This is a winning entry of our writing contest on “Periods and Popular Culture” by Srilatha Krishnaswamy.

As a girl who grew up watching Tamil movies, I always thought that coming of age, first periods etc., were events that were to be celebrated. If you have watched at least one Tamil movie of the late 80s and early 90s, there is always a hero, a heroine who is the daughter of the local panchayat leader, and the villain. Every other movie began with the heroine coming of age, all her friends giggling and laughing around her, there would be a song, and then the next morning when she goes to (or probably doesn’t go to) school thereafter, the hero will realize he loves the heroine and they will eventually live happily ever after. So, I grew up thinking of that song, the giggles, and the hero in the next scene.

However, reality was far removed from these scenes. Firstly, I did not know what exactly periods were and what exactly happened. For a moment, standing in that toilet I thought I had cancer in “that place.” This too was because of movies; any blood from inappropriate places meant cancer. When I told my mom, she did not say a word but just handed me a pad mechanically and went about explaining how I should use it without making any eye contact whatsoever. All the while, I stood there eagerly waiting for her to hug me, wish me and be happy about it. Nope. No celebrations, no songs, and we will come to the part about the hero later.

I came to terms about no one celebrating my coming of age. Little did I know that that was the least of my problems. The real problems were aplenty. The only thing that transpired the next day was the struggle when I went to school to no, not to find my hero, but to find a toilet. A clean toilet to be specific. When it was time to change my pads, we girls had to sneakily shift the sanitary pad from the bag to our uniform pockets, and then we needed to also fit in an old newspaper in order to dispose the old one. We would then rush to the toilet before the peak lunch hour break so that we could change before the crowd came in and the water in the taps ran out, which was usually the case in schools in Chennai because of limited water supply. When we got our periods, we first picked our ‘period mate,’ who would be the one to check for stains on our uniform. If at all that poor period mate found one stain, we would then proceed to drag one more along in order to do a walk of shame to the toilet, getting these two friends to conceal our stained uniforms. All the while hoping desperately of course, that there would be water in the toilet to scrub off the stain.

After a hard day at school, all I wanted was to get home and hit the bed. But, no. I grew up in an orthodox family. Periods meant impurity. So, I had a special plate, tumbler, pillow, and bedsheet to use for the first 3 days. In the initial days of my period, I bled for 7 days, and I always wondered why the first 3 days were impure and it is all pure and ok after the 3 days had passed. the process of buying pads was a hideous and long one. After thorough research, I found out the lean times at the pharmacy near me. This was around 11:30 am or 3:30 pm. The shopkeeper would then carefully pack the pads in a newspaper and stuff it in a black polythene bag so that it was not visible outside. I felt like a part of a mafia, smuggling away some potent drug.

Unfortunately, this is the case even now, because it is ingrained in our brains that periods and period-related stuff has to be all hush-hush and cannot be spoken out loud. It surprises me that we uber cool women can walk in casually into a bar or a liquor store and order a drink of our choice with full vigour but will lower our voice down a bit when mentioning sanitary pads. It puts me off when women still say, “I am down”, “Those 3 days”, “Oh teen din hai”, “Mera date hai”, and more, but will hesitate to say, “I have my periods” or, “ I am menstruating”.

My daughter recently began to menstruate, and here is a letter I wrote to her:

My dear little girl,

If motherhood is a miracle, puberty is God’s way of showing us a sneak peek into it.
Puberty is the beginning.
Your puberty means our family is growing.
You may decide to have children or otherwise, but then this just means that our lineage shall grow, and you shall be the torch bearer henceforth if you choose to.
Remember, asking for sanitary pads from your dad or brother should come to you as naturally as you ask for a glass of water.
Remember having your period is as biological a feeling similar to feeling hungry or feeling thirsty.
You do not have to be ashamed or embarrassed or be hush-hush about it.
Hold your head high and walk into womanhood with pride.
You may have outgrown our lap, but you will never outgrow our hearts.

Love, Amma

Author: Srilatha Krishnaswamy

In her words, Srilatha Krishnaswamy is a chartered accountant by profession, and a writer by passion; a wife that need not be succoured but is the strength behind her spouse; a mother that rather inspires her children than influence them; a friend or a sister who does not bond every day but one can bank on any day; and a daughter who is not deferential like any parent dreams about but a daring one to make them proud. Here is the link to her Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/srilatha.krishnaswamy

Edited by: Divya Rosaline