to meet a fully dressed up girl. Some of them smiled at me in a strange manner. My innocent brain could not comprehend those smiles and couldn’t understand the reason for the celebration as it was not my birthday and neither was it an Onam celebration or Vishu Sadya. I was told that I should not go out as birds should not fly over my head. Now how could one tell birds not to fly over our building as I was inside and menstruating? Hadh hai!
From then on my life changed drastically. I remember Mom asking me to stay away from boys and men of all ages, including Dad. I hated her for saying that last part because I was my Dad’s darling always. But looking at the newspapers and listening to the radio headlines these days I completely understand why she said what she said. The only trouble, I was too young to comprehend. The first summer vacation after this grand celebration and like always we were there at our grandparents place. Everything remained the same till my monthly periods started. I was suddenly isolated. A corner in the verandah of the house was where I was made to live for the next four days. A mat, a blanket, a plate and a glass were given to me and I was asked not to enter the main house and the kitchen. The plate and glass had to be washed outside the house. I had to take bath in the pond along with the mat, clothes and utensils that I used (or of people who touched me by mistake) even while I didn’t know swimming. The tap water which was the same water from the pond pumped up into the water tank supposedly could not make me pure. If it was not for Mom who helped me with the dipping in the pond part, I would have drowned the very first time. Our backyard was full of snakes and other creepy crawlies and I had to use the toilet which was outside the house. It had a separate bucket and mug for menstruating females of the house. Detailed story of the toilet here in this post: Do you know how necessary sanitation is? Suddenly I hated them all because I was being punished for no fault of mine.
One afternoon while everyone was taking a nap, I wandered through the backyard and went much closer to the Snake Shrine. I was always curious about going inside the shrine and taking a closer look at the stone idols but I was also scared as I had spotted cobras and other varieties there. I picked up a stone playfully and threw it inside the shrine. Ammamma had just woken up and was at the back-door closer to the shrine. She furiously asked me to get into the verandah. She told me a story about the curse of the Snake God and told me that if menstruating girls entered the snake shrine, they would never be able to bear children. The very next day the temple priest was summoned and some shudhi pooja was performed.
Years later, when I got married to a Garhwali and entered a completely different household with different rituals and traditions I had difficulty accepting them. It started off with adding a small piece of chappati in the tiffin box in addition to the three I had already packed for hubby because eating three chappatis was not considered shubh. The first monthly periods in that house was another shocker. I was told by my mother-in-law to light the pooja lamp. I refused citing my periods. She told me in their household men are not informed of such things and so I should light the lamp and pray as usual. Imagine my plight! I kept cursing myself every time I committed that ‘sin’.
Few years down the line, I had trouble conceiving and I remembered these episodes. The innocent young girl I was then, I honestly believed that I was being punished for that stone that I threw during my childhood and the many times I have lighted the lamp while I was impure. Only later did I come to know that it was nothing but a gynecological disorder which was treated.
I am now thirty-four and have access to so much information and views of so many people from around the world. I now understand that most of these rituals and traditions are baseless or their true meanings and needs have been misconstrued over the years. And the day my eldest daughter was born in February 2006, I promised myself that she’ll not go through what I have been through. I’ll empower her with all the necessary information that she needs to know. I’ll tell her that the Krishna that her mother prays daily is just an idol that helps her mom concentrate and meditate. The Krishna that her mother lights a lamp daily for only provides her some peace and sanity. He can show you the different ways because He resides within you or rather He is your own soul, but you have to choose the path for yourself. I’ll tell her that He will not punish her if she utters his name while menstruating. He’ll not punish her if she chants a mantra during those four-five days. Even Draupadi had called Krishna for help when Dushasana tried to disrobe her. It is mentioned in the religious texts that she was menstruating at that point in time. If Krishna could punish people for their sins He would have come down long back and punished sinners like the rapists of that 6-year old innocent child in Bangalore before punishing mere mortals like us for such silly matters.
I do pray. I do chant my mantras before sleeping. All this for my peace. Honestly I do not visit a temple during those days. Not because I’m scared of His punishment, but because I’m not interested in becoming an issue for the believers. My relationship with God is purely mine. It is not bound by any ritual or tradition or visit to a temple. My temple is my home.
And menses or periods is nothing but a biological occurrence, nature’s way of helping your body mature and be ready for reproduction. In short, it simply means you’re healthy.
A big thanks to Gayatri Aptekar for helping me pour out all of this after reading her honest post, I pray, do you?
And Sakshi Nanda, thanks for that nudge.
Linking this post to Project 365‘s prompt today: