– BY SONIA CHATTERJEE –
‘All I could do was rotate my skirt so the blood was in the front. I walked to the gate with my school bag dangling in front of it in an awkward way, in an attempt to hide the stains.’ Following the worldwide release of the movie PadMan, Indian blogger Sonia Chatterjee shares her personal journey about menstruation and cramps.
An ode to menstruation, cramps, sanitary pads and the modern age PadMan
A few weeks ago, the much awaited movie PadMan was released all over the world. Starring the dependable Akshay Kumar, multi-talented Radhika Apte and fashion queen Sonam Kapoor, this was the maiden venture of MrsFunnybones production run by author and actress Twinkle Khanna. Based on the real life story of menstrual man Arunachalam Muruganantham, the movie talks about his journey of becoming a social entrepreneur by manufacturing machines to generate low-cost sanitary napkins and motivating women to become financially independent. All this started because he wanted to make his wife’s life easier during those days of bleeding.
What makes this movie interesting, is that it’s one of the rare films to openly talk about topics that are still hushed. Yes, women bleed every month. Quite a lot of them suffer from severe cramps and indeed, they use sanitary napkins or even menstrual cups these days to keep themselves dry and comfortable. So why do we need to pretend like it doesn’t happen? Or worse still, that it’s a matter of shame?!
‘I was told I was grown up and could produce babies now’
I must have been twelve years old when I got my first period. My second term exams were going on at that moment. It had already been a difficult year for me with my mother far away in a hospital in a different city for almost four months. She had to undergo surgery and couldn’t be moved until her injuries had healed completely. Due to impending exams, I wasn’t allowed to leave my home town to visit her. It was just Dad and me at home. Nobody had prepared me for the upcoming hormonal change. My mother didn’t get the time to talk to me about this while the school syllabus didn’t feel the need for any education related to adolescent body changes.
When I got up to submit my paper, I felt sticky. Thinking it must be sweat, I walked out of the classroom only to be pulled aside by two helpful seniors. They guarded me front and back to take me to the girls’ compound, lest any of the boys get to see me in that state. I was told that I had just grown up at that moment, because I had started bleeding from my vagina, and could produce babies now. Even ‘vagina’ was a fairly new term then and who talks about babies to a twelve-year-old, really?! They didn’t have any sanitary pads with them (I wouldn’t even have known how to use one), so all they could do was rotate the skirt with the stained portion in the front now. They made me walk until the gate with my school bag dangling in front in an awkward way, in an attempt to hide the stains.
‘I was sure I had contracted some critical disease and would die soon’
Reaching home, I was sure that I had contracted some critical disease and would die soon. Always being a little more attached to my father, I cried my heart out to him. He was perplexed. It was my mom’s responsibility to guide me in such a tender situation, but she was miles away. So my professor father patiently sat me down and explained to me what menstruation was all about. And how to use a sanitary pad. In that moment, he had taught me the real meaning of what it meant to break gender stereotypes. And he told me the biggest truth about periods: that it’s just a body cycle. One that I should never be embarrassed about.
‘Some days the pain was so bad I couldn’t even get out of bed’
But what I wasn’t prepared for, were the cramps. Next month, the first day saw me making umpteen trips to the washroom, vomiting at intervals and screaming with pain. No pain-killer could help. The second day was equally bad. Suffering month after month, we visited the gynaecologist to see if there were any complications. I was educated on the large percentage of women suffering from menstrual cramps also known as dysmenorrhea. The gynaecologist said it would get better with marriage, and definitely after having kids. I was too young to comprehend that ‘marriage’ meant ‘sex’ here. My cramps got worse with time. Every month, I’d miss school for two days. I grew insanely jealous of my friends with painless periods. The cycle went on until college and then afterwards in the office. Since it was crazy to even inform people of the real reason for skipping classes, I had instead become an expert in creative excuses.
There were days when the pain was so bad, I couldn’t even get out of bed. Even though there’d be an urgent meeting, or a deadline for submission. I had to call up my boss (not surprisingly, most of my bosses have been of the opposite gender) and inform him that I had a viral infection, or a migraine. You don’t talk about bleeding. ‘Menstruation isn’t even a problem,’ is what one of the organisation’s Vice Presidents told me when I had requested a half day leave due to severe cramps. As The Guardian states: ‘Up to 20% of women suffer from cramping severe enough to interfere with daily activities – and many grimace through it without ever speaking up.’
‘It was as if menstruation was a crime’
While living with my parents, it was mostly Mom and occasionally Dad who purchased sanitary napkins for us. Whisper was still not a big name. Those were the carefree days. The ads on the television related to pads were hilarious. They took the words ‘blue blooded’ quite literally. It was as if menstruation was a crime, something to be ashamed of, and women were deemed untouchable during their period. Buying sanitary napkins was an equally scary process. When I moved out of home for higher studies, I had to venture out on my own to buy sanitary napkins for the first time. Having grown up in a family where I was conditioned to believe that monthly bleeding is nothing but the normal functioning of the body, I confidently walked to the closest medical shop. There I asked for Whisper, with detailed specifications like pad size and wings.
People around me in the shop were either amused or shocked. The female customers generally glared at me and the shopkeeper would either pretend not to hear or rush like a mad man to put the pack in a brown cover and then cover it with a black plastic packet. The layering gave me a feeling of purchasing something forbidden. Most of my hostel mates would be too embarrassed to buy pads on their own. By then, I had earned the reputation of being the fearless one. Taking advantage of the situation, I agreed to buy pads on their behalf in exchange for a free chocolate or an ice cream.
‘First Day of Period Leave’: regressive or progressive?
A few days back, I read about the company Culture Machine which has come up with the concept ‘First Day of Period Leave’. This means employees have the option to take leave on the first day of their period without any questions asked. There were people pro and against this move. Some felt it was regressive to even consider menstruation as some sort of sickness while some felt a move like this was against gender equality. But a lot of support came from working women who haven been sufferers themselves – they considered this to be a bold and progressive move. As someone who has cringed in pain through eight years of severe cramps in various organisations, I can only hope that a lot of companies follow suit and acknowledge the fact that a majority of women indeed suffer from dysmenorrhea.
‘Muruganantham’s story is one of a super hero!’
If this is how scary and regressive the situation is in urban India, I shudder to think of the female folk in the rural part of the country. There are still many women who use discarded clothes during their periods. Even worse, there are women who use leaves and cement bags. Chances of an infection are quite high in these cases. The steep pricing of sanitary napkins and the add-on taxes make them unaffordable for quite a lot of women. This is where Muruganantham’s invention is important and relevant, and his story that of a super hero. Not only does he speak about menstruation, normalising a topic which is otherwise considered as a taboo topic, he has also achieved the unthinkable: making low-cost affordable sanitary napkins a reality while empowering women to be financially independent through owning the machine.
And when stars with widespread reach, like Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna, come together to deliver this social message through the medium of movies, there’s hope for change. And thus, for a better life for women. I hope someday very soon we can start talking about menstruation, cramps and pads with the same nonchalance that we display while discussing travel, movies and good-looking men. May the likes of companies like Culture Machine, men like Muruganantham, and movies like PadMan shine on creating a better future!
About the author: Sonia Chatterjee is an ex-banker turned blogger. Living in Kolkata (India), she’s passionate about writing and lets out pent-up emotions through words, hoping to resonate with the emotions of her readers in the journey. She’s crazy about books, food, travel and her ubercute son – in no particular order though. Follow Sonia on Twitter.
More personal stories?
A very public menstrual leak, by Sarah Sahagian
The crimson wrath, by Noni Roberts
Dear Period, by Yayeri van Baarsen
Me & My Cycle, by Mariette Reineke
Period changes and chemotherapy, by Cruz Santana
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