“Ama! Yo ke Ho?” Screamed thirteen-year-old Suman, shaking with fear at the sight of trickling blood. “Ama, yo cha…” Suman swallowed her words, shrugging aside the harrowing memories of her younger sister’s ordeal with a blood oozing, leech-infested wound. She abhorred the thought of having one herself.
Suman’s mother, Kanta, raised her head momentarily, giving her complaining eyes a rest from the barbed fumes of the onions she was chopping for dinner. Though blurred and moist, yet her seasoned eyes teamed with the mother-to-three-daughters’ instinct gave her an uncanny intuition of what to expect.
“He Baghvana! ” Kanta blurted while signalling the youngest one to pull out the bag of old clothes from under the bed. Suman trembled seeing the incessant blood flow breaking all restrictive boundaries of her clothes.
Am I bleeding to death! Suman succumbed to the terror crawling down her body. She crumbled down on the floor like a disheveled rag. Betrayed by her mother’s indifference, she pitied herself, looking at her younger sisters enviously.
“Thika cha.. runu banda,” Kanta hushed Suman authoritatively. Suman stared at her mother through the blurring moisture in her eyes. Her childish innocence directed many naive questions to her mother. Why, Ama, did not rush to nurse my wounds today?Have I done something wrong? Why is Ama so detached and unconcerned? Suman hoped for a reassuring, healing hug from her mother. Sadly, Kanta maintained her stoic aloofness. She carefully maintained a safe distance from Suman, almost as if she was untouchable.
“Aa u chori,” Kanta signalled Suman to follow her out of the house. Clueless, Suman trailed behind, staring begrudgingly at her sisters.
“Didi, Ke bhayo?” the younger sisters’ discussed, wondering if Suman was guilty of some sin and thus was banished from the house. Waiting for their mother to return, they resolved never to do anything evil, lest a similar fate would fall on them too.
Kanta led Suman to a small, abandoned thatched animal shelter made of roughly stacked logs. It was in an isolated corner, at the far end of the path leading to the forest covering. Suman followed her mother with a resigning trust. Suman believed that she had committed some unpardonable sin and thus was bleeding painfully. A sin so grave that her mother refused to even look at her.
The gloomy, ill-made shelter was rank with stale and offensive smells. It had only a makeshift hay bed and a clay pot with some drinking water. Some rags and stained clothes lay in one corner Why has Ama got me here? This does not look like an animal shelter. Suman’s upset mind distracted itself by being her usual inquisitive self.
“Timi yahan basa,” Kanta shocked Suman by that one instruction.
Stay here! Suman’s, stunned senses stared back in disbelief. Kanta rallied a repertory of dos and don’ts to Suman. Sadly, Suman heard none. She was numbed, imagining the cruelty of the punishment Kanta had chosen for her offspring.
“Ama, yahan?” Suman stammered, failing to hear her voice over her thumping heartbeat. “Eklo?” Suman asked in disbelief. Alone in the night? She shivered at the unnerving thought.
Kanta’s stern instructions, and insensitive asperity tore through Suman. Physically abandoned, emotionally violated, and mentally confused, Suman’s vulnerable teenage heart could not bear the attack anymore. She howled, crumbling down into pieces like a mishandled clay doll.
Kanta had expected tantrums, and for the same reason had maintained a strict demeanour from the very start. Suman could not stay in the house with the other family members for the next few days. As per the age-old custom of Turmakhad village of western Nepal, Suman had to stay alone in an isolated hut, lest she brings misfortune and disease to others. Not only Suman, but her shadow too could eclipse all positivity irreversibly.
Time froze as Suman sat crying inside the dreary confines of the shanty. Carefree sunshine soon returned home. The moonlight too mocked Suman as it shone on the desolate hut from its dwelling in the sky. Everyone was in the safe confines of their home, except Suman.
A dark veil blanketed the moon, making the night, even more, intimidating for poor Suman. The night raiders were out for a meal. Pulling back her messily plaited hair, Suman bit her lips in nervousness as she heard a faint hoot and a whimpering call from across the forest. She remembered how, as a kid, she used to hide under her Ama’s saree at the night. The thought of sleeping between her parents brought a faint smile to her dehydrated lips. Her cracking cheeks, dried with crusty tears, pained making her realise how vulnerable and unprotected she felt today. A sip of water was all she had given herself for the night.
Ama promised to return in the morning with food, Suman reminded herself. She needed to coerce her anxious mind that the ordeal was not forever and she would be home soon. As the invading cool breeze sneaked inside the hut, it lulled Suman to sleep and she momentarily befriended the fear and pain accompanying her.
As promised, Suman got her share of rice and vegetables twice in the day. Suman furtively pulled it and hungrily devoured the austere meal.
The last day’s morning rays teasingly peeped through the thatched roof as Suman gleamed, hoping to return home. After a holy bath with cow urine and after discarding all her soiled clothes, she sheepishly entered the house again. Suman evaded the curious glances of her father and younger siblings. She felt like a culprit who had been let out of the prison. She was a disgraceful wrongdoer who had served a punishment for the crime she had committed.
Suman resolved to be careful and never let a leech bite her again. Little did poor Suman know that the colluding leeches conspired with the moody moon to bite her every month. On the twenty-eighth day, the devilish leeches were back making her bleed her way back to the forsaken Chhaupadi.
Chhaupadi is a barbaric, yet prevalent custom in several far-western districts of Nepal, where menstruating Hindu women and girls are forced to live alone in huts, away from family members.
The exile of women from home to hut during this period is known as Chhaupadi. Though made illegal, it is still followed in the remote villages of Nepal.
Ama! Yo ke Ho: Mother what is this
Ama, yo cha: Mother, this is
He Baghvana: Oh my God
Thika cha.. runu banda: ok stop crying
Aa u chori: come on daughter
Didi, Ke bhayo: what happened to sister
Timi yahan basa: You stay here