Three Marks on the Wall

The stories in My Little Red Book present a range of menstrual restrictions, from orthodox Jewish women’s abstinence from sex to French housewives’ inability to make mayonnaise. Most of these taboos are intriguing because we never hear about them anymore. It is our grandmothers who remember these superstitions; girls my age aren’t aware they exist, never mind take them seriously. Recently, I’ve been working in Udaipur, India, where the situation is quite different. I was stunned by how many old wives’ tales are carried out by my generation. It is a world where men switch the channel if a sanitary napkin ad flashes across the screen, where most of my coworkers have never used a tampon, and where menstruating women never sleep in the same bed as their husbands. From the story Locked in a Room with Dosai, I knew that tradition could be particularly harsh, sometimes exiling women from their own homes. But I didn’t know to what extent these taboos were taken seriously today. To get the real story, I met up with two forward-thinking women whom I felt might share a more modern perspective. Here is Rutchira’s story interlaced with her friend Neha’s sidebar comments. This month’s story is presented in its original dialogue format so that you may enjoy—as I have—two women’s clashing perspectives that give voice on the ongoing debate inside every modern Indian woman.

Rutchira: I went to an all girls’ boarding school. So when I got it, I had known about it for ages. The girls talked about it all the timewhat else do they talk about?and my mother had told me months before it happened because she knew she wouldn’t be there with me when it did. She wanted to make sure that when I got it, I didn’t, as she said, “go run around screaming that I got my this and that.” So I was prepared. But I wasn’t prepared for how heavy my period would be. I complained about it to my friends, and one looked at me like I was an idiot. “Obviously, Rutchi, it’s because you haven’t done your markings,” she said.

There is, apparently, this belief in India that the first time you have it, you should take three drops of your period and smudge them on a wall. If you then smudge them in half, leaving only one and a half dots, then you’ll only have a heavy flow for two and a half days. My mother never told me any of this, but when my friend told me, all the other girls nodded in agreement. All ten of my friends said that their mothers had told them, too.

I tried, with no luck.

I know these traditions don’t make sense today, but with a sense of history you see why they started. They are all for hygienic reasons, really. Like the habit that many women have of rinsing their soiled sanitary napkins before throwing them out—they do that because in the old days it was unclean to reuse your dirty clothes without washing it beforehand. It’s like we still hear our grandmother’s voices in our heads screaming at us to wash it. Or take the tradition that you can’t cut your nails at night. It’s based on the idea that you wouldn’t be able to see the nails all over the ground in the dark, leaving the room dirty. But anyways, my family has only a few of these practices. My mom says it’s best to wash your hair on the third day of your period. Because putting your body in water helps reduce the flow. And wearing dark colors does as well. Ooh also, we can’t touch pickles. And that one is definitely true!

Neha: I don’t believe that!

Rutchira: No, it is! I touched pickles twice and my nanny spanked me because I spoiled them.

Neha: That’s insane.

Rutchira: No! I walked by them and then they went bad.

Neha: That’s just a coincidence. Ask any gynecologist about it.

Rutchira: Screw the gynecologist; I know it’s true! There is no way both jars went bad just like that. Just try washing your hair, okay? And then you get back to me.

Neha: Nobody gave me any of these pearls to help me with my period.

Rutchira: Personally, I don’t like going into temples or touching gods, but it’s part of me. It’s like why we don’t eat cow. I eat chicken, I eat pighell, I’ve tried octopus. It’s not that beef doesn’t taste good, but it’s part of our mindset, it’s our beliefs. I like these traditions, even if they don’t make sense.

Neha: Okay, that’s true. It’s been scientifically proven that every part of the cow is good for you. Even the urine. My grandfather drinks it. But besides that I don’t know what you are talking about.

Rutchira and Neha are both recent college graduates living in India. Neither of them have any plans to try cow urine.

5 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Pritha

    The taboo against going into a temple or offering aarti (special prayers) to any deity while you’re having your period is still extremely widespread in India. I remember my friends from school being horrified at the very thought, and my own grandmother stopping me from going inside a temple when I was ‘unclean’. Apparently, a menstruating woman is a threat to Hinduism. Perhaps it’s the realisation that if she’s menstruating, she’s not doing her duty as a good Indian woman by being pregnant and producing kids.

    I am only half-joking here. Ancient taboos and restrictions run deep within our society even now–scratch the surface of modernity and you get medieval traditions flourishing, especially if you throw religion into the mix.

    Oh yes, you should not cook for the family when it’s your time of the month. Or touch pickles. Or tend to sick people. The list is (almost) endless.

    And I will confess here that I still do not know how to use tampons. Perhaps because I’ve been warned all my life against “inserting” foreign bodies in my privates (unless society sanctions it!!). Using sanitary napkins is just a life-long habit (helped along by the fact that it’s not easy to buy tampons in most Indian cities–I’ve hardly ever encountered drugstores that stock ’em), but it occurs to me now that it’s high time I stopped listening unconsciously to voices in my head and actually gave tampons a try.

    February 24th, 2009

  2. Lacie

    Do you think that if men did not consider women unclean during their menses that all of these self-punishing beliefs would ever have evolved among women…?

    February 25th, 2009

  3. Tara

    I think it’s fascinating and I mean that in the literal sense. Hearing of traditions being passed down from generation to generation from different parts of the world is really amazing. I didn’t realise that in India, these beliefs are still going strong.

    I live in Ireland and we’re generally really open about these things. We don’t broadcast it to everyone of course but I have no qualms talking about it with my friends and mother.

    June 30th, 2009

  4. Ximena

    wow i really didnt know tht!
    man i feel bad for them!!

    July 1st, 2009

  5. Sarah

    I think that this story IS very fascinating, but I don’t really believe that you shouldn’t cook or touch pickles, or tend to sick people while you are menstruating! That is just mumbo jumbo to me!

    August 5th, 2009