An ominous hooting pierces through the woods as I jerk up awake, “Ama?” a grim silence greets me. “Where are you?” Patting the cold mud floor, I grope in the dark and find my answers in the quietude. I had reached the hut before noon, and yet I had no memories of when the sun had rested for the day.
“I want to breathe free,” talking aloud I reach the door but my feet freeze as the haunting image of my friend Ranjana blinds me. Wild animals had gored her right in these dark woods. The placid moon plays hide and seek with the nimbus clouds and in no time a mild petrichor blankets me. “Wish I could touch you…” I sit near the window, trying to touch the rain droplets, but my thin hands are held back by the wooden bars nailed on it.
Overcome by sadness, I lie down on the straw mat, waiting for sleep to take over. Thorny goosebumps erupt all over my body — the threadbare blanket fails to keep me warm. “Ama, I don’t want to be here… Take me home.” Ama’s calm face floats in front of my eyes and in no time a soothing lullaby carries me to a distant land.
Warm sunlight trickles through the thick wooden bars, and I wake up to the strange surroundings again. The wetness between my legs terrifies me and I grab a rag from the bundle I had brought along. “Arey, you have done this before, what is there to get scared?” My voice sounds groggy, yet comforting.
Replacing the soaked cloth with a fresh one, I step out of my temporary home, clutching the wet rag in dried leaves. I chuckle as the red trickles into the bowl, unsettling the mud and creating a beautiful pattern. “This looks like my ribbon,” admiring the red and brown ribbon tied to my plaits, I plonk on the soft wet mud.
My stomach grumbles at the sight of a bird feeding her young ones; and I recall Ama’s instructions from the previous morning, “Bichu, I have packed some food for you. Don’t eat everything at once. It’s near the cowshed, take it and leave from the backdoor.”
“Bichitra, I’m not coming this time,” my friend Kamala had called out when I had stepped out of the door. For the past three months we had been going together. This would be my first time alone, “I hope you come soon.” Covering my face with a dupatta, I had run towards the woods, consoling myself, “It’s just 3 days. I’ll be fine.”
As the birds fly away, and I am left alone with nothing to do, I draw on the soil with a dried twig – a girl trapped inside a cage and then another one of my cows Lakshmi with her calves, Gopu and Bachcha.
The juicy mangoes tempt me with their seductive sways. My mouth waters and I step towards them gingerly, but the temple priests’ venomous words ring in my ears, “You are dirty. It’s forbidden to eat fruits and vegetables.” What if something bad happens to Ama? Terrified, I scuttle towards the cabin and play with the twigs and stones.
A chill erupts in the air, and a fleet of birds returns home. That’s when I realised the sun had set long ago and day 2 of my confinement was almost over. The scarlet sky strangely reminded me of the red burning my inner thighs.
Scared and cold, I enter my cabin. Hunger and tiredness take over, and I wake up only when the moon sprinkles her shine on me. Humming Ama’s favorite songs, I eat half of the rice with salt and pack the rest for the next day’s meal.
The sweet metallic stench suffocates me, but scared of stepping out, I turn a blind eye to the foul pile and cover it with more straw and dry leaves.
It’s just tonight; tomorrow Ama will come and take me home. Tiny sparks dancing from the burning twigs keep me warm and I drift off to sleep dreaming of Ama, Lakshmi and Kamala. In no time I am dancing on cottony clouds!
Loud wails and strange sounds awaken me. The sun is shining gloriously, brightening the room. “How is it so bright?” I wonder and then realise the wooden bars have come off. Strange village folk, Kamala, and even Ama are here in the cabin.
Though Ama is here, her disheveled state terrifies me. I scurry towards her “Ama, why are you crying, what’s wrong? Is Lakshmi…?” My words don’t reach her and she continues crying, beating her chest and shedding copious tears.
“Ama, stop crying. Why are you not looking at me?” and then I hear the men speak in hushed whispers, a melange of strange words dancing off their lips… ‘smoke from logs’ ‘asphyxiation’ ‘death’.
Wait, who died? I see a young girl lying on the wet ground, covered by a thin sheet.
“Poor girl, died so soon.”
“That too all alone!”
I look at the girl again and scream out loud. It’s me! But… I’m not scared. Not anymore.
I don’t care about these wailing women; I sit next to Ama, holding her hand. “Don’t cry, Ama. I wasn’t alone. I held your hand in my dream, the same way I am holding it now. Also, I didn’t eat all the rice at once.” I point towards the packed bundle.
But she still can’t hear me, so I try one last time. “Ama, I am happy now. I am free. I just wish you knew…”
Author’s note :
My story is dedicated to 15 year old Roshani Tiruwa who died of asphyxiation in a menstrual hut.
Chhaupadi is a form of menstrual taboo which prohibits Hindu women and girls from participating in normal family activities while menstruating as they are considered impure. It is said to be practiced primarily in western Nepal,
Their typical diet during this period includes dry foods, salt, and rice.
Image Courtesy – Michele Tardevo Unsplash