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.)


Home is where the cats are

I live in Bombay.

It was Bombay when I was growing up. It was Bombay when my mother gave me the keys to our home and said I was now old enough to let myself in after school (I was 10). It was Bombay when I first visited South Bombay and saw that people boarding taxis looked quite posh and that Bombay was as sexy as they made it appear in the movies.  It was Bombay when I had my first kiss, the first time a man (other than my father) cooked for me, my first heartbreak, the first time I dumped someone.

It was Bombay when the glass window at my work desk at my first job reverberated. We were told there was an explosion at the Express Towers next door.

In a few months, it became Mumbai.

But whenever I am filling a form, I still find myself writing ‘Bombay’. I guess it will always be Bombay to me. I still look for the things that were rather than things that are. I have that thing with my city. I am fiercely defensive about it. The longest I have ever lived away from it was when I went to teach English for a year in a school on a hill called Tiwai. It made me feel better that it wasn’t another city, so technically, I wasn’t cheating on Bombay. When I returned, although it was just a year later, my city seemed to have changed its configuration. May be it was me too. I didn’t feel at home anymore like I used to.

I have moved nearly 20 homes since my childhood. In my marriage alone, I moved homes four times. I think every time you move, you raise the bar of a relationship.  Moving house is a great way to measure your thresholds for each other, to test each other’s adversity barometer. It is stressful to fit your life in boxes and then painstakingly set it up all over again only to take it apart a few years later. In a marriage, it helps you figure out how much of him and how much of you do you really want in a space that is ‘us’.

Moving is also a great way to reinvent space. And since part of that space has you in the continuum, it means reinventing you. We always rented, and no place was home for more than two years, and a change in pin code was a rite of passage.

A new flat is like a new relationship. There is a level of familiarity, and yes, there is love, but there is also intrigue. Nooks and crevices you haven’t explored. Surfaces you haven’t touched. Parts you haven’t felt or smelt.  Sometimes a house feels like home because of mosaic. Or imperfect walls, friendly nooks, a bookshelf just where you need it, a random hook on the wall, a hallway full of surprises, alcoves full of mystery, old-fashioned geysers, naked pipes and wires, book cases laden with World Books (an inheritance that a landlady once forced on me)

Suddenly, you could be kissing the evening sun instead of the sharp morning one. Or gazing at a mango tree instead of a concrete jungle. Or taking the stairs instead of a posh elevator that talks to you.

My father’s dodgy financial status and his pipe projects (which he always abandoned) ensured we were constantly moving house through my childhood. I was 18 by the time we had something close to a permanent home address. Even that didn’t last more than six years. When I think of my childhood home, so many images spring to mind, because there were so many. My mother never  kept any of our books and diaries as we never knew where we would move to next. I mourned the loss of Black Beauty and other books from my childhood for the first time when my son was born.

The words ‘permanent home address’ which appeared in almost every form you filled – whether it was a bank, a visa, your tax papers, a mobile connection, a job interview – made me nervous. I never knew what I was rooted to. There was no job or man that made me feel ‘happily ever after’. My pen always hovered around those ominous blanks, not knowing quite what to fill. The only thing permanent in my life was my parents. I promptly directed all enquires of permanence to them, and filled in their address.

My friends often said I had the knack of turning any place into a home, even my hostel room that I inhabited for three years. I had a trunk that travelled with me everywhere; it was full of knick knacks, artefacts, lamps, and other things that I was collecting for my real home. It didn’t take me long to turn a room or a space into home. A lamp here, some cushions there, happy curtains, some art on the wall, and every place I inhabited (and there have been far too many) became home effortlessly. They all had their issues, but each one had redeeming qualities that made them dependable. Moving house – that thing which makes many people queasy, unsettled, anxious – was always the most natural thing for me. I got attached to places and apartments but never enough to miss them. I think this survival instinct kicked in pretty early in my life. I found change to be my most reliable companion. My mother kept reminding me it was a sign I had to settle down. She meant marriage of course.

And then there were cats. Cats made their homes in our transient homes, they loved us unconditionally, they slept on our tummies, in the nooks of our arms, they gave birth on our ankles, we looked after their babies and one day they grew up and new cats found us. Cats have seen me through love, heartbreaks, moving homes, marriage and baby. If there was a strong memory of a house, there was sure to be a cat that went with it.

Through most of my twenties, when love was elusive, it was always an apartment that made me feel loved. Every time I got derailed, it was always four walls that reclaimed me, that hugged me back, no matter what. I had to agree, I was a homemaker in disguise.

Right from my hostel room to my twin-sharing pad in Bandra which is now an opulent high rise, to the little studio in Khar to the doll-house with secret cupboards, secret ironing boards and not-so-secret views – I loved them and they always loved me back. Book cases, ironing boards, dining tables, kitchen shelves, a nook here, a tree there, a frond of a palm that actually broke into my window, disallowing me from ever shutting it, and allowing me to make friends with a squirrel as he lived in the halfway house between the tree and my home. Of course, the cats were back in my life.

I thought marriage meant home, or permanence: that be-all, end-all feeling of settling down, of casting anchor.  It meant that one stopped running and stood still. And one day, I gave birth and truly realized the meaning of standing still.

My Cancerian husband was always averse to change while the Gemini in me celebrated it (it came from my nomadic childhood, with my father having trained us to fit into any space within 24 hours). Before our impending moves, he spent days gazing at familiar piles of wires, controllers, chargers coated in dust grime sighing that it will not be the same anymore. It was clear we had totally different fixations.

I usually made a deal with him and used the new flat as an excuse to buy us something I knew meant a lot to him. So that it becomes a metaphor for happy change, rather than a melancholic one. So he got his PS3, his XBox 360, his 42 inch LCD (and then 50, and 72), and I got to do up a house all over again.

In all the years of my marriage, the one place I always had the best dreams in was my mother’s house. It was the one place I felt protected, nurtured, off-duty. It was the place that continued to feature as ‘permanent home address’ in all the documents that one needs to define one’s residence in a country.

Ironically, around the time my marriage fell apart, I won an allotment in a government-subsidized housing scheme and finally had a permanent home address, all my own. It was what rescued me, because I really needed to belong to something and nurture it all over again. I was invested enough in a piece of real estate to get utility bills in my name. I was no longer a tenant, I was an owner. It doesn’t change the way I belong to Bombay but it just makes the relationship more complicated.  It was like being married all over again. I bought a tea pot, some nice trays, shower curtains, table mats. I painted my ceilings bright yellow and leaf green. I got fairy wall paper for my son’s room. I was home.  Every square inch of space here is chronicling my life and that of my child’s. Yes, the father is missing from the picture, but there is always someone or something missing, isn’t there? They say art is in the negative space.

May be a home is like a marriage. You have to be invested in it for the long haul for all of it to come together, make sense. There was nothing magical or transformative about the apartment I ended up buying. It didn’t have the magical view of a park like my mother’s house, nor did it have an amaltas tree in full bloom like my house on the hill. It didn’t have sparrows visiting or cosy nooks and alcoves like my mosaic floored apartment. It didn’t smell of the ocean like my hostel room with rice paper lamps. But bit by bit, it came together.

I feel a sense of belonging and rootedness all over again. I didn’t realize real estate could have that effect on me that a person I loved couldn’t. I don’t flinch anymore when asked to fill my permanent home address and it’s not because I own a few hundred square feet. It’s because I finally feel I’m home each time I walk into my apartment and draw open the drapes and find the exact same cookie cutter lives around me. Except the sun and moon have a different story to tell every day.



(This is an excerpt from my book, The Whole Shebang, published by Bloomsbury. To read more such essays, order it here )

This woman business

So I have been busy. And quiet. And not really the best mommy to this blog. Yes, there have been stray book reviews and reblogs and some guest posts, but you know what I mean.

Well, all I can say is I am sorry, but you – loyal reader of this blog have been on my mind. May be I was conserving. May be I felt depleted. May be I wanted to be one less version of me.

Here’s the good news. I have a book out!

I am quite sure the book will not tell you much about ‘How to be a woman’. I don’t know how to write that sort of thing, as I’m still figuring it out. What I do know is that being a woman is a serious amount of admin. I am sure being a human is too, but if you factor in hair management (everywhere, all the time), ovulation management (once a month for most of us), relationship management (all the time, for all of us), parent management (even if you produce half a dozen kids, your parents will still treat you like a child), pregnancy (at least once in a lifetime for some of us), and marriage (hopefully not more than once in a lifetime) – you know what I am talking about.

We are all born with a daughter tag; the rest get added along the way: sister, cousin, friend, girlfriend, wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, ex-wife, boss, subordinate, grandmother, step-mother and whatnot. With every tag comes more admin and more ways of being.

But no matter what you do, the nagging feeling of something left undone is what constitutes being a woman for the most part. Some of us forget to marry, others forget to have kids, a few marry the wrong guy but forget to tell him that, a few walk away but forget to move on; meanwhile our mothers are still figuring out what we do for a living and asking us to comb our hair. And while filing taxes should be on autopilot by now, we still have trouble finding proof of all our investments.

And so there are always checklists crawling beneath our epidermis,  reminding us of things left undone. This obviously does nothing to assuage our inadequacies, and the stakes continue to be raised every single day, no matter what we do or don’t do.

How does one then get ahead?

Even if you may have wrapped your finger around money, savings, ovulation, fashion and a career you truly belong to, things like hair and love still remain beyond your control. Some of you may have figured out man, marriage, baby, career, home, and a botox and tummy tuck plan. This book is for the rest of you who don’t necessarily believe that marriage and babies are the happily ever after for a woman. For those who are still dealing with imperfections and happy to say “I am enough”.

We all yearn for just that right blend of purpose, independence, common sense and madness and even when we get there, we are never sure we are there really. Our sense of self, which is quite delicate, tends to get into an insidious loop of fragility with the slightest aberration in our plan. To make matters worse, your legs are never waxed the day you bump into an ex and perhaps that’s why you are clad in a tent and can’t appear breezy as you intended to.

One would imagine that with one set of parents, siblings, one marriage, one baby, few books and around a dozen jobs and cats behind me, I must be spiffingly together. Not. And this book will not end with how you can get it all together, because in the end, no matter what you do, you really can’t.

What it could probably do for you is remind you that it’s the same shit everywhere. That thousands, millions of women who you look up to, adore, role model on, have been there, done that and are still figuring it out. Same shit, different place.

(Excerpted from The Whole Shebang.To preorder: )