I was 12 when I first bled. I remember getting up to use the bathroom and seeing blood in my underwear. I ran to my mother, hands trembling as I told her that I had gotten my period. Shelaughed and handed me a pad and pushed me towards the bathroom.
My hands trembled as I tried to open the packaging. It was bright blue with butterflies. It seems ironic now because the pad didn’t have wings.
I remember thinking do I put this on my blood-stained underwear?
After I came out of the bathroom, I was ushered to the staircase leading to the top floor of my house, a blanket over my head. My mother was singing and laughing as she slapped my butt while we walked up the stairs. My hands trembled as I clutched onto the blanket.
I was put in the guest bedroom and told that I was not to open the curtains and look at the sun. And then I was told I could not look at Baba or my uncles either. My mom told me to get in bed and left the room. I was to miss a week of school for the watered-down version of the chhaupadi pratha, the practice of having women on their period live separately till they were pure again. I was ecstatic. No school for a week! The fact that I was now impure hadn’t yet registered.
Every Hindu Nepali girl is told that she is the reincarnation of a goddess. Usually the goddess is the Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, but sometimes it is the Goddess Saraswathi, the goddess of wisdom and education. I was told I was a Goddess, which is why I put the tika, blessings in the form of uncooked rice mixed with red powder and yoghurt, on my grandfather’s forehead during Dashain. After I put the tika on him, he could do so for everyone else. After my sister was born, she took over my job and then my cousin did.
The word Kumari means virgin. The Kumari needs to be a young girl from a Buddhist family. She embodies the goddess Durga, or Taleju, and becomes a living goddess. I remember always knowing where the Kumari lived. I always knew who she was and what she did, but never once did it occur to me that she could be a human girl. She was the living goddess. A Kumari goddess was chosen when she was young. The Kumari stayed a goddess till she got her period, after which the search for a new Kumari began. I couldn’t imagine being a goddess and what that felt like.
The Kumari is usually a young girl from the Newari caste who gets selected through a long process where she is checked for blemishes on her body and if she has thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion and eyelashes like a cow.These are among the 32 physical traits she should have to be a goddess.I wasn’t a young Newari girl, even though a lot of people thought I was. I always wondered how people could tell which person was from which caste. Some people told me it was because I didn’t have my nose pierced like a girl from a Bahun caste. Some people told me it might be because my parents had an inter-caste marriage and my face didn’t look a certain way.
I remember not saying much to that. All I knew was that it was my time for gufa, for me to be sheltered away in a room, just like what my Newar friends did. The word gufa always confused me because I thought my friends lived in caves for whatever amount of time they were told to. I thought about how brave they were to have lived in a cave. I was relieved when I found out that while the word gufa means cave, it didn’t necessarily mean that my friends were living in caves. They were just put into a room with curtains drawn and doors closed, unable to leave except to use the bathroom, much like what was happening to me.
I remember asking Mamu for a landline phone in my room. She brought me the landline that used to hang on the wall on the first floor. It was my favorite color; purple. I plugged it in and asked Mamu if she had called the school about my week-long absence. She nodded her head and went downstairs yelling for the maid, Parbati didi, to bring me some books. “ए पार्वती, मुनमुनको किताब ल्याईदे त!” Parbati didi brought me my Harry Potter collection and gave me a sad look as she left. I can’t remember if she had done gufa when she got her period.
I couldn’t help but smile. I got to stay out of school for a week and I got to read all day? I couldn’t have gotten better news. But as the day passed, I started feeling stifled. My sister was in school and so were my friends.
It felt weird being in a room all by myself, sleeping in a queen-sized bed. The walls were pure white and there were windows on two sides of the room. It seemed to alien to me, how different it was from my room. How it seemed to be the room for an adult. My room had windows on two sides too but with green and yellow walls. They were smaller, and all the stupid neighborhood boys hung out in the house across from my room. Mamu always asked us to keep the curtains closed there too. She didn’t want the boys looking into our room and teasing us. But we kept the curtains on my sister’s side of the room open. In the guest room, I couldn’t even do that.
When it was finally 5 p.m., I called my friend Karina and excitedly told her that I’d gotten my period and that I couldn’t go to school for a week. I remember feeling intimidated by her. She had been the first in my grade to get her period. She had gotten it in grade 4 and here I was, getting my period in the grade 6. I told her she should eat our daily lunch snack, spicy chips mixed with dry noodles, for me.
The Kumari cannot go to school. She is taught in the ways of a goddess and has only recently been allowed to be homeschooled while living in the Kumari House. Her feet never touch the ground; she is carried everywhere. She cannot smile, or a grave disaster will hit Kathmandu Valley. I wondered what would happen if all three Kumaris from the three cities in Kathmandu valley smiled on the same day. Would the world end? In all the statues and posters of goddesses, I had never seen any of them smile. When the Ramayan or the Mahabharat came on the TV, some of the goddesses smiled. But the gods smiled more than the goddesses.
The goddesses also sat on fully bloomed lotuses. The Kumari, I knew, sometimes had a lotus made of silver on her head. I didn’t know if it was a fully bloomed one or not. But she looked beautiful with her red and gold clothes, and the painted designs on her forehead seemed to emanate from the third eye.
I had never seen a Kumari until I was in my late teen years. I always blamed my Newar friends for this. They had fun festivities, but I was never invited or told of their existence. It might have been that I was ignorant, or they thought I just knew when they happened. The fact that I spent my time drowned in books crawling with fantastical creatures might have hindered that process too.
Things got harder for me when I realized I couldn’t see Baba. It didn’t bother me at first but when he started bringing pomegranate juice and leaving it at the guest room door, my heart hurt. It felt silly to me that I could not see my father. During one of those seven days, my dad dropped in to pick something up for work in the afternoon. No one was home and I waited till I heard the gates outside my house clang shut. I quickly got out of my room and ran downstairs to his study and opened the curtains ever so slightly and looked at him.
I stared at him intently. I didn’t feel any different. Baba didn’t suddenly burst into flames because I had looked at him. My world had changed but the world itself hadn’t. I didn’t understand why Mamu would tell me not to look at Baba or my uncles if nothing would happen. I walked upstairs into the guest room slowly. It felt weird not being confined to the room, but I knew I couldn’t stay out too long. Mamu would yell at him if she found out. She would also yell if she found out I had looked at Baba. My head hurt but I didn’t want to lay down. I just didn’t understand.
After the sevendays ended, I went back to school. Everyone seemed to know why I hadn’t been in school. My friend had also gotten her first period when I had gotten mine, but she hadn’t done gufa. She lived in the school hostel, so it wasn’t possible for her to do gufa. I felt sad for her that she hadn’t gotten a week off school and that her mother hadn’t been there for her. But a nasty voice in the back of my head laughed at me for having stayed at home. Nothing had happened to my friend. No one had burst into flames or gotten cursed. Why did I have to stay locked in a room? Karina told me she had only stayed at home for three days. But Karina was also Newar and she had a different gufa than what I had, as a Bahun.
I didn’t realize the Kumari was a human girl until I found out that after the Kumari gets her first period, she can no longer be a goddess. She also couldn’t marry because the power of the goddess makes her husband die after six months of marriage. I wondered why a goddess would kill her own husband. The husband must have to be a terrible man to have been killed after six months of marriage. I wasn’t going to kill my husband if I married him, because I wasn’t a Kumari.
When I got my period for the second time, I was not allowed to enter the kitchen or the prayer room in my house for four days. I was told not to sit on my parents’ bed or to touch my grandparents. I couldn’t sit on the dining table with them or leave my dishes on the sink. I had to wash the dishes in the bathroom sink and leave the under there till I needed them. I had to ask my younger sister or Baba or Mamu or Parbati didi whenever I wanted snacks or water.
I sat at the edge of the dining room, near the bathroom, to eat dinner with my family. I felt so small then, sitting in the corner while everyone seemed to loom up in front of me as they sat in their chairs around the table. They could serve themselves food, could get second helpings of anything while I had to wait. I felt horrible making someone get up just to give me a second helping of something, but I couldn’t help it. Mamu always said she hated getting up while she was eating.
When the fourth day of my period came around, I hurriedly took a shower and ran to Mamu, asking her to sprinkle holy water on me. The first time, it was water from the holy river Ganga in India. My aunt had brought us some when she had come to visit. When we ran out of it, Mamu started dipping her gold jewelry in clean water and sprinkling that on me. I was free after that. I could go into any room and sit anywhere I wanted. I held myself up taller. But each time my period came around, I felt small again.
Whenever I got my period, I was impure. I couldn’t celebrate any of the festivals or chant the prayers I had memorized since I was a child. The prayers that made me feel important and smart dried in my throat just as I bled. The soaring feeling I used to get during festivals was clipped and packaged neatly and discreetly into the pit of my stomach. My words ate themselves as my body throbbed in pain, cramps and back aches, as I watched my sister dress up and enjoy herself, still naïve about that soon she would have to go through the same thing.
One day, as insignificant as any other, I told Mamu that I wouldn’t sit on the floor anymore. I told her that I would sit at the dinner table with everyone else. I wouldn’t go into the kitchen or anywhere else, but I would sit with them to eat. Dinner that night was tense, my mother quietly seething while my dad looked at me and Mamu, secretly relieved that I had finally said something. Mamu had banged pots and pans that night as she put things away.
As time went on, I was allowed to cook in the kitchen and sit wherever I wanted but that was more out of need than anything else. Mamu had started working again and couldn’t be home when my sister and I came home. Parbati didi would be at school or work and Mamu couldn’t let us starve.
The prayer room, the storage room and festivals were still untouchable during our periods. When my grandparents were visiting though, our house reverted to the old rules. I made sure I didn’t touch my grandparents or sit anywhere I shouldn’t.
After I turned 18, I thought the battle against periods in my house was done. I thought I could calmly go about my life and do as I wished, but then my grandmother brought up marriage. My mother seemed to remember only then that I was a manglik. I had been born at night and Mars had aligned in such a way in my astrology chart that if I were to marry someone, the results would be disastrous. I was told I had to marry a god first, so I didn’t kill my husband. I would have to be married to Lord Vishnu and it would be almost the same as a real marriage. An object would take his place at the wedding altar and I would marry the object as my husband.
A Kumari had married someone and her husband hadn’t died, I recalled that Aishwarya Rai, a famous Bollywood actress, was a manglik. I had three marriage offers after turning 18. My grandmother wanted great-grandkids and I wanted to do as I pleased. I felt that as a goddess I should be able to do what I wanted but I also knew I wasn’t a true goddess. I could become impure. I was told plants would die if I touched them during my period.
The fact that I was a goddess too didn’t seem to matter.