Menstrual Hygiene Day Special with Subhransu Mohapatra: A Classmate’s “Sickness” at Which My Friends Laughed

This blog post is part of a special campaign dedicated to the ‘Men Take Lead’ ride series. The aim is to involve more and more men in the conversations about menstruation. 

There is an incident from my college days that I still remember vividly. It was 1994 and I was in my third year of Mechanical Engineering when I heard my friends talking about one of our women batch mates in Civil Engineering leaving the class midway due to a “sickness”. I was curious and concerned and wanted to know more about it. However, my friends would not talk about it. Only a few people commonly known for talking “vulgar” stuff were talking about it in hushed tones, which seemed to me as being coded language. Some people were also laughing about it. I was flabbergasted. It seemed to me as being something which we should be concerned about, but here are friends who are either silent or laughing. I was clueless.

In those days, women were grossly underrepresented in Engineering. We had only four Engineering colleges in the whole of Odisha, all being government colleges, and only 425 Engineering seats in total. Engineering and Medicine were considered highly exclusive disciplines. Women used to prefer Medicine in far higher numbers than Engineering and we had only five women in our batch of 90 students grouped into Civil, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering branches. The five women were more of an amusement for the men than anything else.

The incident stayed with me for some time and I then forgot about it, until I got married. As I became more conscious of menstruation issues after marriage, I learnt to be aware of its almost hidden and implied “impure” treatment in “cultured” families like ours. It dawned on me that the coded words and imagery being spoken about by the “bad” boys in college, in fact, referred to menstrual blood and the request made by my female classmate to the male teacher to take a leave and go back to the hostel in view of the “sickness”.

While growing up, these issues were never discussed at home and as a “good” boy, I had hardly any idea about it. In fact, when advertisements of women’s sanitary napkins started showing up on television channels, I used to feel a sense of shame looking up to the screen, similar to when other sexually explicit advertisements would come up. I used to think of the moral degradation of the society, how showing such advertisements during family programmes can even be thought of.

I studied Biology as a subject in my intermediate (+2) days, but hardly ever came to know anything about the human reproductive system. All that I studied was about the frogs. All I would discuss with my friends those days would be about studies and all “decent” things. I was not a “bad” boy who would try to learn about intimate things about women. Therefore, I suppose what I knew those days about regular women’s health issues could have been written in a few lines.

However, I knew about the most important festival in Odisha called “Raja Parba” which is celebrated to announce the start of the fertile period of Mother Earth. This used to be the most important festival in rural Odisha. Men living far and wide used to come back to the village for a grand celebration. Men working in such far-off places as Kolkata and Rourkela, who would visit home only once or twice a year, would make sure to visit during this time.

During this three-day grand festival, women would take rest and men would do all the household work, including cooking and tending to the household cattle. We children would be extremely happy to roam around the village, playing on different types of swings and competing with each other on who can swing farthest and for the longest time. Prior to the festival, my paternal grandfather would keep busy preparing swings for days on end to make sure we, his grandchildren, would enjoy to the fullest. We would also crowd around men and women playing cards at different strategic spots in the village.

All I knew about this festival was that we were celebrating the arrival of the monsoons. The festival would be on the Sankranti day of the Hindu “Jyestha” month, which would typically be on June 14th as per the Gregorian calendar.  This is the time when monsoon, after hitting Kerala on the extreme southwestern tip of India around June 1st, would travel up in a northeasterly direction to touch Odisha. Monsoon used to be the most important occurrence for our families, which were dependent on rain-fed agriculture. With the arrival of monsoon, our land (Mother Earth) would become fertile and the seeds sown on the holy Akshaya Tritiya day prior to the arrival of monsoon would start growing, providing us the nourishment for the year ahead.

Much later, when I became aware of menstruation issues, is when I came to know of the more intricate details. The sight and smell of first the monsoon rains symbolise the menstrual blood coming out of Mother Earth for the first time in the year, representing the onset of fertility. Onset of fertility for Mother Earth is a time of celebration, when not only Mother Earth but all women are celebrated for their ability to bring life on Earth. The time off from routine household work is a symbolic celebration of womanhood.

This knowledge brought me joy. But at the same time, knowing that we are celebrating womanhood raised several questions. Why do we celebrate womanhood only once a year but treat this subject with a sense of ‘shame’ on all other days of the year? Isn’t it something natural, which we should treat just as we treat all other milestones in our lives, such as us starting to crawl, stand, walk, run, or talk? Would it be better if the boys know about what the girls and women go through during these days every month? Would it make it better or worse? Would my women batch mates have felt more comfortable in asking for a day off from their male teacher if we would have been more matter-of-fact in our dealings with this? A hundred questions come to my mind. Maybe it is the right we start talking!

Written by Subhransu Mohapatra.

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