[Issue 11 / November 2014]
She was no longer afraid of the colour red. It had become an integral part of her life as she embraced its wetness. Red was her birthright, a splotch that identified her as a creator.
She thought of her first encounter with the colour red and the memory brought forth a flood of emotions.
At nine every morning her mother would sit her down on the floor and painfully comb out her head. It wasn’t the hair, but a nest of tangles embedded with leaves, twigs, and sometimes even lice. The combing was painful, often accompanied by her mother’s curses, muttered under her breath as she pulled and tugged through the toughness. “The gods have given me a boy,” she said. “It’s about time you started acting your age, young woman. No one will marry you if you run around like this.”
She did not understand what her mother said. During the combing, she often began planning her next adventure. It was on one such day, after her mother exclaimed “Done!” that she bolted out the door. She knew what today’s adventure held. Today, she would walk on the backyard fence.
The neighbor’s boy had done it with such gusto. Of course, she would do it as well as him, if not better. In her faded jeans and hanging T-shirt she jumped, reaching for the tips of the wooden planks beyond her arms’ reach. The first few tries were not high enough. Finally, one of her legs managed to straddle the top of the fence, and she wiggled to the top. For a few seconds, she simply sat and waited. Then, she shakily attempted to stand.
The width of the wood was narrow. She struggled to raise her wiggling ankles. Her arms spread out on either side, she tried to balance. The sole of her left foot was planted directly behind her right. Cautiously raising her left foot, she glided forward, succeeding in taking one step.
A wide grin spread over her face, but there was no one to see it. She took another step, slowly, steadily, and with increasing confidence. A third one followed, then a fourth. She was about to complete her fifth step, when her foot slipped. She fell, the wooden planks meeting her between her legs. It was a thunderous burn, a pain new to her. She tipped over and fell on the ground, skinning her knees.
Tears began to flow. She limped into the house. Her mother heard her daughter’s sobs. She found her on the living room floor, curled into a fetal position. She told her mother what had happened, and was directed to the bathroom. There was blood, down there. Her mother handed her a thick strip, the sticky ended glued to the base of clean underwear. “Wear it,” she was told. Her queries on the strip’s identity were followed with hushed whispers. “You’ll understand one day.” She wore the strips until her wounds healed. But the day of understanding did not come.
Years passed, and the girl grew older. Her hips widened and her chest filled up ever so slightly. She felt alien in her changing skin, like the magical caterpillars she read about. There was a big difference between her and those insects. The caterpillars went on to become beautiful butterflies, and she was far from one. Her bones stuck out in all the wrong places. Her hair sprang erratically when she tried to tame it. The dresses her mother forced her to wear now felt small, exposing a discomfort that lay deep inside her. She was not beautiful, but she wanted to be.
One lazy Sunday, she was racing her brother on the street. Their final destination, a traffic signal, lay a few meters ahead. He was wearing her old pants, and she made do with the dress and red tights her mother laid out for her that morning. She was close to the finish line when she fell forward, ripping the fabric that clung to her knees. This time, she did not cry as she limped inside the apartment building, up two flights of stairs.
She felt her mother’s disappointment as she dabbed disinfectant on her knee. It stung. She went to the bathroom to change and noticed a splotch of red. It came from the wetness between her legs. A memory re-emerged, her mother with a package of thick strips. They were neatly wrapped in plastic, coloured an unexciting blue. It seemed like this was a greater injury, this red drip from an inner faucet; these strips were her bandage, but this wound would never heal. Again, hushed whispers laid out a code of conduct.
“Change it every few hours.”
Till how long, the daughter asked.
Till how long, the daughter asked.
“Till you’re 40.”
What crime had she committed to be punished like this, bleeding every month for decades? This was unfair, she exclaimed, to which her mother provided these words. “You’re a woman now.” There was no comfort or consolation in these words. It was a statement, a fact. She didn’t ask for this womanhood, she didn’t want it. Being a woman was unfair.
She grew to hate the colour red. It always turned up unexpectedly. It was an unwanted gift, but she had no choice but to accept it. The strips were carried in hidden spaces and buried in deeper places. When blood poured into synthetic pores, she averted her eyes and held her breath. It was a shameful, stanching red. In school, she protected her clothes, lest they be damaged by its horrid brightness. At home, she protected the gods, lest they be corrupted by her impurity.
The space between her legs was an enigma, a curiosity that had to be stifled. She knew more about the solar system than she did about the damaged faucet inside her. Her life was run by dictats, set upon her by none other than the women in her life. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it had to remain a secret for more than eighty days a year. No one was supposed to know what was going on inside her. This was not a secret she wished to keep.
There was a time when she left the bloody bandage on the bathroom counter, just to see what would happen. Her brother picked it up and took it to her mother. Curiosity was rewarded with another secret. “Never let him know when you have it.” Even her mother refused to utter the six letter word. That was not a happy day. This red secret, she knew, held immense power. How she used it was up to her.
As she grew older she stopped striving for perfection and found beauty in her flaws. She began to love herself. This love grew slowly, like a flower hesitant in its bloom. During this time, she read and wrote to understand this red wetness. She learned how it was the source of life.
But how could something that held the seed of creation be so dirty, so hidden? Why would the gods shun such a thing? How was this red so ugly inside her when it held beauty in so many forms: the bindi her mother wore, the glittering heart on greeting cards, the embers of burning wood in a cooling campfire, the deep richness of a sunset, the flush of a baby’s cheeks on a crisp, winter morning. She had so many questions, and no one to answer them.
She spoke to others who had also felt shame and anger as she had. She listened to their journeys in which rejection of this brilliant red had made way for acceptance. On a balmy evening, alone at home, she mustered the courage to do what had once been unthinkable. She looked.
It was a shiny, vibrant red before it sunk into flatness. It was not as horrific as she had been made to believe. In fact, it was incredibly unusual, its vast depth reaching far beyond her understanding. How had she been a stranger to herself for so long?
She made a friend, someone whom she could trust with more than her feelings and conversation. She gave him her body and the desire of her dreams was fulfilled. She passed on her fears and secrets as they touched and explored crevices and curves in the darkness. The momentum that built inside opened her world to a whole new wetness between her legs. The first time was marked by red, a signal that she was no longer a child. Her mother’s words came back to her.
She knew at last that she wasn’t scared. She was meant to be celebrated. As one season replaced another, this red wetness formed memories of joy and excitement. Each month, she rediscovered her body. She was no longer afraid of the colour red.
Pragya Bhagat spent the first 15 years of her life bouncing from one country to the next. In these formative years, her first love was words. She continues to paint pictures with words in her head and on paper, and she is inspired by the diversity of individual stories. With a Bachelor’s in Biology and a Masters in Social Work, Dalit and Tribal Studies, Pragya lives life one day at a time. Other than writing and reading everything under the sun, she is a fan of Bollywood, the violin, and cold milk.