Alphabets opened up a whole new world for me. Like all five-year olds, I wanted to know everything. When I started forming little words, the world simply weren’t enough. During visits to my dentist, pediatrician, our relatives or to the grocery shop, my parents cringed as I read aloud whatever my eyes rested themselves upon. Name boards, number plates, comics, magazines and columns that solved sexual problems – anything I could lay my hands and eyes on were all devoured by me. My reading obsession was officially my mother’s worst nightmare.
And then came those sanitary napkin advertisements on primetime television slots – muted by the elders with uncomfortable coughing to distract my attention. All the male members of the family religiously left the room only to return thirty seconds later. I, on other hand watched all those advertisements, read magazines and devoured columns without an inkling of the problems discussed or the freaky solutions provided for them. As for my mother, she was young, afraid and too shocked at her own daughter’s inquisitiveness. She did what she did best: she hid all that explosive material, diverted my attention during commercial breaks and stopped getting Grihashobhika from the nearby library.
My compulsions owned me. If it was printed on a surface, I read it. Books, magazines, old raddi newspapers, matrimonial ads, birth control pill pamphlets, torrid Marathi pulp fiction, men and women discussing some disgusting fantasy or problem – reading had become an insatiable habit – one my little brain could barely contain. In my quest for answers, I read things I should never have read as a little girl, but missing out on precious information was unacceptable to my tiny brain – and I went on plodding in the dark.
I became a loner of sorts. Anti-social types, my uncle thought. Nobody liked me much but if we went out somewhere, I concerned myself less with them and with their bookshelves more. While my grades in school were excellent, my parents were worried because I wouldn’t mingle easily with kids my age. As I grew up, I became feverishly consumed with this entire information overload and turned into a grown-up person with absolutely no sense of the real world. I soon discovered that my only dialogue with my parents would be a string of arguments with occasional silences used as a tool to curb my curiosity and to shunt my imagination.
I understood that menstruation happened to all women – but for some strange reason thought that it was never going to happen to me. Wouldn’t mother have brought it up otherwise? I was scared to grow up. I had managed to reach up to the eighth grade without uttering the words ‘sanitary pads’ or ‘menstruation’ until my friends at school started talking about ‘IT.’ After P.T. classes, my friends would exchange their ‘first times’ with each other. I wasn’t comfortable listening to all this first-hand information. It was all wrong and unbearable – how could they so freely talk about something that should have stayed between newspaper and magazine columns? It was all so wrong, my little brain opined.
Then one fine day, out of the blue, ‘IT’ happened to me. My mother sat beside me as I awaited my moment of truth. I was all ears. Extremely uncomfortable with the unwanted burden, my mother refused to look into my eyes. She could have been anywhere on this planet at this moment but there, right beside me. With monumental effort, she muttered, “IT happens to all of us. You’re not the only one. IT’s ok.”
It’s ok. That’s it? All these years was I waiting to know this? Should I have felt special now that I was one of them or was I just like everyone else who went through this ordeal? Was I supposed to celebrate or mourn? My grandmother for one was elated. She told me I was a woman now and offered to take me sari shopping for my first ever sari. How could she behave like I had just won a lottery? This was a sad moment. My mother made it even worse when she told me that there was a big bad world out there and now, I had to take care of myself. All because the unthinkable ‘IT’ had also happened to me.
Menstruation, sanitary pads, blood stains and earth shattering cramps – I’ve never uttered these words in my house. Not even when I had infections, rashes or irregular periods. I never touched the books or magazines I trusted so much for the longest time after. I became a closed book never to be opened again. For the next couple of years, I hated myself for being a woman, for being helpless when ‘IT’ was ruining my self-esteem. I wanted to be a man – careless, confident and free in every imaginable sense.
One May afternoon, I was sipping on some chai at my Maasi’s place, chatting with her about the latest gossip in B-town. Her eight-year old son was creating pandemonium – with his GI Joes and God alone knows what else, while his dog Mithi was aimlessly digging into his basket full of video games. I found myself comparing my childhood with his. I felt lucky to be raised on a diet of books as opposed to this menace of a boy. I got up to settle down on a bean bag, away from the ensuing chaos. Before I could seat myself there, my cousin screamed. “Didi, don’t sit there. That’s Mithi’s place and she is chumming!” Having said so, he promptly disappeared behind his huge heap of video games.
I was dumbstruck. This eight-year old boy spoke so casually about what women go through! It was such a simple thing to say-even a dog goes through it! So natural, pure and feminine! My entire childhood flashed before my eyes and tears welled up within them. Tears of joy, of knowing something that I always wanted to know; tears of my first period and the epiphany that came with it.
My little brat of a cousin and his clueless dog – both had made me the woman I always pined to be. How I wish I could tell all this to my mother…