By Shuma Talukdar
Dr. Aparna Singh’s collection of twenty short stories inspired by real events, Periodic Tales, depicts the cultural and societal myths that revolve around menstruation. It also brings into sharp focus women’s experiences during menstruation: how they feel, how their family and society treat them during menstruation. Although menstruation is a sign of growth and progress that makes a woman’s body capable to produce, a sign of fertility, it has strangely come to be associated with impurity, as the author rightly points out in the first story of the anthology, “Her Body”. A woman incapable of reproducing is considered as suffering from a sort of disease or deficiency. Every menstruating woman is considered impure for a week every month until she becomes eternally pure after menopause. The collection makes it amply evident how women’s experiences related to menstruation solely depend on the society she is from, the culture she belongs to, and the people who surround her. Other then dealing with the myths related to menstruation, the book expressly focuses on menstrual hygiene. It tries to raise awareness of the ghastly consequences of fabric use and other outdated alternatives to sanitary napkins. Many a time, sanitary napkins are beyond the means of women. They go for no-cost alternatives, such as old cloth – washing and reusing them. The upshot is infection and fatal diseases.
While menstruation is a reason to celebrate in some cultures, to the rest it is something that one needs to hide. In some cultures, this is a period of complete isolation. Few realise that it is just a stage in the natural biological clock of a women’s life. The author competently covers a wide spectrum of experiences of women from different sections of society – athletes to transgenders to prisoners. The most poignant story in the collection is “Maa” that movingly portrays a mother, highlighting the sacrifices she makes for her family, particularly her children. It is a story that is bound to resonate with every reader. However, with the story titled “I’m free”, the author proves that she is aware and conscious of the exceptions too. In this story a mother, in spite of being a professor, is indifferent to her daughter’s sanitary requirements. This is a story that draws our attention to Indian society’s obsession with the male offspring and the utter neglect that the daughters often suffer from. Mothers in South Asian patriarchal societies are often less concerned for their daughters, obsessed as they are with their sons, as is the case with the protagonist in this this story. Another story in the collection, “Death Wish”, where a father has to take care of his motherless mentally challenged daughter, is heart wrenching. When we talk of menstruation, the focus is usually on the woman’s pain and suffering and not its impact on the people around, but the story’s focus on this distinguishes it. That the pain and suffering of a menstruating woman can deeply affect a man too is something generally beyond our apprehension. “Death Wish” makes us think of menstruation from a man’s perspective as well.
In “Blue Blood”, the author writes about “the alarming gap between the requirement and the access to sanitary pads.” The author further points out that “though the percentage was naturally much higher in the rural sections, the urban belt was also not adequately informed about the health benefits of menstrual protection.” The societal and cultural taboos around openly discussing issues related to menstruation are the root cause of the lack of awareness of menstrual hygiene. This reminds one of the Sabarimala temple case (S. Mahendran v/s The Secretary, Travancore), where women in their ‘menstruating years’, between the ages of 10 to 50, were customarily prohibited from entering the temple. In an article titled “Feminist lawyers to break stereotypes and challenge power structure” that appeared in The Leaflet, senior advocate Indira Jaising recalled how during the hearing of the case “the respondent couldn’t even bring themselves to say the word ‘menstruation’, referring to it as ‘that thing that happens to women’.”
This prohibition on women’s entry into the temple was challenged in the Kerala High Court. The High Court held that the exclusion of women from entering the temple during the menstruation was justified, as it was a long-standing custom of community. The court further said that the practice did not violate women devotees’ “rights to equality and freedom of worship” and that it is constitutional. Challenging the judgement of the Kerala High Court, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court in 2006. In 2019, the Supreme Court with a 3:2 majority held that the prohibition of women at the Sabarimala Temple is unconstitutional: “This case has been a quest for judicial intervention to restrict dogmatic practices in the alleged pursuit of religion.” It is a step toward the development of progressive feminist jurisprudence. This bring us to the story, “Maa and I”. It talks of this dogmatic practice of restricting menstruating women from visiting temples or performing religious rituals.
Overall, the collection adeptly covers how menstruation is experienced by women from different walks of life, from different sections of society, in different parts of India. Perhaps, the author could write more about men’s experience dealing with women’s menstruation, as she has done in one of the stories. Experiences of women in the rest of the world can also be an interesting subject for the author.
It is a collection of well-written stories with tremendous potential for raising awareness of menstruation and sensitizing people towards menstrual hygiene. I would strongly recommend the collection for inclusion in the syllabus of English literature at the secondary level of education in India.
Shuma Talukdar is a corporate lawyer. Please visit https://linktr.ee/ShumaTalukdar to learn more about her. She can be reached at ShumaTalukdar13@gmail.com
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