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.)