How low do you go into a turgid pond before you can emerge pure? Every time I stood up, sniffing the water up my nose and gasping for breath, my mother would disapprovingly say, “Pora (Not good enough)”. The deal was this: if I had my periods while at ammath, my mother’s ancestral home in Kerala which we would be visiting during our summer holidays, on the fourth day of my cycle, after three days of strict segregation, I had to take a dip in the family pond before I could be allowed to mingle with the others or resume any routine activity.
But this was no ordinary dip. I had to bunch up my hair and lie under water for a few seconds, making sure no renegade strand of hair emerged above water before I did. And if one did, my mother was there to catch it. “No, your hair didn’t go under. Once more, please,” she would say as I hollered at her for being “so regressive” here when she was perfectly reasonable back home in Bangalore, where we lived then. After several false starts, when I finally took the right dip and angrily walked up the steps, my mother would say, “Ippo shuddham aayi (Now you are pure).
Shuddham or purity was an oppressive tool, a form of vishwasam (faith), a word that gets bandied about a lot these days as Sabarimala roils a state and its people, with faith, notions of purity, and gender rights clashing uneasily.
On our way back from the pond, my mother would explain to her angry second-born why she was being “so strict” — “This is a tharawad (ancestral, joint-family home)…there are certain rules and traditions here. Everybody follows them. You are the only one complaining…we have the Bhagawati (goddess) here… Ammaman (her brother, my uncle) does the puja. I don’t want anything bad to happen to the tharwad or to you. Now that you are nice and shuddham, you can do whatever you want.
“I will never come back here,” I would say through tears and loudly wishing I were at my father’s ancestral home instead, which then seemed the most liberal place — a free country with no rules to play by, and with my muthashi (grandmother) a tireless champion for us girls. “That’s how it is here,” my mother would respond.
To me, faith was just a line to be teased — a hopscotch jump when no one was looking, and I could be on the other side. But to my mother and aunts, the line was sacrosanct, they had grown up playing by the rules and had turned into enforcers of the line.
At my ammath, from the time a woman finds out about her menstrual cycle (theendari, as it is called), she has to confine herself to a room that’s usually set aside for the purpose. I would get a thin mattress (a concession for us visiting Bangalore girls, the aunts and cousins got screw-pine mats), a plate and a glass. From then on, for the next three days, my theendari state would be a public spectacle in the large joint family. Everyone walking past — cousins, uncles, aunts and grandmother — would stick their necks in, see me on my mattress in the corner of the room and proclaim, “Ah, Uma is theendari.
On those dull, long days, I would wait for breakfast, lunch and dinner calls to puncture the monotony. Then, I had to pick my plate and tumbler, walk around the house to the large dining room and sit at the far end, wait for an aunt or my grandmother to serve me. When they did, they made sure the ladle was at a safe distance from my plate, that I didn’t defile it by accidental touch.
The theendari was allowed TV viewing too. But here, too, she had to walk around the house and sit on the floor, not the sofa, bunching her nightie tightly around her to make sure she made no contact with anything around her. If the cousin doing the evening puja had to walk past, he would shield his face to avoid seeing the theendari.
But at the end of those three days and the dip in the pond on the morning of the fourth, the ignominy would all be forgotten. My lines would disappear and somebody else’s would appear. The mattress/mat would be brought out and I would be among the ones to loudly announce, “Oh, ammayi (aunt) is theendari.
I would then go on to make the most of my summer vacations in a place filled with the most amazing set of uncles and aunts and the fondest memories — of lazy afternoons spent sitting on our haunches, eating mangoes and licking the sticky juice all the way up from the elbow, of us cousins turning the pond inside out with all the splashing, of lice-combing sessions. Nothing, it seemed then, could interrupt my dream holidays any more.
Over the years, a lot has changed at my ammath. My mother tells me the rules are a lot less rigid now. The younger generation of women pushes back, asks questions. A grand old aunt recently said, “I know they (the younger lot) touch everything (during their periods), but I don’t say anything…
My uncle, whom I have always known to be a stickler for rituals and tradition, is, as I was to discover much later, one of the most liberal, non-communal persons I know. He is not the angry, wounded Hindu I saw at Sabarimala, or the ones I see on WhatsApp groups, threatening those who question faith with angry Ayyappa slogans and muscle flexing emojis. He still lives life on his terms — his pujas, his spartan lifestyle, his radio — but has over the years recognised change when it has come knocking on the tharwad’s doors. He recently stood his ground and got a “lower-caste” woman to help in the kitchen when it would have been strictly forbidden some years ago.
Maybe that’s tradition then — not the unbending, uncompromising, straight line many now seek to draw, but one that yields to change.
“Things change, don’t they,” my mother said recently. Lines get redrawn all the time, don’t they?