Chums in the time of #Padman

In the month of February of my fifteenth year on this planet, while studying in my balcony for my class X board exams (we were granted a three-week study leave), I got my period. Got is what they said in those days, and ‘chums’ was the popular euphemism.

It was not supposed to be this way. Where was the audience? My parents were at work, my siblings were at school. I was home alone, studying. I mean, who gets their periods studying? The least that could have happened was I could have got it at Bharatanatyam class or during the goddamn assembly while my all-girls school was still on. PT class would have been even better, on account of the white uniform, hence hard to miss stain. I envied the other girls in my class the drama of the stain. The whispering, the discovery, the shock, the denial, the submission, and finally the whisking away and being allowed to go home early on account of a ‘medical emergency’.

This of course implied that by some subtle private club code, they were thereby initiated into womanhood. I also felt that the girls in a co-ed school would have been a lot less mean, as they would have to fake solidarity in front of the boys. But in a high-estrogen all-girls convent, all fangs were out at all times. If you hadn’t got your period, you didn’t count. I didn’t, clearly, despite being a top-ranker and all that.

Even the flat-chested front benchers were crossing over to the other side, one by one. All except Annie and I (although she told me she got hers, I knew she was lying). I was close to nervous wreckage. Of course there were tiny eruptions in the name of breasts (and they hurt). And hair was sprouting in places other than my head. So I knew my body was up to something. Yet, there was no visible evidence. The constant barbs about ‘gender unknown’ by the back-benchers in my class, the constant looking at me in a “Serves you right, you show-offy, always-doing-your-homework-on-time first bencher”! The speaking in code about ‘downs’ and ‘my sister’ and ‘that time of the month’ as if I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was as though I was paying a price for my academic excellence. “Let her know what it means to win a consolation prize,” the signs seemed to say.

My mother had always been mysterious about ‘the period’, as though saying the word would start the taps; she never gave me the birds and the bees talk. Neither did my friends, although one neighbour who was eleven and ‘chumming’ made it a point to tell me all the gory details, in the manner of “well, I got there before you, see!” Being the first-born didn’t help at all. So I was left to figuring it all on my own, reading subtext and often reading what was not written.

I had however dragged my mother to buy me a bra and the best they could do at the shop was a 28A, for my chest pimples. Since college life was looming large, I was concerned about being the first girl to go to college without a period (I was already planning on faking it by spilling sanitary napkins every time I took out my wallet, in case the blasted red river never showed up). And the bigger concern was about actually being a man in disguise, although my mother always hushed me when I spoke such unmentionables. I truly needed an assurance that I was ready for bearing children which I never wanted to have. “Give me this day my fertile ovaries” was my prayer.

In the light of all this, the ‘no audience’ thing upon arrival of the red river was a real bummer. I would never get to tell my class girls that I (finally!) got my period. That I was them, just a late bloomer is all.

I made a mental note of announcing it to my class when the board results were declared two months later (and I topped, again, and it meant nothing, again), but then girls were just running helter skelter, collecting marksheets, bonafide certificates and rushing to stand in queues for college admissions and whatnot and who would be interested in my period? So my little celebration never really happened with the ones who really mattered.

When my mother came home that afternoon, after I had wallowed sufficiently in my red river and the cramps thereafter (and had run out of fabric wads to stuff my panties with) I announced to her that I was a woman. She said, Thank god. Or something to that effect.

I liked the fact that finally I got to pick a side (I could tick ‘female’ in all boxes now) and could now be officially in on all the sex talk at school.

From that day on, the red river was a loyalist, and I was constantly assured that it would never fail me, always knocking on my door in 28 days exactly. (Years later, my ob-gyn told me that my regular-as-clockwork menstrual cycle was what made conceiving at 40 easy as pie for me. “You are lucky,” he said.)

With periods came period paraphernalia. In my time, you bought these Comfit sanitary napkins, whose ads always featured women (or was it a man and a woman?) running in slow motion, hugging trees and suchlike. This was pre-Whisper days, but even then, girls always ran in slow motion during their period. Then came the Carefree era which was Comfit with two long tails and a plastic sheath. This was followed by the revolutionary peel off pads – Stayfree, Whisper and the gang. And what do you know? Very soon, pads had wings. (I am sure this was trying to say something about the women’s movement.)

Comfit pads looked like fluffy white sausages with tiny ears. These ears had to be looped with utmost dexterity in between the white and the red plastic loops pre-strung through an elastic ring/band which they proudly called ‘the belt’. This was very complicated and involved too much technique, especially in your most vulnerable and therefore clutzy days. My series of unfortunate incidents involving Comfit often featured the plastic loops in the front shooting off just as I wore the band and was ready to get padded and me frantically looking for them in the bathroom when someone had to ‘go’ really urgently. Sometimes, I just shoved a few sausages into my underwear and couldn’t be bothered about the loops and it never really mattered, unless of course, your underwear wasn’t well fitted.

The tricky bit was finding this belt in that newspaper wrapped Comfit packet. The belt was usually knotted into a tiny ball and placed delicately amid the bundle of pads and you almost always couldn’t find it until you had spilled all the pads on the floor and ruined a few in the process.  The pack announced ‘free belt inside’, but they should have had a contest for finding it in less than five minutes. Once the belt was found and you could go about your business, the tricky part was figuring out how to minimize the lag time between discarding a used pad and adding a new one (no one talks about this either).

And then someone invented the horror called the period panty. And every mother bought one for her daughter. If you remember what it was like to be an infant, to always have your genitals covered and smothered in a diaper (cloth or otherwise) and never be able to come up for air, well, that’s how a period panty felt. Every girl must have tried them at least once, because they were advertised as ‘stain-proof’  and  ‘secure protection’ and ‘no more accidents’ and everything unsubtle. These were made of two layers – an outer nylon or rayon or whatever material produces the maximum irritation to your skin and an inner – hold your breath – plastic sheath. In case you were a nincompoop who still hadn’t learned how to use a pad, there were two elastic bands on the inside of the panty to hold your sanitary pad in place.

‘Changing a pad’ was some sort of expedition or conquest, with girls constantly exchanging notes on how often they changed. In some circles, not changing often was looked at with awe, in others, with pity, as if secretly passing judgment that the ovaries were perhaps not healthy enough or not doing a good job of getting rid of the unfertilized egg. But whatever the pronouncement, there was always a thrill about knowing that if you had a period, you had just about missed a pregnancy. That you were almost pregnant. For a little girl, that information can be huge.

When I grew up, I realised that there were two kinds of women: those who make a big deal of their period and those who pretend it doesn’t exist and look at you in askance when you bring it up. Why did they do that, I wondered. I was veering dangerously to the other side and I didn’t know why. Perhaps because I always saw my mother slumped and gloomy during hers and I was determined that I was not going to let my period get in the way of fun.

Balancing your period with the rest of your life was what the rest of your life was going to be. So you had to plan waxing cycles, treks, beach fun, sex, presentations, dates, travels, even your own wedding, around your period.

I was, at the time of onset (of the period of course), a follower of tennis and constantly in awe of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert Lloyd and Steffi Graf for how they ‘managed’ their period with their tournaments while my mother had programmed me to be nervous even about a train trip during ‘those days’. They were always so poised in their short, white skirts with their underwear showing, and when I asked why I could never see the bulge of the pad ever, my friends whispered, ‘tampons’. Like it was some code for big girl talk. My friends also told me they took ‘pills’ to control the period, but then I wondered how they could take pills all the time? And would that not make their ovaries totally nuts, never knowing when they could gush.

Soon as I managed to shove a tampon into my vagina, I did, because wrapping the pad and walking eternally to the other end of the college/hostel/office was unbearable, what with you feeling that you had been marked and were off to an unexciting expedition. I later learned that girls who wore tampons were marked as ‘those’ type of girls – the ones who always get a lot of action down there, so their vaginas are like butter to slide the tampons in and out. No one actually compared the size of a tampon to an average penis, but never mind. I found it odd that most girls associated tampons with loss of virginity.

At some stage you reached a point where you could talk to men (at least some of them) freely about your period and they pretended to understand, perhaps having been trained by previous girlfriends or able sisters or mothers. But I still wonder whether they really, truly get it and can feel empathy in this regard. Yes even the one who tested sanitary pads by actually wearing them.

I used to often wonder about period waste and how much it must be contributing to landfills and feeling less guilty that my three decade tampon usage must have contributed far less. Now I hear women talking about how the menstrual cup has set them free. The period revolution is finally here! Can you believe not having to ever change a pad or a tampon, but just inserting this silicon wonder into your vagina, allowing the menstrual blood to drain into it and then just rinsing it and reinserting. I am trying to imagine how much money I may have spent on pads and tampons in the years since my period, and it’s scary. That is one math I don’t want to do. But I have decided to give the menstrual cup a miss nevertheless. I don’t want to shock my uterus at this stage of my life.

(This is an essay from my book The Whole Shebang, published by Bloomsbury. You can order the book here.)

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Life in an unLinkedin universe

I think I was nine when my father came home one day and announced he was buying a buffalo. Yes, you heard that right. Appa then had a regular office job; he diligently went to work every day, although his mind was always wandering into all the things he could do other than his job. This time it was dairy farming.

Of course it was just one of many ideas he acted on.  The buffalo didn’t happen, but that’s another story. My dad then tried being an organic fruit and vegetable supplier, a landscape gardener, a horticulturist. Once he nearly started his brand of pickles and chutneys. He also tried being a builder, but that didn’t end well.

People labeled him a maverick , perhaps too old to take these risks and wander off, like he did, into the unknown. Family members would advise him to hold on to his job and stop trying things he knew nothing about.

I don’t think it bothered him.

“I can do wonders,” he would say. They would laugh. We laughed too.

My father is now 80 years old and is a farmer. He grows things on a little patch of land in Zhadshapur, a small village in Belgaum. He says he’s finally happy waking up every morning and going to work. He also says he sleeps well and has beautiful dreams. And whenever he visits Mumbai, my friends get bright orange pumpkin wedges and red plantains as return presents.

The red plantains are his specialty, by the way. They are hard to grow, he says, and they can fetch a good price in the market, at least twenty rupees a piece when he last did the rounds. His last harvest was 100 plantains, and it thrilled him no end. Every member of the family has heard the story.

I have no clue what will happen when my dad learns to Whatsapp. We might get hourly updates on ladyfingers, custard apples, aubergines, and of course, red plantains!

Last year he made a trip to the dairy institute in Coimbatore. We knew something is brewing. Perhaps the dairy baron dream has awoken again. You never know. He will try anything.

When I was a child, I remember reading a book “Why I’m like Dad”. I found it on our book shelf and maybe I was too young to read it – it was mostly about genetics and stuff, but somehow the title stuck.

And years later, when I abandoned a safe and bankable career in the pharmaceutical industry to try a career in writing, I remembered that again.

I remember what motivated me was boredom. I could not imagine working in a Glaxo or some such, doing things on loop, where one day would be exactly the same as another. Not that Glaxo offered me a job, but you know what I mean. I then became a copywriter, and for a long time, my family couldn’t make sense of me. My spotless academic life now had a permanent blot.

I remember being a sales person for Time-Life Books when I was still figuring out what to do with my life. I sold a few books too, so maybe I wasn’t bad. I also graded papers for a coaching institute, teamed with a friend to design clothes for children from textile waste, tried being a yoga assistant, a tutor, proofreader, a research assistant. I managed a helpline for stray dogs and an NGO store. I worked in a placement firm, trying to sell dream jobs to people.  I wasn’t very convincing. And oh, I also co-founded a content management company and watched it go bust in a year. I wrote resumes, presentations and speeches for other people.  I designed visual aids for pharma companies. I later worked as a journalist, an editor, a teacher. It got me closer to who I was, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Was I trying to find my passion? I don’t think so. I was just trying to do a good job of whatever came my way.

Every once in a while, someone would say, “But why did you do an M.Pharm then? You wasted a seat!”

No I didn’t waste a seat. I opened a window. I couldn’t say this then. But I can say it now.

 For the longest time, I have been trying to construct the perfect answer to “What do you do?” The reason people ask this is to figure out who you are. But what if you are not just what you do? What if you there are so many other facets to you that you are unable to showcase in your job?

May be I just have an incredible amount of activation energy. I think this “find your passion” thing is unnerving. But I do know that I love beginning things. I am a great beginner. I have begun so many things so many times. Plus I know I am adaptable and curious; I can learn pretty much anything on the job. But when something is not working for me, I am incredibly good at letting it go. I finally know that it is a talent. In effect, I believe I am eminently hirable.

The interesting thing is: I haven’t been professionally trained for a single job that I have done so far.

May be I was not passionate about all the jobs I have tried, but I was curious enough to want to know how to do them. And once I knew that, I was restless and wanted to move on. I did worry that I had commitment issues, no clear goals, and all of that.

But maybe, just maybe, for some of us, there is no one calling. Isn’t it a relief to know that? Those of you whose hearts are singing right now, just hold on to that thought.

I am sure most of you were asked when you were a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was too. My answers varied from veterinary surgeon, lawyer, forensic scientist, dancer, film critic, singer, author.

Right now, I am a teacher and a mentor. I have written a few books, I tell stories and talk about finding your path. But it still doesn’t help me fully answer the “What do you do?” question.

I still wonder what to put in the “Occupation” box, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

At some point, I stopped tailoring my resume to sound consistent.  I stopped explaining gaps in my career. I stopped apologizing for my spontaneous travels. If people didn’t want to take a chance on me, they were not my type anyway. Jobs and relationships were similar in that way.

The point is:  What’s the harm in not knowing what you want to do? Why is it so defining? Why are parents in such a hurry to put their children in boxes? As a teacher and mother, I meet parents all the time, and they annoy me, most of the time. Parents of teenagers are especially a worried lot. “She has no idea what she wants to do”. Or “He is so confused, please give him some advice”. These are the things parents often ask me.

I love my students, especially the ones who don’t know, because I don’t believe ‘chasing your passion’ or ‘knowing what you want to be’ means anything. What will really get them far is knowing how to do a job, any job, really well. It’s amazing how rare that is. It’s like those red plantains my father grows. Of course, even as I say this, parents have this glazed expression on their face. And then I tell them, “I am 49, and I’m still figuring it out.”

We all know there are things we are good at. There are things the world will pay us for. And there are things we love doing. Sometimes the three intersect. But even if you get one of the three right, you are on your way somewhere.

Recently a journalist asked me in an interview about my new book: “How would it have been if things in your life had stuck — jobs, careers, companions?”

The question made me sad and annoyed in equal measure. We still believe that stuck is an aspirational state. That it is the default setting. That each one of us has to choose one thing we want to do with our life and stay married to it ever after. The next time someone asks me what I do, I am going to say Professional Dilettante. Hmmm, I kinda like the sound of it.

I am sure there is not a single person in this world who hasn’t had the urge to “try something different”. No matter what your life stage, no matter how much on track you think you are, no matter how much your job pays you. Sometimes, your inner voice urges you to go ahead, just try it and see.

And just as quickly, your inner pause button stops you. “Are you crazy? That’s not even a real job!”

I have been lucky, because I think over a period of time, my inner voice and I have become best friends. But for every chance you get to try something new, there is always someone who is willing to let you try it:

Someone who hires you for that magazine job despite you having no experience in journalism.

Someone who hires you to write ads for oxygen analyzers or mutual funds.

Someone who is willing to take a chance on you while you are ready to take a chance on yourself.

Someone who can see what’s not in the box.

I want to thank all those someones today who saw me beyond my resume.

But imagine for a minute! What if we all had a chance to try as many careers in our lifetime without being judged? Without being labeled, like I was?

Very often, our rational mind can make some mind-blowingly irrational decisions. We just have to stop getting in the way.  Sometimes life also puts you in situations when you make courageous or fearless decisions. Like the time I quit a high profile magazine job to go teach at a school on a hill. It took off a zero from my pay check, yes. But it added zeroes to my emotional quotient and gave me a rent-free and bill-free life for a year while I figured what to do with my marriage. To me, it was the most practical decision I ever made.

But what if we can make such decisions even when we are not in extreme situations?  What if we let ourselves try new things, even if we are afraid of failure?

Statistics say that 8 in 10 people don’ t like what they do.  Why do you still do it? What if you tried something else? What is the worst thing that can happen?

Yes, that’s probably what my father would say. If he can try something new at 80, anyone can. At the end of the day, half-hearted careers means half-hearted people. That means half-hearted relationships, half-hearted marriages, and eventually, half-hearted kids.  And all it would have taken to not make this happen was to try something else.

What I really want for the future is an alternate universe to linkedin.  Where you can look at the unlinkedin profiles of people. Where things don’t add up. Where people will share their failures instead of their successes.

What if every opportunity that comes your way is you? It’s just that you didn’t know it yet?

Raising a boy in times of rape

Last week, I was woken up one morning by a text from a friend in Dubai. It said, “Adi came and asked me, mamma, what is the meaning of gang rape?”

She has two boys; Adi, 8, is the older one. The child was obviously reacting to newsfeed from Mumbai, a city he lived in before they moved to Dubai. She told him it was an important question, but she wanted to think through the answer so that it would justify the question.

Owing to the time difference, she got restless waiting for my answer and hence told him, ten minutes later, “Rape is the worst form of bad touch that one person does to another, and gang rape means many people doing bad touch to one.”

Understandably, he looked disgusted. And then she told him that these things wouldn’t happen if boys stopped thinking that girls were silly and instead, treated them as smart.

She didn’t want to probe into the source of his questioning, but she wasn’t sure if she said the right thing, and so she reached out to me. She felt that as a mother to two boys, she should really start worrying about their attitude towards girls.

My son, Re is four. He hasn’t started asking such questions yet. But I think it’s about time I started thinking of the answers too.

Call me paranoid, but I can’t help notice that after he started school and began mingling with boys and girls I don’t know much about, Re has started sounding slightly divisive about gender. He has started saying things he never said. Things like, “You take the pink one, because you are a girl!” I can’t track the source of this, much as I can’t track the source of him telling me one day that boys don’t wear bangles.

A few days back, his school celebrated rakhi. Re (and other boys at school) were asked to bring a small gift. They were told that the girls would tie them a rakhi and the boys would have to give them a gift. A friend asked jokingly on Facebook if that meant that the girls in his class were now his sisters. I resisted explaining the significance of rakhi to him — that girls tied rakhi to boys, and the boys promised to protect them.

I didn’t like the word ‘protect’. I thought I’ll wait till I come up with a suitable alternative. May be I never will. It doesn’t matter, really. He doesn’t have a sister and never will. The word ‘protector’ screwed up rakhi for me, and I didn’t want to transfer the angst onto him.

When the Shakti Mills incident occurred, and once again the focus was on the brutes that raped and the mothers who raised them, it sent shivers down my spine. It scares me, this. It raises alarm bells of a kind that I never knew could. The questions are always, “What is their upbringing? Which mother has raised such a son?” It is never “What did their fathers say or do? To them, to their mothers, sisters, wives?”

But the fact remains that almost everyone is under the radar.

Every man or woman who makes a joke about rape is guilty of rape.

Every man who thinks his nobility comes from protecting women (sister, wife, lover, friend) is guilty.

Every parent who says, “Boys will be boys,” is guilty. Every time you use a bangle metaphor for a ‘weak’ man, you are guilty. Every parent who thinks that a daughter should be married off lest she falls into wayward ways, is guilty. Every parent who has different bars for sons and daughters is guilty of rape. Every time you are told you need a man to complete you, you are raped.

Every time you think a woman needs a man to protect her, whether it’s her father, husband, brother, the Khap Panchayat, the police, or the State Home Minister, you are guilty.

Because there is a very thin line between protector and perpetrator.

When I was 13, a tall boy in a white kurta-pyjama who was walking behind me, grabbed my breasts. This was at Teen Murti Bhavan. I was trailing behind my parents while looking at the exhibit, and the boy decided to take his chances. I was so shocked, I picked up the nearest thing I could to hit him. It was a stool. The security came charging (they were more worried that I might break the glass), nabbed him and made off. I was left trembling with fear as my parents found me. What happened, they asked? “He physically assaulted me,” I said, not realising how the words came out of my mouth. My parents didn’t pursue the case. “It’s Delhi, it’s notorious” my father said. I remember feeling very angry that day. I still remember the boy’s face.

I remember another incident from my youth. I was 16, and used to attend college, a two-hour commute from home. On days I had practicals, this meant leaving my home at 5.30 am. I used to walk to the station alone; a 20 minute walk. One November day, when it was darker than usual, I heard a bell ring behind me. I turned around and recognised our milkman. “Why are you walking alone in the dark? Can’t your father or brother drop you?” he asked. I was already on the verge of being a feminist, and brushed him off. “I can look after myself, and this is none of your business,” I said.

But that conversation spooked me out. I told my mother about it when I got home. She vented on my father. “How can you sleep when your young daughter is walking alone on the street early in the morning?” I remember feeling very angry that day too.

A few days back, my husband, who works in advertising, was on his way to Delhi to pitch for an account. The client ran a girls only boarding school. I don’t remember the exact words, but the campaign was positioned around female foeticide and how we needed to empower our girls; hence a girls-only boarding school. I don’t know why, but it made me angry.

But I still don’t know what I am going to tell my son. Perhaps I can tell him the story of the rape survivor, the girl who didn’t just stay angry, but did something about it. She continues her fight for justice, her fight to get her life back, to work, travel, and live free. Her parents continue to support her in her fight.

For all I know, Re may cry over something in school tomorrow and someone is likely to say, “Why are you crying? Are you a girl?” And then I’ll have to start all over again.

This piece originally appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on 3rd September, 2013