“The Sanitary Man from a Sacred Land” was a fictional short story written by Twinkle Khanna based on Arunachalam Muruganantham who developed low-cost sanitary napkins for women in rural India. Last week the movie released with superstar Akshay Kumar playing reel life Arunachalam Muruganatham in the movie and we took our sons along to watch the movie. Most of our friends commented that the boys wouldn’t have understood the movie and I partially agree with them. It may be true that the boys would not have understood the movie now but hopefully, something would have registered. Something, which when the time comes would help them in understanding and empathizing with someone else. If nothing else, they might have understood the value of social entrepreneurship where the community rather than the individual benefits.
The movie is a trailblazer for the simple reason that it has put menstrual hygiene on the big screen, something which is extremely private and in most households something to be ashamed of. The movie brings to the forefront the hypocrisy of our society where on one hand the onset of menstruation is seen as a blessing to be celebrated and on the other hand, the same “periods” can mark you to be unclean causing you to be segregated. It shows how money can be spent for offerings in temples without batting an eyelid but thinking twice about buying a product which is essential for hygiene. How people can jump on the bandwagon when you are famous but ostracise you when you try and develop something which is out of bounds in the societal norms.
This post is however not a review of the movie, brilliant though it is. This post is about trying to break the taboos.
I had my first period in the summer vacation of grade six. My mother taught me how to use/dispose of the pad, the medicine I could take for cramps etc. She, however, ended the conversation with “don’t let your father come to know when you have periods”. Now, to date, I am not sure why she said that; maybe to spare me or my father the embarrassment. The sentence, however, did put in my mind the thought that this was something which was supposed to be hidden and not to be revealed. Studying in a convent school (with the pure white uniform!) you became used to someone (or you) having an accident if you weren’t prepared, or gritting your teeth through cramps and trying to pay attention in class. Moving to a co-ed school brought more challenges as now you had no gang of girls to help you cover up. Slowly through college and subsequent move to Bangalore made me more comfortable in my own skin and periods became routine five days in a month when you got more tired than usual.However, apart from an instruction not to let my father know, I had never been stopped from doing anything or restrictions put on me during periods.
I was rudely awakened when visiting someone, I saw the daughter-in-law of the house sitting on a blanket on the floor at the back of the room. I was horrified to learn that the only reason why she was sitting there was that she was “down”. She had to spend the five days of her period sleeping/sitting on the floor, segregated from all. She and her husband were both educated from a middle-income family but they rigidly adhered to their archaic rituals. Slowly I became more aware of the conundrums about periods. On one hand, the onset of periods is marked by rituals and merriment and on the other, a lady having periods is not supposed to pray as she is deemed to be “unclean”. Periods, which can technically be seen as nature’s way to prepare the body for future children, can cause the lady having them to be ostracized and segregated from family. Periods are still referred to as the “ladies problem” even though it affects the health and hygiene of almost half the population.There is this whole aura of shame, uncleanliness, and ignorance around periods which infuriates me and makes me despondent. Even in this day and age, we keep following the rituals which have no scientific basis whatsoever. I am not advocating to shout from the rooftops when you have periods, however, to cloak it in shame is also wrong. There is no need to wrap the packet of the napkins in the newspaper and then cover it with black plastic before handing it over to the customer ( anyway the black polythene bag is a dead giveaway!)
The children need to be taught (and not some whispered instructions) about healthy menstrual practices. There needs to be more awareness in schools, not only marketing gimmicks by Unilever and P&G but honest discussions, where different options are told and discussed with the girls. The Victorian prudishness of keeping everything under wraps needs a re-think.Even the boys need to be aware so that when they grow up, the women in their lives are safe and happy. That the government should reduce Tax on Sanitary Napkins goes without saying. In short, the taboos surrounding periods need to be demolished one by one.
The other day at the supermarket I saw a middle-aged man buying sanitary napkins, no lady in sight with him. I realized this is the society we must aspire to build, one which recognizes and accepts that buying a sanitary napkin is as mundane and as important as buying a tooth-paste.