Nishi let the cool breeze of the Kumaons caress her hair. It was her first mountain trip: Papa’s gift for her twelfth birthday. She was excited, because they were going to Patal Bhuvaneshwar today.
Di’bhai had told her all about it – “It’s a huge dark underground cave, where the stones’ natural curvature depict Brahma, Vishnu, Shiv and …” Nishi hadn’t heard the rest, ‘underground cave’ was enough to pique her adrenaline. She suppressed the stomach ache she had been having since morning, lest Maa canceled the tour. But by mid-morning, it got worse: after one visit to the toilet, she rushed to the ladies chatting in their room, howling.
“Maa, I-I don’t know what’s wrong. I-I just bled when I p-peed”, she sobbed, horrified.
Ishika was startled, but she embraced her daughter, beaming. “It’s alright, that must be your menses. It’s a natural part of the female reproductive cycle. Congratulations, little woman.”
She handed her sanitary napkins, explaining the nuances of menstruation, with Di’bhai and Dadi adding their two bits.
“It’s getting late. Why don’t you all get going? I can stay back with Nishi.” Dadi finally said.
Nishi, who had recovered from the initial shock, cleared her throat. ” I feel fine now.”
“Beta, Patal Bhuvaneshwar is an abode to God, you can’t go in there on these days.”
“But why?” Nishi was surprised.
“Because on these days, you become impure, dirty.”
Di’bhai interjected. “What a load of tosh, Dadi! It’s just old tissues from the uterine walls. I don’t see why women should be branded ‘impure’ for this. Nishi, there’s no way you’re missing this trip for some old wives’ tale.”
Dadi was livid. “ Are you insane? You think just because you’ve been to high-school you know more than me! Ask your maa, women shouldn’t enter places of worship during menses. The unholy aura of their impure blood … ”
Di’bhai cut her off with a rude laugh.” Fine, tell me this: Does Goddess Kamakhya become impure during her menses? Why celebrate ‘Rajah’ – mother earth’s impure cycle? Just look at our little innocent Nisha and tell me what about her repels you now? Give me a good reason you dare call her impure.” Inadvertently, Di’bhai’s eyes glowered.
Dadi, unable to reason, whined, “ You shouldn’t question these religious beliefs. Why don’t you say something Bahu?”
Ishika had been lost in her quiet reverie. Flashbacks from her early days of marriage flooded her head: her mother-in-law barring her from entering the kitchen and temples during her periods, making her sleep on a separate bed; Priyansh had never protested, and she had accepted everything meekly. She felt thankful and proud of her elder daughter, who, having spent half her life in a boarding school, had grown up outside these superstitious influences.
She suddenly found her voice. “Right. We’re getting late. Nishi, get ready, or we’re leaving you behind.”
“Damned women!” Dadi stomped out, muttering.
The three fell silent for a moment and then broke into peals of laughter.
Di’bhai : Short for Didi-bhai, an endearment in Bengali for elder sister.
Maa : Mother
Dadi : Paternal grandmother
Rajah : An Odia festival that marks the start of monsoons and Goddess Earth’s menstruation
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