A few months ago there was much huffing and puffing on social media over artist and poet Rupi Kaur’s photograph that she took as part of “Period, a project for her visual rhetoric course at the University of Waterloo,” that was taken down by Instagram. The photo showed the artist curled up in bed, fully clothed, menstruating, and a bit of blood had visibly leaked through her pants and onto the bed. Even though her first line “i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility” put things into perspective, I was still pretty uncomfortable with the photos. I am rarely uncomfortable with stuff like this, and I am definitely not uncomfortable talking about the lining of my uterus shedding each month, but somehow could not wrap my brains around the photos. Just like I would rather not see photos of people pooping, I’d rather not have to see photos of women changing their sanitary napkins. That’s just me and in no way being a critique to the artist. And now I can hear my daughter cracking up at the knowledge of her mom having used the word “poop” in her writing.
I’m sure all this period talk already has you squirming in your seat. If this is uncomfortable for you, you have surely not been that girl purchasing sanitary napkin for yourself back home when I was growing up. Let me tell you just how horrific that experience was compared to the above artistic project. And here I shall introduce you to “the little black bag”.
The little black plastic bag was like a scene straight out of a horror movie. It instantaneously gave you a sick feeling in your stomach. You could feel the pain and embarrassment of any girl you encountered on the street carrying such a bag, walking as fast as she possibly could, avoiding any eye contact. Wait, the eye contact part was relevant for most all girls our age when walking the streets. I would walk past a group of boys almost every evening to my neighborhood “paaner dokan” for some fountain Pepsi (remember those?). I never once made eye contact in two whole years. Well, maybe I tried to peek through the streams of Paan Parag and Chutki packets that hung around the little shack like a curtain.
On the same path was our neighborhood pharmacy. Sanitary napkins for some reason were only available at pharmacies, like it was a medical apparatus for a disease of some sort. To make things more interesting, according to the laws of the Indian Pharmaceutical Idiots Association, a ruling was made to store all such napkins on the roof of the shelves which almost touched the ceilings. I have to believe this was done on purpose along with employing only men who were hard of hearing. So imagine my delight when I would have to walk into said pharmacy, invariably at the busiest time (somehow my periods were always in sync with pharmacy rush hour) and whisper (no pun intended) to this man, “can you please pass me a pack of extra long Whisper with Wings?” to which his reply would always be, in his loudest and most annoying voice, “what didi? What do you need?”
With the precision of head turns you only see in Olympic level synchronized swimming, or as a matter of fact in Bollywood dancing, all eyes were immediately on me. I would then become an inch shorter out of embarrassment and use my “avoiding eye contact” skill at its best, raise my voice and ask in a non-whispering tone, “can you PLEASE pass me a pack of whisper with wings.” This time he would hear me loud and clear, but apparently I had created some confusion. I had not given him the color code that went along with the extra-long option. Apparently it was not a required qualification for the job. After the extensive Q&A sessions that always followed, either of the two could have happened. I could have become brand ambassador for Whisper (its wings surely changed my life), or all those who were present at the pharmacy could win a gold medal for their synchronized head turns over and over again.
None of the above happened, because said self-made pharmacist nabbed the gold medal for acrobatics. Remember the placement of the napkins in the store? Well, he brought in the ladder, climbed to the very top, swayed from side to side trying to get the specific brand I had requested, waved it in the air and asked me one final time, louder than ever before, “didi, this is the one you want, right?” and before you know it, flung it in the air to be caught by his accomplice down below. Bravo!
As to the most important question one might have that comes right after “why such placement of the napkins in the store?” is “why could he just not place the ladder where Whisper was stocked?” My dear readers, like it goes for every Bollywood movie, you should not ask such logical questions.
The fun did not end there. Now that the prized possession was in the reach and eyesight of common men, this would be wrapped in layers of old newspapers and tied with a string, the knot of which I was never able to open. And like that was not enough, and also because most Indian men had laser vision to see through women’s clothing as well as the newsprint that covered her shameful possession, the wrapped package was then inserted into a little black plastic bag. A bag like none other, solely produced to hold the apparatus to your terrible “disease”, to destroy laser vision and be so utterly black that people would only reuse it to dispose of the dirtiest of their garbage, had only a single purpose: to let the world know you were a woman, you were dirty and bleeding. Period. (pun intended)
I am often asked if I will ever return to India and in response I always give some socio-political economic crap. Though the part on women’s rights I am very serious about. Let’s just put it this way. The country that gave this woman the little black dress and took away the little black bag, I owe my allegiance to. To top it all, the country that introduced me to tampons, I will swear to bear arms for, in hopes that I one day get to use it against whoever invented the little black bag.