Bag Full of Napkins

I was very young when both my parents were murdered right in front of my eyes by a man I had known. The police had brought me to the government shelter home that I am currently in. One of my most difficult struggles while growing up was this intense guilt I felt at not being able to save my parents or do anything to help them.

I started living in the shelter home feeling a sense of disconnect with everyone around me. I lived in a happy family with a good fortune. Suddenly finding myself sleeping in a dormitory and using a shared bathroom, cooking food for a minimum of 50 individuals in a common kitchen, all seemed a little overwhelming. I would mostly keep to myself, morose, lost in the world of my past that still lived in my head. I distinctly remember how there were some girls who tried to steal the toiletries allotted to me and sometimes also steal my share of food, but I was mostly touch by the kindness some others showed to me. As I started opening up to some of my peers, I realized how we were all so different in who we were and what our stories are, but still somehow connected through the sorrows we had to endear in such a short time in our lives. While I was still struggling to get used to how that space looked, smelt and felt like, I found among the staff some of the most encouraging people I have known. I was to inherit my parent’s fortune once I was 18 years of age, so, my way out of this shelter home system had already been carved. The staff, completely aware of this, would always encourage me to study with my highest sincerity so that I can make something out of my life, supported by the money my parents had saved for me. I found it strange how they thought I was lucky, but I probably understand it now.

While I was still struggling to get used to my new life, another change got added to the list – I got my periods. I shared this with a friend of mine and she asked me to not tell anyone about it, because at the shelter home, the staff considered pre-menarche girls as ‘small girls’ and the ones who got their periods as ‘big girls’. This distinction was extremely important because based on this, all the tasks at the shelter home was allotted among us. A ‘big girl’, even though they might be the same age as a ‘small girl’, gets responsibility to help with cooking in the kitchen, washing the big utensils and assisting girls with mental disabilities. I understood that and hid my period update from the staff for a couple of months.

This conversation actually helped me understand a few other phenomenas too. The naughtiest girl in my shelter always seemed to have a low period for a couple of days in a month. While generally she would dance around and create a nuisance for the others, at least once a month she would be at her calmest, claiming a bad headache. After I started mine, I figured that headache actually meant periods. I often wondered why someone as confident and outspoken like her would use headache as the code word for periods, but now I was big enough to be let in on the secret – the staff at the shelter home did not consider a normal amount of period cramps as bad enough to back out of daily chores, they would say that as girls we will be menstruating for at least for the next 30 years of our lives, so, it is better that we get over this and do the job at hand. However, for headaches, they had different standards. They would allow girls with headache to take rest. So, the ‘headache’ was not born out of the shame she felt about being on her periods, but as a way to get out of tasks she did not want to do.

One other fascinating thing I figured was how girls in shelter homes felt about their schoolmates who came from homes. On most days we felt bad about not having our own families, but when it came to periods, we were way superior in knowledge! This was the one time we felt really lucky to not have mothers and grandmothers in our lives to inject shame and ban us from talking about periods. Instead, our staff would invite organizations to talk to them about Periods and more. One day, the quietest girl in my class, who also stayed in the same shelter home as me, had all the answers in a biology lesson focused on Menstruation. Every girl in class, including the teacher was dumbstruck with this confidence and the knowledge of periods itself. Both of us felt very cool showing off how much we had already known about periods, thanks to the didis who taught us about it.

As I realized how talking responsibly and positively about periods helped me stand out from my class, I suddenly seemed to have found a way out of my childhood frustration of not being able to help my parents. Most girls in my class don’t understand cycle tracking, also, their mothers provide them with napkins after they start their periods, so, stained skirts became a common sight in school for me. I started carrying sanitary napkins in my bag and every time I gave one to a girl, I made sure to also explain what periods are and why we get them. It started out with me helping my classmates and eventually both my juniors and my seniors started recognizing me as the girl who always carries a sanitary napkin. I loved being able to help each of them every single time and started carrying multiple napkins in my bag instead of one and sometimes I consider replacing all my books and stationery in my bag with only sanitary napkins so I am able to help every girl not carrying one to school that day!