One day, as I returned from school and began taking my uniform off, I saw that my white salwar had turned red with blood. How? Had I cut myself? But how could I have done that? I wasn’t in pain or anything. So what was wrong with me? In a panic, I asked how I could be bleeding so much? Was I going to die?
Ma was in our kitchen garden, collecting cauliflower. I ran to her, buried my face in her lap, and wailed loudly. “Ma, Ma, there’s a deep cut somewhere. Look,” I pointed below my abdomen, “I’m bleeding!”
Ma stroked my head. “Don’t cry,” she said, wiping my streaming cheeks with a hand and saying, “Get some cotton and Dettol, quickly!”
Ma smiled. “There’s nothing to cry about, I promise. You’ll be all right.”
There was blood spurting out of my body, and yet Ma didn’t seem worried at all. She went back inside with a couple of cauliflower in her hand. For the first time, she made no attempt to grab the bottle of Dettol and dress my wound. On the contrary, she calmly shook the dirt off the cauliflower and said, with a slight smile, “You’re a big girl now. Big girls get this.”
“Get this? What do you mean? Get what?” I asked, looking with considerable disgust at the smile that was still hovering on Ma’s lips.
“All this bleeding. It’s called menstruation. We call it hayez. It happens every month to all grown-up women, even me,” Ma continued to smile.
“And Yasmin as well?” I asked anxiously.
“No, not yet. But it’ll start when she is grown up like you.”
So I grew up one evening, all of a sudden, just like that. Ma said to me, “Remember, you are not a little girl any more. You cannot play or go outside as you used to. You must remain in the house, as all grown women do. And don’t prance around everywhere, learn to sit quietly, don’t go near the men.”
Then she tore off a few strips from an old saree, folded them and passed them to me, together with a cord normally used to hold a salwar in place. When she spoke, she sounded serious. The smile had gone. “Tie this cord tightly round your stomach. Then put these pieces of cloth between your legs, make sure the ends are held in place by the cord. After that, just sit quietly. You’ll bleed for three days, or maybe four or five. Don’t be afraid. It happens to all girls, and it’s perfectly natural. When this pad gets wet, wash it and wear another. But make sure no one sees anything. It’s all quite embarrassing, so you mustn’t speak about it.”
This frightened me all the more. Not only was I going to bleed, but was going to happen every month? Why didn’t it happen to men? Why were only women chosen for this? Why did it have to be me? Was nature as unfair as Allah?
All at once I felt as if I had grown up like Ma and my aunts, that I could no longer sit around and play with my dolls. Now I would have to wear a saree like the adults, cook like them, walk slowly, speak softly. I was an adult myself. It was as if someone had physically pushed me off the playing field, off the squares I had drawn to play hopscotch. I had become a totally different person—not just different, but horrific. In no time at all, what little freedom I enjoyed vanished, like cotton-fluff before a strong wind. Was it a nightmare! Or was it all true, what had happened, what Ma had said! Couldn’t this be just a bad dream! Why couldn’t I just wake up and find that nothing had changed, that all was as before! I wished with all my heart for the whole thing to be no more than an accident, sudden bleeding from some secret injury within my body. This was the first time it had happened, and it would be the last. Please, please, let me be able to return those pieces of cloth to Ma and tell her I’m all right. The nightmare is over.
I banged my head on the wall of the bathroom, but felt no pain. My body had become only a carrier—I carried a bleeding heart within it. Little pebbles of anguish gathered in my heart and grew into a mountain. The torn pieces of cloth were still held in my hands. I was holding my destiny in my hands—a destiny that was mean, unjust, and unfair.
Ma knocked on the door and spoke softly, “Why are you taking so long? What’s wrong? Come on, do as I told you, and come out quickly.”
Why couldn’t Ma at least leave me alone to cry to my heart’s content? Cry with my face covered in my hands, shrinking with pain and fear! I was furious with Ma and everyone else in the house, as if they had all conspired against me. Only I would smell foul. If anyone was heading for disaster, it was I. How was I going to keep this obnoxious event a secret from everyone? How could I walk in front of everybody, knowing that under my salwar was a pad made of torn cloth, drenched with blood? What if people guessed? I hated myself. I spat on myself in revulsion. I was now like a clown in a circus. I was different from everyone else. I was ugly and rotten. Inside my body lay hidden a serious sickness. There was no cure for it.
Was this what growing up amounted to? I noticed that nothing I had thought or felt before had changed. I still enjoyed running across the field to play gollachhut, but Ma’s instructions in this matter were quite clear: “You mustn’t jump or run. You’re not a child any more.” If she found me standing in the field, she snapped, “Come inside at once. I can see men staring at you from their roofs.”
“So what? How does it matter if someone looks at me?” I protested faintly.
“You have grown up. That’s what matters.”
Why was that a problem? I never got a clear-cut answer from Ma. Men from outside my family were quickly banned from my life. Ma got completely absorbed in the business of keeping me out of sight. If any of her brothers came over, accompanied by their friends, Ma pushed me out of the living room. I was slowly becoming both invisible and untouchable.
One day, while looking for a bunch of keys, I happened to touch the Quran. Ma saw this and came running. “Never touch the Quran with an impure body.”
“Impure body? What do you mean?” I asked bitterly.
“You are impure while you are having menstruation. When that happens you are not to touch the book of Allah, or pray namaz.”
I had heard Ma call a dog “unholy” and “impure.” So even women could be that some times? The act of washing one’s hands and feet before praying namaz was supposed to cleanse one of all impurities. Anyone could to it, except women who were menstruating. I felt as if I had been thrown into a pool of stinking, stagnant water. From top to toe, I was immersed in filth. It made me feel vomit. I started hating myself. Every time I had to wash my blood-stained pads, I wanted to throw up. It would have been better if a jinn had possessed me, I thought. But I had to stow my revulsion and pain into a dark recess of my mind, bury it under ground in a secret spot where no one ever set foot.
I feared of standing, feared of walking. At any moment my pad could drop on the floor, and people would right away realize what was going on. I feared that the floor would be flooded with my foul blood. I feared of having listened the laugh of the people. This was my body, my body was insulting me. I shrinked with enormous fear.
Nor was this the end. Something else was causing me further embarrassment. I could no longer take my dress off, even if it was boiling hot in the afternoon. My breasts were growing bigger in size, Sad and depressed, all I could do was lie in my bed.
Three days later, exhausted and devastated by constant bleeding, I was found by Baba as I lay in bed, still as a corpse. He came charging in like a wild buffalo. “What is this? Why are you in bed at this time? Get up, start working. At your desk. Now.”
I pulled myself to my feet and dragged my poor body to my desk. Baba shouted again, “Why are you moving so slowly? Don’t you eat enough? Where’s your strength gone?”
Ma reappeared once more, my savior. She called Baba out and took him to the next room to explain. A few sounds pierced the wall and came through—faint whispers, I couldn’t make out the words. An invisible fire tied to every single word. It burned my ears. The letters in the open book became blurred. Slowly, that fire began to devour my books, my pens, pencils, notebooks, every object on my desk. A wave of heat rose from it and hit my face.
Baba got out from the other room and quietly came back to where I was sitting. I could feel him place something on my shoulder—was it his hand, or his whip? He said, “If you want to rest for a while, do. You can do your lessons later. Go, back to bed. The body needs rest, too. But that doesn’t mean that you should be lazy and sleep all day! You have a lazy brother, don’t you? Noman. He’s never done well because he’s so idle. He is studying psychology! What a subject! Only madman can choose this kind of subject. I have no hopes left.”
Baba pulled me from my chair and put me on the bed. Then he stroked my hair and said, “I have only two children left now, Yasmin and you. You know that, don’t you? You are my only hope, you are all I live for. If I can bring you up properly, see you well settled in life, I will find peace. If you cause me pain and disappointment, I will have no choice but to kill myself. All right, if you are tired, take a few minutes off. Then, when you feel rested, go back to your studies. I have never spared any expense in giving you good food and every comfort. Why? So that you are free to spend all your time on your studies. You are a student. Your only mission should be the earning of knowledge. Then it will be time to work, to earn a living. And, after that, time for retirement. Every phase in your life is run by a set of rules, and there is a particular time for every phase. Do you see?”
Baba’s hard, dry fingers pushed my hair away from my face, tucking it behind my ears. I had noticed him do this before. His idea of caressing me was to remove every strand of hair from my face. He wore his own hair firmly brushed back. He couldn’t bear to see loose strands falling over anyone’s face. Oh! How rough his hand was! I couldn’t believe it. His rough, coarse fingers ran all over my back. It was far from a gentle stroke. I felt as if Baba was removing all the dead skin from my back with a pumice stone!
I simply couldn’t bring myself to accept the situation. Why should I leave my games and sit at home with a long face, just because I had started to menstruate? How I had longed to grow up, grow so tall that I’d be able to reach the bolt on top of the door! I could reach that bolt if I stood on tiptoe, but this business of bleeding put an end to my childhood so quickly and placed such a high barrier between me and the world that it frightened me. When I turned eleven, Ma had made me long salwars that replaced my shorts forever. A year later, after my twelfth birthday, she had said I would have to wear a urna because my legs were now longer and my breasts were getting bigger. If I didn’t hide these behind a urna, people would call me shameless and brazen. No one in our society liked shameless girls. Those who are shy, who behaved modesty found good husbands. Ma hoped fervently that I would succeed in making a good marriage. Mamata, the bookworm in my class, had been married off some time ago. I asked her, “Do you know the man you’re marrying?” Mamata had shaken her head. No, she had never met him. The groom arrived on an elephant. The whole town watched his arrival. He had demanded—and received—an enormous dowry, consisting of 70 grams of gold, 30,000 takas in cash, a radio, and a wristwatch. After the wedding, Mamata, too, rode on the elephant to her new home. From that moment, she would spend her life looking after everyone in her husband’s family. Her studies had come to an end. That man who went about riding an elephant would make sure Mamata’s passion for reading novels was destroyed.
I had hardly come to terms with the idea, and inconvenience, of menstruation, when a supposedly important man in our village turned up one day with a large fish and told Baba that he wanted to see his son married to Baba’s elder daughter. Baba heard these words, returned the fish and promptly pointed at the front gate. He wished to hear not another word, he said. Would the man just leave?
Ma was quite put out by this. “What did you do that for?” she complained. “Don’t you want to get our girls married? Nasreen has grown up. This is the right time for marriage, I think.”
Baba stopped her at once. “I know when my daughter should, or should not, be married. You don’t have to poke your nose into this, all right? She is studying now. One day, she will be a doctor. Not just an M.B.B.S. like me—she’ll be an F.R.C.S. I wish to hear no more about her marriage. Is that clear?”
I pricked my ears and heard these words carefully. Suddenly, all my anger at Baba melted away. I wanted to get up and make him a glass of lemon sherbet. Maybe he was thirsty. But I hadn’t learnt to go anywhere near Baba, or give him anything unless he asked for it. It proved impossible to crash through the barrier imposed by age-old habit.
I noticed Ma was quite excited by my growing up. She bought a black burqa one day and said to me, “Look, I got this for you. Why don’t you try it on?”
My face went red with mortification. “What! You’re asking me to wear a burqa?”
“Yes, most certainly I am. Aren’t you grown up now? A grown woman must wear a burqa,” Ma replied, measuring its length.
“I won’t!” I said firmly.
“Aren’t you a Muslim? Allah Himself has said that all Muslim women should cover themselves and be modest,” Ma spoke gently.
“Yes, Allah may have said that, but I’m not going to wear it.”
“Haven’t you seen Fajli’s daughters? They wear burqas , such good girls. You’re good, too, aren’t you? If you wear a burqa, people will say what a nice girl you are!”
Ma began stroking my back. Normally, a soft, warm touch made me melt, all my defenses broke down. But I wasn’t going to let that happen today. I had to say no. I braced myself to utter that word.
“No? You mean you’re really not going to . . .?”
“I already told you, didn’t I?” I replied, quickly moving away from Ma. But she grabbed me and hit my back with the same hand which was stroking me before. “You’ll go to Hell!” she warned, “I am telling you, my child, you will go to Hell. You didn’t turn out right, after all. I took you to Noumahal so many times, but even that didn’t open your eyes. Didn’t you see those girls? Some the same age as you, others even younger, but they were all draped in burkhas. They looked beautiful. And they pray their namaz and observe fasting during Ramadan. You are getting older and you are giving up all. Yes, Hell is where you’ll end up, I can see.”
Let Ma hit me as hard as she liked, I would never wear a burqa. I went and sat down at my desk. A book lay open before me, but I only stared at the pages. The letters were blurred, as if hidden under the wings of a vulture.
I could hear Ma walking along the corridor outside my room. She was still talking, loud enough for me to hear: “She might seem meek and docile, but underneath that she’s a Satan. She answers me back! No one else does that. They don’t dare. If I could whip her the way her father does she’d listen to me. Well, if she goes on being difficult, I will have to act accordingly.”
When Ma decided to act “accordingly,” she changed completely. She wasn’t my mother any more, she turned into a witch. She looked so ugly! I found it difficult to believe that she was the same woman who once fed me lovingly, taught me rhymes, and stayed awake night after night if I happened to be ill. I became like dust on the floor, but deep inside, a blind rage began to gather force, as sharp as a sparkling diamond.
I felt like swallowing poison and ending it all. The world was such a cruel place—better to die than live in it as a woman. I had read in a magazine that somewhere in the world, a girl had become a boy. I longed to wake up one day and find that something similar had happened to me, that I had turned into a boy. That there were no unseemly mounds of flesh on my chest. That I could wear a thin, transparent shirt and roam all over town. That when I returned home late at night after having seen a film and smoked a cigarette with my friends, Ma would serve me the biggest piece of fish just because I was a boy, her son, the one who would carry forward the family name. No matter what I did, Ma would forgive me. No one would order me to cover my chest with a urna, with a veil, wear a burqa, or stop me from standing at a window or going up to the roof.
But who was going to turn me into a boy? I couldn’t do it myself. Who could I ask? Allah, Allah was the only one I could pray to. If only there was someone else, in addition to Allah! Hindus had millions of gods and goddesses, but why should they hear my prayer, I wasn’t a Hindu. I had prayed to Allah before, but He hadn’t granted a single prayer. So I prayed to no one, simply told myself what I wanted: either die, or become a boy. I repeated those words again and again. Baba had often told me that I could get what I wanted, if I had a strong enough will. So I willed myself, with every fiber of my being. I poured my mind, my heart, my thoughts, my feelings, my virtues, my sins into that simple act.
I just willed myself.
(From ‘my girlhood’)