When Neelam started her period, she thought she was dying like her mother

The subject of periods and menstruation is even more taboo for India's girls than defecation - many have no idea what is happening when the bleeding starts.

Neelam is 14 years old. She has a narrow, pretty face. Her hair is long and black. Her uniform has been torn and repaired. Unusually for an Indian schoolgirl – at least the ones I have met – she has bare legs. Neelam goes to school in a place a dozen kilometres outside Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh, India. I have met hundreds of schoolchildren over the years. I have attended dozens of sanitation-related training sessions in dozens of schools. I have heard dozens of hygiene-related songs that children have learned by heart and sing charmingly. I don't remember many names or individual faces. But Neelam will stay in my mind for a long time and this is why.

I have been thinking, researching, writing and talking about sanitation since 2006. Six years of shit, toilets, sewage, faeces, excrement, poop, squits, loosies, diarrhoea. I have loved it and it is a privilege, and with 2.5 billion people still without a toilet, I will keep doing it and highlighting it for as long as I am useful. Two weeks ago, I joined the Great Wash Yatra, a sanitation and hygiene themed carnival that will travel for 2,000km across rural India, from Maharashtra to Bihar, hoping to engage people about the deadliness of diarrhoea and the importance of handwashing with fun and games. I knew India’s doleful sanitation statistics already: of a population of over a billion, nearly 700 million still have no toilet, and defecate on roadsides, in bushes, wherever they can.

But until coming on the Great Wash Yatra, I had not thought hard about an aspect of sanitation that is even more taboo than talking shit: Periods. Blood. Chumming, as they say in urban India. Even so I am an expert in it; every woman is. Every woman whether in a developing or developed country, whether there is "Always" available or always no decent sanitary protection (pad, towel, or cloth) available, has stories about their menstruation. Mine: a girl sitting down under a tree at school when we were 13 or so, and her skirt rode up and the rest of us whispering “she’s started”. Another, earlier memory: a teacher at my boarding school when I was nine telling us about periods but calling them “the visitors”. A friend’s 12-year-old daughter, having her second ever period, who didn't know that she should change her sanitary pad, and who had blood-soaked socks by the end of the day. I am guessing that every woman has thought hard about wearing white trousers during their period; that every one has at least one humiliating experience of leaking through her pants, maybe onto upholstery. I have (it was in an Indian restaurant in Paris, 10 years ago, and it still profoundly embarrasses me). I have ingested probably tons of painkillers over the years; used hot-water bottles for cramps thousands of times; had to avoid high bridges during the couple of days every month when my hormones turn against me, viciously, and oblivion seems a relief from the inexplicable anger, depression that is overwhelming.

But even so, even when I was 13, I knew what periods were. I knew what to expect.

At a school near the Yatra carnival site, about 60 of Neelam’s classmates gathered in a classroom. They sat neatly on the floor, some of them on scraps of hessian bags. Unusually, they wore a mixture of uniforms. The regular school uniform was a red kurta (long tunic), white trousers, and a white dupatta (scarf). But other girls were in their own clothes, others in blue and checked outfits. They were quiet and attentive. I think they are used to outsiders coming and telling them things they are supposed to do. Wash hands. Don’t toilet outside. Be cleaner, healthier, better.

In this case, the visitor cames from the menstrual hygiene team attached to the Great Wash Yatra. They run the MHM (Menstrual Hygiene Management) lab, set up by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), where girls and women can come – no men allowed – and talk about periods, and be surveyed, and get a cloth sanitary towel kit with instructions on how to make hygienic sanitary towels from the Indian NGO. It is needed. WSSCC's facts about menstrual hygiene in India are saddening and shocking.

For instance:

Only 12 per cent of young girls and women have access to and use sanitary napkins 200 million have a poor understanding of menstrual hygiene and linked health care 23 per cent of India’s girls drop out of school after reaching puberty.

I’ll rephrase that: a quarter of the class at Neelam’s school will drop out because they don’t have a private place to change their sanitary cloths, and they will never go back.

Urmila, from the MHM team, was leading the visit. It was in Hindi and I didn’t have an interpreter, so I just noted the English words that were used in and amongst:

"Gift from god"

"Body parts"

"Underkit"

"Operation"

"Bedsheet"

"Cotton"

Urmila drew a picture on the board first. Then, as she explained afterwards, she told them that menstruation was normal. It was not dirty. It was not taboo. It was not sinful. It was a part of being a woman and it was a gift from god. She asked a skinny little girl to stand up, and stood next to her to show how a woman’s body changes: the hip flaring, the breasts, the size and shape. The morphology of women. Periods are part of life.

This may be obvious to you and me. Neelam showed me why it was not obvious to her. Afterwards, Urmila and another menstrual hygiene trainer carried out an MHM survey. They methodically went through a questionnaire in a classroom, one schoolgirl after another sitting in front answering questions like: do you drop out of school when you have your period? (Yes.) What do you use when you bleed? (old cloth, sand wrapped in cloth, old saris, dirty rags). What do you do with the cloth when you have used it? (Throw it into a field and hope no one sees.) Are you restricted in any way? (Yes.) Restricted in what way? When the Indian NGO gathered a list of what menstruating women and girls are not supposed to do, it read:

See birds.

Sit on the threshold.

Go near a newborn baby.

Touch stored food.

See men before bathing.

Touch plants.

Keep flowers.

Go to the temple.

Go out at noon.

Let lizards eat leftover blood tissues.

Serve food.

Talk with boys.

The girls were shy. I don’t know if they were telling the whole truth, because only one admitted to not having a toilet, which seems improbable in deeply rural Uttar Pradesh. Then Neelam came in. I was sitting next to Urmila but saying nothing. The other girls had not looked at me or acknowledged me. But as Neelam answered Urmila’s questions, she kept looking over at me. She included me visually in the conversation. And she talked more. She was expansive, articulate. She was expressive with her hands, and so graceful. Halfway through the survey, she looked at me again and said to Urmila that she wanted to know who I was, and where I came from. In the unequal setting of visiting outsider and survey subject, this frank curiosity and presumption of equality is striking. But Neelam was confident and charming. I sat up then and listened harder and she told her story. She was clearly poor from her patched clothing. Her story was horrific. Her story is not uncommon.  

Neelam’s mother died when she was five. Her father is an agricultural labourer. He never remarried. Neelam’s elder sister tried to take over the role of the mother of the household, but it was hard, “when she was trying to cook but still crying with us.” Neelam described her mother’s cause of death as “something rotten in the breast,” so probably breast cancer. She had no close aunties or female relatives.

This August, she got stomach pains. She had eaten some street food, so she thought the pains were due to that. Nothing unusual. But the pains continued in her abdomen, for hours and hours. Finally she went to the bathroom, and there she saw blood. And she was terrified. She was truly scared, because she knew what it was. It meant that she had what her mother had, and it meant that she was dying. Really. She had reached the age of 14 without knowing that one day she would bleed and it would be normal. So there she was in the bathroom, crying with fright, enough for her sister-in-law to hear. Neelam’s brother had married recently and young: his new bride was only 19, and Neelam didn't much get on with her, because she didn't think her brother should have married so young. There was some frostiness between them. But of all the family, it was this new sister-in-law who came to the door of the bathroom and said, "What’s wrong? What is this noise?" And Neelam told her she was bleeding, and that she was dying. And her sister-in-law said, "No. You are normal. This is what happens to women. Don’t worry." Neelam’s hands were so expressive at this point, because she was saying this: "I thought I was dying like my mother, but because of that now I realise I have a mother again."

Neelam's experience is not special: when I met a group of 12-year-olds this morning at another school, not one had been told what to expect. Every single one thought they were horribly injured or worse when the blood came. Every single one thought it was entirely normal to be told that if they touched pickles while they had their period, the pickles would go rotten. Their mothers hadn’t talked to them because their mothers had not talked to them, because this normal healthy blood is unspeakable. The MHM team has heard of women who get infections from using cloth that is not properly dried, or dirty. Some end up having their uterus removed. But having met this lively, lovely girl, I bet Neelam talks to her daughters about it, so they know what to expect, so their periods are not terror and taboo, so they touch the pickles without fear.

Rose George is a journalist and writer. She tweets @rosegeorge3

Neelam, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Madhya Pradesh, India.
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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain