In Nepal, women on their periods are subject to a practice known as chauupadi. They are ritually exiled to cowsheds, and when there are no such shelters, some are made to just sleep outside on the ground. They are shunned and there are several superstitions which restrict them, such as not being allowed to eat plants or dairy products, drink from the well, or enter the house for fear of evil spirits or poison from menstrual blood. There are also no menstrual hygiene products. Laws are in progress to change this practice, but there is nothing to stop the perpetuation of this tradition, especially in remote regions.
My world will be a dark room. It will be small. And bare. And its dirt floor will be sticky with blood. It will be my whole world for a while all the same. My hands shift the position of the rag between my legs. Right then, I will see blackness, feel hay and dust beneath my feet. The air will be stale and quiet, it will be like I’m a kōṭhīṁ, a hiding mole far beneath the earth. I feel a horrible stabbing ache in my side and crumple in on myself, breathing hard. My little shed is above ground, but it will be so silent, the air so heavy and the shadows so deep, I will be unable to shake the feeling that I am so far down that no one will ever find me. I will be able to hide even from the gods – what a feat to go somewhere the gods cannot see. It trickles down my leg and soaks into my skirts. Or perhaps they do not want to see me. I suppose it won’t matter either way. Right then, this will be where I am; this will be what I see all around me. I will have grown accustomed to this room of mine. In a way, I will feel comfort in my hiding. I lie back at stare at the ceiling I can’t see. I don’t know exactly how many times before I will have been here. It will seem like my whole life, but no, there was a time before this. Yes, some time before which I will remember very clearly.
Now, my skirts have turned red for the first time. I am outside, sitting with my friends near the rudraksha tree outside my house. I have been feeling off for several days, becoming angry with my brother too often and eating more than normal. Now there is a strange twist and a sticky feeling below my stomach, and I see the stains. My friend Laxmi looks at me funny. She touches Ishwari’s arm and takes a small step back. Ishwari is confused and asks what stained all over my clothes, if maybe I cut my leg or sat in something. Laxmi tugs at her arm again, tells me that I ought to go home and tell my parents that I got my chau. At this, Ishwari’s face falls in recognition. She retreats from me several feet. My head lowers and I stare hard at the ground, breathe deep as it still drips. I nod and say a halfhearted goodbye as I walk away. They don’t say anything. Dread hangs on my shoulders.
My parents won’t let me in the courtyard. They also tell me not to touch the cows or the plants. I can’t have any water before I leave. I’ll ruin the whole well. I want to hug Bābā, but he backs away and curls his lip, a small motion of disgust. My eyes prickle. Āmā’s face pities me, but she tells me I mustn’t touch any men either, for my blood is poison. Foul shame rises in my throat at the thought of hurting Bābā, and I apologize. Āmā tilts her head towards the goth, my shed, and I suck in air so my heart steels. It looks so dark inside; there are no windows, just a gaping hole in its side with no door. In my 11 years alive, I have never been afraid of the dark. I am afraid now.
I stay in the goth for eight days. Āmā brings me some grain and seeds, but I cannot eat cheese or fruits or the whole village will have spoiled food. The cows stay in the shed with me; there is straw and the scent of dung everywhere. The cows can’t see any better than I, so they step on me if I am not careful. Every second is one of discomfort, but it is better than the agonizing cramps and convulsions that occasionally assault me. My feet are stained with the clinging crimson that my rag can’t catch. Most of all is my fear that one night, some man will come in through that hole in the wall. It is so dark and my exit so small, I would be defenseless. I have never before felt this raw and terrified of what I cannot see. I spend hours watching that hole, the entrance to my burrow that I almost wish I could fill with mud and close. To be shut in the dark might be better than this, than lying in wait with frightened eyes glued to the mouth of a cave. The whole time, every night that I roll my way to sleep and every day that I spend in boredom and vexation, I am all alone. I do not want to harm my family or my friends. To be touched by me is to be touched by impurity. I know that. I know it…and yet, I wish so badly that I were not alone. I wish, wish, wish that I could leave this cave of four walls and smell fresh air, take a bath or drink proper water. I wish that I could hold my family and talk and laugh and argue with my brother. I even wish I could be in school taking a test. Anything at all besides this oppressive sense of loneliness, of fear, of…shame.
After I am finally allowed to crawl out of my cave of cow dung, I relish in the little things I used to ignore. The lumps in my bed that were once an irritation are now a source of contentment. The cold winds are a blessing, and I do not believe I have ever been so excited just to bathe. I change out from my bloodstained clothing and drape myself in smooth, clean cloth, and I forget those eight awful days of shadows and shame. Then it is next month. I resolve to talk to Āmā after she herself has returned from the goth. My request not to go back to the shed is not well received.
“Nirmala! It is tradition for a reason. You cannot be with the rest of the village when you are unclean like that. It’s disgusting! Besides, I have had to obey chauupadi my whole life, so must you.” My chest tightens at her words, but I bow my head and apologize. I am banished to the cave once more. Nine days this time.
I start to become more desperate to escape the goth. The older women insist that it becomes familiar, that the more they stayed in their sheds the more they became used to it. I don’t feel this way at all; the more times I stay in the hole, the more uneasy it makes me. Nights that were once only uncomfortable become filled with nightmares of the open cave mouth. I stop sleeping, but the dreams follow me, and I see spirits moving in the dark. Boredom turns to distress and despair, and soon I spend every day in and out of sobbing fits. All my elders say that chauupadi has been the way for centuries. All the other women grew comfortable with their exile. It is to keep evil from the rest of the village. They tell me this always, they tell me to quit being dramatic. It will get easier. But it does not get easier. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel such grief at having to hide myself away?
I am the problem. I am full of evil things; plague and disaster and famine. I am dirty, I have reason for shame. So why, why do I feel like there is some unjust torture upon me?
When they let me out of the cowshed, I do not smile. I do not breath in the sweet mountain air anymore, I do not want to go home. My eyes close and my chin puckers with my lip as a whimper trips off my tongue. What’s the point? Next month, I will be sent back. I bathe, but the memories of my time in the cave still stick behind my eyelids, like one of the many stubborn stains that has bloodied my clothes. Why must I live this endless cycle?
I am 13 now. Two years after my first chau. The cave is more unbearable than ever.
I am cooking with Āmā when I feel it. That stickiness under my belly. It makes my hands stiffen in their work with the knife. Āmā stops too.
“Kē bhayō? Are you alright?”
I nod quickly, setting the knife down. “Hām̐, hām̐, I’m just fine. One minute, Āmā.”
She tilts her head, but doesn’t stop me as I walk outside behind the house. I rip off part of my skirts. I know Āmā will question this, but it’s my only option. The cloth is placed between my legs, but I have nothing to secure it with besides my hands. I look around, but there is nothing.
I cannot go back to the cave.
I breathe deep. Steele my heart, just like back then. My hands push the rag up inside me. My teeth sink deep into my bottom lip and I taste the very substance I am trying to hold at bay. I cannot cry out, or they will come to help me. My jaw sets and my eyes drown in tears I dare not shed. I press on, shallow little breaths scream in and out of my nose as my muscles cringe and grimace. Finally, it seems that I’ve gotten the cloth in enough to plug up the flow. My face falls up to the sky and my lip wobbles one last time. I walk back inside in silence.
It works for a few hours. Āmā and I cook dinner, and Bābā comes home with my brother. We eat together and sit, just talking about the day. I get up to relieve myself, but a traitorous red spot has leaked onto my cushion. It is Āmā who sees.
“Nirmala, come with me. You can’t be in the house.”
Everything flinches, and I slowly turn back towards her. “What? No, no, it can’t be time yet.” She motions to my cushion, and my feet start away from her. “Really Āmā, you must be mistaken.”
“Come on, you’ll infest the house with bad luck. It’s a good thing I got you so early, who knows what could have happened.” Āmā comes toward me and motions to the door while Bābā and my brother pretend not to see us. My eyes become afraid, and I stay put. Āmā frowns.
“I said, let’s go. Nirmala, you’ve been doing this for two years now. Chauupadi is…it’s just the way it is, you’ve got to get out now!”
I go back and back and back, pinning myself against the wall. “But Āmā, please, it’s not fair, can’t I just stay for–”
“No. Quit being such a baby, I was scared my first few months too but I will not tolerate this anymore!” She grabs my arm and rips me away from the wall, all fury and pain. Why are her eyes shimmering?
Suddenly I feel a sickening slap against the floor, and I feel the loss. I feel myself bleeding freely. Āmā gasps and her hand leaps from my arm, like she’s been burned. Bābā and my brother acknowledge us all at once and see the mangled, bleeding mess of cloth beneath me. My brother, my brother who would help me with schoolwork, my brother who would tease me but threw rocks at anyone else who did, I watch his expression twist in unadulterated revulsion as he looks at his hands. Bābā growls, getting up from his seat.
“Poison!” He spits, kicking the rags out the door. “All day you were infecting us with it!” He turns to Āmā. “Get that girl out of this house!”
Āmā rounds on me, and I cower in her shadow. She hesitates and, for the tiniest moment, she looks scared too. In a flash I see only anger in her features, though, and she drags me out of my own home. My arm hurts from her iron grip. I am sobbing and screaming, tears and snot wetting my cheeks as I kick and smack at my mother. My mother, who hurls me to the ground and hisses through her teeth like she’s scolding an animal.
“You will have to learn one day. You will have to learn that tradition matters more than some scared little girl and her tantrums. You will stay here and we will hope that your father and brother survive what you did.” Āmā looks down at me as I sit and beg through sobs. “Please, Āmā, please help me…” I can barely speak through my sniveling and spasmic gasps of breath that rend my lungs. She looks upon me as I fall apart and I have never noticed before the shadows under her own eyes, nor the delicate creases that decorate her forehead. She looks tired.
Then she turns away as though she can’t bear to look at me. “If you try to leave before it is time, I will beat you myself.” Āmā is gone in a breath.
I lie at the entrance to the cowshed all day, weeping and shrieking in a pile of limbs. The pile curls in on itself to hide my face; my hair is undone and falls in an ink spill over my eyes, held there by spidery fingers that cradle my cheeks between them. My head rolls from side to side, side to side, for I know that the worst is yet to come: the night. At last, darkness falls, the sky shrouds the earth and I feel the mountain chill through my dirt covered clothing. The malicious figures follow me in the dark, and I crawl into the deepest corner of the cave, far from the mouth where my nightmares begin. My chest heaves over and over, I feel like I might lose my mind just from the sheer tedious relentlessness of breathing. I want to howl my pain and shame away, I want to pierce a scream through the oppressive silence of my burrow, but I am too afraid. I shouldn’t have to hide in my own village, I shouldn’t be thrown out of my own house like an offending rodent. I pray to the gods who have punished me this way. Why must I be tormented like this? What sin have I committed that is so egregious as for me to live a life where I can never have peace, where I must always hide away for something I cannot control? If my body is so unclean, why did you give it to me?
I hate the body that I was given. I hate the body that has been forced upon me. Another wave of blood leaks from me. And I hate this disgusting poison that fills me! I hate that I was born a sinful woman, that before I had even learned to walk the gods had doomed me to ever be full of malice. Who filled me with this hatred? My brows crash together in anger and tears roll down my cheeks for what seems like the hundredth time tonight. I did not ask to be banished from the rest of the world, I did not ask for this disgusting blood! Disgusting. My fist stretches out on the dirt floor and steals a handful of mud. Shameful. I squeeze the mud between my fingers. Unclean. I shove the mud beneath my skirts and relish in the burning pain. Why not just plug myself up? I grab more and more of the stuff from the floor, crying and gasping as that horrible blood thumps in my ears. Why not just end this forever? I try my best, adding more and more and more as my heart almost tears itself apart. Why won’t it stop?!
Someday, my world will be this dark room. I will find comfort in its walls because no one can see me. No one can see the old pain and tears when I am in here. I will be alone and blind, but I will be safe from prying eyes. The little hole will not be so terrifying. The cows will not bother me. I will live with my rag and my seeds and nuts. Someday I will be just like the others, and I will teach my daughters and granddaughters about our tradition.
But right now, the blood still trickles out of me through all the mud. Now I lie here in the dark, having made myself as dirty as I have been told I am inside. I can’t stop bleeding, and I hate it. A little girl, sitting in a cave dark like it’s miles below the earth, abandoned by the gods. Abandoned by her people.