Our stories run parallel courses, break into a mesh of tributaries, gather the spoils of land and air, and unburden their salted tears into the vast and welcoming sea.
I can remember the day like it was yesterday. The men in blue brought laurels to the nation that night by winning the world cup. In the house, everybody was elated. My father and brother revelled in a camaraderie that had swept over the entire country. Cricket was a national obsession, the sport of the masses, and the day was a cause for celebration. Their joy was blind to the troubles that were brewing under the same roof.
On that very night, something else had happened as well. A flower had bloomed on the insides of my underwear. Amma and I were watching the victory celebrations on the television. Distractedly, I left the living room to quickly relieve myself. As I squatted down and shed my underwear, I found myself staring at an earth-brown blush that I had never seen before. I investigated, I implored, I questioned. But the jaded fabric gave me no answers. Four minutes later, I abandoned my efforts, and the old underwear, and found a fresh one for the day.
In the morning, when I woke up to my mother’s call, there was a great commotion around me. Bed-headed and confused, I stretched and looked around. But it seemed that the instructions were many.
Amma made me strip the bed of the bedsheets and blankets, making me dump them in a bucket for a wash. She then instructed me to sleep on a plastic mat that had been laid out on the floor. I plopped myself down on it, rather morosely.
She said, “You’re a big girl now, how exciting!”
I didn’t understand what the commotion was about in the beginning. When she gave me a sanitary pad, explaining how to wear it, I understood that I had got my period. I had gossiped about it, earlier with my friends, and we had imagined that there would be pain, agony, and a lot of embarrassment. I remembered the harmless blush I had found on the night before. I tried to reason with my mother. I must have stained it some other way. She knew how careless I could be!
Amma, this isn’t what you think.
Amma, why is Nanna avoiding me.
Amma, stop telling me what to do.
When I kicked up a fuss about all the chores she was asking me to do, my mother satiated me with a lot of sweets.
“See what your Nanamma has sent for you. She will come from the city soon to meet you. She is so happy that you are a big girl now.”
I couldn’t understand what she could have been happy about. I didn’t feel any different. But I calmed down for a while, appeased by the laddus. In the afternoon, my grandparents arrived from the city.
When she saw me sitting alone on a mat in my room, Nanamma exclaimed, “What a responsible girl. You be good and listen to what your Amma says.”
My grandmother was helping my amma prepare for the pooja. It felt like a festival. The entire family was gathered at home. There was good food and a lot of sweets. But I didn’t feel like I was part of the celebrations because I wasn’t allowed to step out of my room! I was growing impatient for it all to be over very soon.
During lunch, I could see that my family was sitting in the living room and eating lunch together. I expected to be called out as well. Mother came and placed my plate of food in front of me.
“Here, eat your food.”
“I want to eat while watching TV.”
“No, you have to eat here.”
“You can’t understand it now. Just do as I say. Sit properly.”
When I asked for some more sambhar, she dropped the food on the plate, taking care not to touch me or my utensils. I broke down. I couldn’t find words for it then but my own mother had made me feel like everything I touched would turn impure, or dirty. This can’t be true, this I knew. But we were good Hindus and the gods cannot be slighted.
In the village of Char Bramagacha, in North Bangladesh, which is twenty kilometres off the Brahmaputra river, water is a divine being. In a subcontinent where most rivers take female names, the Brahmaputra, the son of Brahma, is a large and powerful exception.
And he cannot be slighted.
Shopna had an imagination that was almost infectious.
One afternoon, Nani told Shopna the story of Brahmaputra. Amogha, the wife of a sage named Santanu, once asked Lord Brahma, the god of creation, for a child. The Lord Brahma then blessed Amogha with a son who took the form of water. Shantanu placed the child right in the middle of the four great mountains — Kailash, Gandhamadana, Jarudhi, and Sambwartakka. He grew into a great lake named Brahmakunda.
Parasurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was exiled for committing the sin of killing his own mother and father. So great was his sin that the axe he used to kill them was stuck to his hand. The great sages told him that he must visit the holy waters to absolve his sin. When he reached Brahmakunda, he found that the rains would flood the villages near the lake as the water had nowhere to go. Parasurama cleaved the banks open to help the villagers. To Parashurama’s great relief, the axe came loose, the water washed the blood away on his axe. The river flowed crimson for many days.
Shopna rushed to her friend Ajana, whose hut was by the river, to tell her stories of thunder and lightning and torrential runs. She enriched the stories with her own imagination. Stories of families who would seek shelter from the agitated heavens.
She said that many nights and days later, when the rain had finally stopped, the air was as crisp as dry chilli, and the whole world was soaked in newness; the villagers undertook a journey to rebuild their homes again. To their surprise, they found that the lake had taken the form of a silver river, dazzling the eye as it disappeared into the sunset.
Shopna and Ajana sat by the river on rocks softened by years of silken friction. They stared quietly at the bend in the river, imagining the gush and roar of that beautiful destruction which birthed the river many centuries ago.
Many moons later, Shopna returned to Ajana to tell her another story about the Brahmaputra, only this one would be truly scary. She planned to describe stretches of the river where monsters overturned boats and swallowed neighbouring lands.
Once Shopna reached Ajana’s hut, she called out,“Ajju!”
She saw the window of the hut being pried open by delicate hands. “Come! Let’s play.”
“I can’t play with you today.”
“Why?” Shopna asked, “We can go to Bishnu’s shop and share his sweets afterwards! Why won’t you play with me now?”
“You will know,” said Ajana and closed the window.
Shopna went back to her home to sulk for the rest of the day. She was not used to being refused the company of her friend. When her Nani called her for lunch, she refused to eat. When her Ma told her to bring water from the well, she refused to do her chores. She barely answered anybody who tried to make her talk. Finally, her Nani sat by her bed and pushed her to tell her beloved grandmother what was bothering her.
“It’s Ajana,” said Shopna. “She won’t talk to me.”
Her Nani patted her. “It’s just for a few days, my lovely Shona. I think I know what it is. Your Ajana has become a woman now. She cannot step out of the house during the time of the gandhagi. You will understand when you become a woman like her.”
“But, Nani, why can’t one come out during the time of the gandhagi?”
“Why, of course, it is because, during the time of the gandhagi, evil spirits can smell blood and possess the woman. So the woman must stay indoors and not touch anybody until such an unfortunate period has passed.”
Shopna cried, “I didn’t know that Ajana was in danger, Nani, I won’t meet her until she is well again. And I pray, I pray so hard, that such a thing won’t befall her ever again.”
Nani comforted her for a few minutes. “My dear Shona, it is nothing to worry, it happens every month to every girl, and, thankfully, our tradition has some practices that we can follow so nobody is hurt by the evil spirits.”
“Every month? Why would this happen every month to my friend, Nani? This is all too unfair,” said Shopna. Unsatisfied with Nani’s gentle explanations, she cried late into the night before falling asleep.
A few days later, Shopna ran into her friend at the village fair. The girls screeched each other’s names and hugged and kissed like long lost sisters.
“My dear Ajju, I missed you so much. I prayed for you every day, you know?”
“Oh! It was dreadful, Shona. I couldn’t wait for it to all be over.”
“Come, tell me everything! Nani told me the most frightful things!”
“Later! You see the first thing about this is… that it is a secret! We will talk about it at the river tonight”
Shopna hugged her friend. “Okay.”
“Ma found out when I was helping her with the cooking. I had only got up for a minute to bring her more water when she saw that there was a stain on my kurti. She grabbed the big pot, and everything else in fact, immediately throwing out the food that we had just made and told me to sit in a corner. She didn’t tell me anything about what was going on, and said, almost discreetly that I can’t go anywhere near the river until the gandhagi passes.”
“Why was that?”
“It is because the water from the river is used by the whole village for cooking, bathing and praying every day. And of course, because the river is our god. We cannot let our impurity spoil the river.”
“So, you did not bathe for these many days?”
“Yes. On the final day, I woke before sunrise, carried a pot of water far into the woods, away from everyone. I buried the spoilt cloth so that no one will be touched by its curse. And then I washed myself.”
“That must have been so scary.”
“It was. But I am all well now so it must have worked!”
“Yes, it did, but how I wish it never happened in the first place, my dear Ajju! Now, look, I have just so many stories to tell you. Do you want to listen?”
Ajana nodded her head vigorously and the two girls talked about other things, things that had nothing to do with their gandhagi experience. Ajana blinked in wonder, as Shopna waved her hands animatedly, each monster more vicious than the last one.
June arrived and brought new adventures for curious, high-spirited young girls. Shopna’s parents were harvesting their summer crops while Ajana’s parents were busy preparing for the harvest festival. The girls seemed to have made peace with the changes that had come with the turning of seasons. Presently, Shopna had climbed a young jamun tree that bent over the river bank. She shook the branch of the tree until the fruits fell onto the ground in greens, pinks and purples. Ajana was collecting the large fleshy fruits in the folds of her skirt. Shopna then plucked and pulled at the fruits in the branches, dropping them into her friend’s lap.
They found a cool spot under a tree to spread out their haul then they sat down to relish the fruits of their effort. They had a lot to chat about since Ajana had been skipping school to help her family through the busy season.
“I won’t be coming back to school this time,” said Ajana
“I overheard my parents talking”
“But why won’t you come back?”
“They say I am too old for school.”
“But I am as old as you.”
“But it’s different. You know that.”
Shopna did understand that Ajana was being different these days. She didn’t climb trees anymore complaining that she wasn’t well enough. She refused to play with her often. She barely came out alone to roam the streets, visit the fairs or explore the markets.
“Can we play after I am back from school though?”
“Yes, we will still play after you are back from school.”
Even after they ate to their heart’s content, there were still so many jamuns left over that the girls were perplexed. They gathered the left-over jamuns in their arms and walked back to Ajana’s hut.
When the girls reached the hut, Ajana’s mom was bending over her little brother, trying to keep him from crying.
Shopna asked, “Will the little one have some jamuns?”
Ajana’s mother laughed, “He is too young for jamuns, beta. Why don’t you store them somewhere and you can eat them later.”
Ajana scrambled around for a plastic box. Once she found an empty one, she led Shopna with a glint in her eyes.
“Let me show you my secret corner”
“What is that?”
Ajana led Shopna to the back of the hut where she had managed to fashion a small alcove by removing a few bricks in the wall. In the winter, they would store the dry grass and sticks there but it was not winter yet so she used it as her own corner to stowe away some of her belongings for her time of the month.
“It’s my secret place where I hide my soiled clothes and rags from my parents.”
“It must be so exciting to have secrets,” Shopna thought. “How clever you are!” she said out loud.
It had been over ten days since she met Ajana. Shopna was visibly agitated and restless.
“Look, Nani, it has been many days since I met Ajana. What has happened to her?”
Nani looked uncharacteristically somber. Usually, she would scold her and tell her not to fret so much but today she seemed quiet.
“Why don’t you answer me? What do you think has happened to her? Has her gandhagi not passed yet? She promised that she would meet me first thing once it is all over”
“Shona, my dear, Ajana is not very well. They have taken her across the river to get her treated.”
“What do you mean, she is not well? What’s wrong?”
“It is the evil which has got her. The dhobi families by the river live in such filth. Not even our rich traditions can protect them for they are cursed! No wonder this has happened… I have always told you to not play with kids from those slums. Listen to me now and stay away from Ajana or else you will fall ill too.”
“But, Nani!” contested Shopna.
“Bas, I will hear no more.”
No part of Shopna’s imagination, by any stretch, could have guessed that the most terrible of stories were the ones which were true.
As I grew older, the period didn’t confuse me so much anymore. My mother had softened her resolve after hearing many complaints. As a working mother, she barely had any time to enforce tradition with an iron fist.
When the family elders came home, or when we visited them, or when it was a festival, the stallion presence of tradition loomed large again. I don’t know when I resolved to keep the revolutions of my body a secret, but I did. Somewhere along the way, I had decided that I would be a carrier of secrets, and not a carrier of impurity. Because, in this life, this corrupted me far less.
You see, a flower had bloomed on the insides of my underwear.
It wasn’t the flower of destruction. No, no, it was the flower of creation. I wouldn’t dare claim that I understand it. Hardly! Why must the blood that runs through the veins of many civilisations die so many deaths at the back of my underwear?
I don’t know much… but I do know that this must be something powerful. And how can something so powerful, even beautiful, ever make me feel weak?
Then, it must be that what is infectious is not impurity, but what is infectious is fear. It is fear of my woman’s body, of its unexplored potency. And, at the centre of that fear, I have died a million deaths.
Much like the blood at the back of my unwitting underwear.
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop piece.
Meghana Yerabati hails from Hyderabad, India. When she is not researching stories that are moving financial markets, she is reading literary pieces that capture the shared human experience across contexts and geographies. She primarily writes prose and poetry that captures the experiences of women in South Asian countries.