Friday, 22 April 2016

“For Use By Married Women Only”

Yeah, 'Oh dearie me'.
It’s an impressive, rigorous effort women (and a fairly progressive collective of suits in advertising) are making; to break down all the stereotypical negativity that festers like flies around the idea of ‘the period’. Whether it’s a campaign that tears apart the simultaneous usage of the phrase ‘I’m down’ with having your period, or companies like High Tide—a box that sends you everything you need, from panty-liners to pain relief gel, to get through your period in peace—have been conceived by a man, the notion of it being this cursed, taboo monthly monster is fast dissipating. It’s quick and heady progress, the real stalwarts of the journey having coming about only in the last couple of years or so.

However, amidst the laudable headway we’ve made is one little factoid that always pisses me off royally (call it PMS. Lulllzz. Except, don’t. Ever). Because while the thresholds of temples are being crossed by women on their period—and rightly so—and period cramps have finally been recognised as a legit enough medical condition for several companies to realize it might render an employee unable to work (it’s called Dysmenorrheafor further reference), we’re still ludicrously backward in one little part of this endeavour to surge ahead.

Tampons. What the FUCK, guys?

The Indian attitude to tampons, in our current climate of understanding and change, seems as ill-fitting as Kim Kardashian at a Fellow Sufferers of Low Self Esteem Convention (This isn’t real, but if you’d like me to found it, just say the word). We bandy on and on about how attitudes to sexuality need remedying, pronto.  And yet, the tampon stands in front of the firing squad of Indian society for it’s mere existence.

What, in the Wild West, is considerable a convenient—and more widely used—alternative to the ‘pad’ (which, in my VERY PERSONAL VERY HUMBLE DO NOT ATTACK ME opinion is an archaic concept regardless; Tampon convert since 2012, thank you very much) is, in India, almost a non-option.

While in countries across the globe, a local department store will display with gay abandon the proud array of tampon types—wide, slim, cardboard-applicator, plastic-applicator, NO applicator (go rogue, ladies!) cheaper, mid-range, expensive and luxurious—the scope on this side of the grass is nowhere near as fist-pumping and embracing about them.

Here, you get ONE brand. That makes TWO alternatives—the ‘Do you bleed a lot?’ or ‘Do you bleed two hours less than a lot?’ And discounts aren’t really offered on the real price you have to pay—hypercritical scathing from a 60+ shopkeeper, the person you will have to awkwardly ask for a box of these, whilst trying to slip it in between asthma medicine and Chloromint, like a smooth operator.  

In my head, I often equate tampons with a tiny box of judgment missiles, spewed at me with a sous army of disparaging, glare needles.
Why, are they handed out, you ask? Why can’t you just sashay past the scented phenyl bottles, mammoth puffy bags of cheeseballs and Sexy Man deodorants and pick one up yourself? Why can’t you just ring the local Modern Bazaar and have them casual toss in a box or two with your bulk order of Bourbon biscuits and Kitty Litter?

Oh, that’s right. Because you don’t get them at stores.

Tampons, a product that's so niche and under-used in this country are, in parlance with the fact, incredibly under-available. You can only pick one up at a chemist (hugely under-stocked with any women, or chill-looking men—basically anyone you’d prefer to interact with about the matter, instead of aforementioned crusty shopkeeper ‘uncle’, and are thereby not at liberty to pick one up without announcing it. EVER.
I wonder, perhaps, if in this moonwalk of progress, we’ll have to start providing prescriptions for it, in due time.

The idea of having to ask a bloody chemist for a box of tampons is galling for three chief reasons (IMHO).
The first, I do not need this man to know I’m on my period. Sure, my inflated, cartoon-esque PMS with full-on screaming, quickly switching to crying, and smashing boxes of PediaSure in the shop will probably tip him off that I’m PMSing, but I shouldn’t have to part with this information should I not want to. Sorry, but that’s my prerogative.

The second, is that it is an automatic admittance to these strange men, leapyears away from my socio-cultural wavelength, that I have (or am continuing to have) sex. Because, while you can use a tampon even if your hymen is in pristine condition, it’s statistically unlikely that you will. The process is made smoother if you are ‘sexually active’ (a detestable—but fully apt—phrase. Sorry, anyhow). 

I don’t know how much I would care—the little, feminist bird in me, beating against the shackles of my ribcage thinks I shouldn’t care. It yearns to be unfettered, and scream from a ravaged four-poster about how I do it, I like it, and I get it all the time. But as much as it might be in my list of freedoms to be open and vocal about sex, it is also my prerogative to dispense of this information as I see fit. If I want to blog about it, great. If I want to toot my own horn (only figuratively, thank God) over cocktails with my friends, don’t mind if I do. However, if I want NOT to let this possibly whore/Madonna complex-bred man know about my sexual whereabouts, that is as much my right.
It is the same fuel of indignation about that right that brings me to my chief issue with tampon treatment in this country.
So, in a random bout of boredom, I decided to examine the little sheaf of ‘How To’ paper that comes in the teensy tampon box. Amidst instructions, directions and cautions, I caught a little line that ran so deep into the cesspool of our cultural mire, it was deplorable.

“Product for use by married women only”

Thanks, tampon peeps. The idea that the sole producer of this niche product that actually allows for a woman to bleed monthly in peace without sticking a mini-diaper on the ALMOST ALWAYS too skinny crotch-strip of underpants (who are these pads made for? The BFG?) feels the need to add this socio-political coward of a disclaimer is quite disconcerting.

God forbid we should say ‘sexually active’, a phrase, in this case, that I prefer despite it’s notorious parental-lecture-esque badge value, because at least it doesn’t propagate the equating of ‘having sex’ with ‘being married’.

There’s a part of me that (albeit disparagingly) understands. How, in this nation run amok with moral police and Shiv Senazis does one simply put the idea out there—even if it’s in something as clinical as Directions For Use—the idea that someone (anyone) who’s having sex can use a tampon. But naturally, the form should be used to subliminally suggest that using a tampon whilst being unwed is an idea so unfathomable, ‘we daren't put in on the packaging.’

An article on India Today shows the shocking results that India is the leading country statistically when it comes to unprotected sex.
“As many as 72 per cent of sexually active young people across the country have had sex with new partners without any protection, an international survey says. At least 40 per cent of the youth polled in India say they had problems accessing contraceptives when they needed it, while 36 per cent said they knew a close friend/ family member who has had an unplanned pregnancy. Nearly one-third of them got wrong information about contraception from friends.”

Another survey by IPAS, India (an international NGO working on increasing access to safe abortion services) mentions that, according to their estimates and calculations, unsafe abortions are killing a woman every two hours in India (which is approximately 4000 deaths a year). A Lancet paper in 2007 said there were 6.4 million abortions, of which 3.6 million or 56 per cent were unsafe. IPAS has calculated this based on the latest population and crude birth rates (CBR) which peg the number of induced abortion at 5,007,932. It’s safe to say that amount has probably increased exponentially over the last nine years.

A survey conducted by Lady Hardinge Medical College (LHMC) found that STD cases had jumped from 1 to 4.9 per cent over the past four years, with diseases ranging from Viral and Bacterial STIs, HIV, Molluscum Contagiosum, Cyanea Acuminate, Herpes Genitalis to secondary Syphilis, where, from the test group of over 1,000 people (mostly teenagers), two of the teens had partners with high-risk behaviour in the form of multiple sexual partners. Seventy-five per cent patients had used barrier contraceptives during their last sexual intercourse while the rest had a history of unprotected intercourse. Three boys had indulged in sexual activity with commercial sex workers and the doctors said that, "Five of the 15 males (33.3 per cent) gave a positive history of homosexuality."

All madly, madly disturbing facts.

You’re currently wondering why, exactly, I’m on this tangential rant about abortions, unprotected sex and STDs instead of harping on a bit more about social freedom and #womenslib. Or, if you aren’t wondering why, then clearly we’re on the same wavelength and should probably grab a drink sometime.

It may seem a bit far-fetched, but I believe it’s in subtle nuances like this line, “For use by married women only”, that the rot runs deep and starts to fester. While the idea that only legally wed women should be having sex is something a country like our tries to perpetrate, the reality is so shockingly disparate it's both shameful and unbelievable.

People so clearly in the dark about sexual how-tos and what-to-nots are doing things wrong, haphazardly and dangerously, because they do not know any better. Preaching of the abstaining-until philosophy eliminates the idea of choice—and creates all the calamities that come tumbling after it. It creates a situation where people are getting diseases (often terminal or catastrophic ones), or having to take drastic measures like an abortion, which, even if you discount failed-contraception related pregnancies and the incredibly sad female foeticide, is still an astronomical figure.

While sex education is a naturally-assumed prerequisite in western schooling, it’s in the nascent stages in this country—so nascent, in fact, it’s barely visible. It’s rise was even being blatantly obstructed by our own Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan. “In his 'vision' document for Delhi schools, Vardhan, himself a doctor, has said, "So-called 'sex education' (should) be banned." His website——also states the need to integrate value education with course content and put strong emphasis on exposing students to India's cultural relations,” said a TOI article, while the minister remained unavailable for comment.

It is this very notion—that sexual freedom somehow disturbs the pristine waters of our ‘sanskars’ that has brought us to this apocalypse of epidemic after epidemic. Because, really, there couldn’t be a vicious circle drawn with more geometric precision—try to cultivate a culture of sound, stable people (because their values are in place) and wind up with people that put their bodies and lives through immeasurable torture, rendering them anything but sound and stable.

The real kicker is that there is this unseen, undetectable moral force determining what we should and should not subscribe to. Sex post-marriage, permissible. Sex pre-marriage? See you in hell, girlfriend.
And you know what? All that gruesome info above may be unnerving. But it does confirm one thing for sure.

People in this country are CLEARLY having sex. 

They’re having sex young, they’re having sex wrong, they’re having sex perilously and regularly, in marriages, before marriages, outside marriages. We're running through the entire gamut of sexual options, and we’re so averse to acknowledging it, we still have the gall to put repulsive and grotesque statements like that one on the merchandise we buy of our free will.

The change needs to start so fast and much, it’s formidable. If we continue to tell people they shouldn’t use tampons unless they have husbands (‘Lesbians? What are those things? Are they from Lebanon?’) and believe that  "Condoms promise safe sex, but the safest sex is through faithfulness to one's partner. Prevention is always better than cure,” (another gem from our buddy Harsh Vardhan), we’re in trouble. The idea that it’s so widespread is daunting, but the phrase ‘one step at a time’ springs to mind.

Let’s start by reprinting that manual, shall we?

Friday, 8 April 2016

That Girl At The Party

So, I thought I'd renounce writing fiction for a while, because I haven't felt, recently, that I could it give it the time (and do it the justice) it deserves. But I took a swipe at it anyway. Any encompassing comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada will not be well-received. In any other regard, critique away.


She was still trying to find a position for her legs. “To look poised, you must feel poised,” her grandmother had often told her, but her grandmother was speaking from Pedestal du Poise—it was like a fish teaching a giraffe how to swim, and being confused because it wasn’t happening organically.

The air had that freesia-infused scent that these events often had, intermingling softly with the body odour of the nouveau riche, a fairly distinct strain of fragrance from the old-money crowd because of the underlying notes of desperation. The alfresco restaurant (or 'Bar and Kitchen, as they're now known as) was swarming with 'masquerading-as-20-somethings' that wore practiced smiles, a voice two octaves higher than usual, and dresses that clung too tightly.

“I can’t believe they’re serving Absolut? I’m SO not drunk enough for Absolut!” spouted a skinny-jeans-and-corset-donning socialite, who’d probably have traded down said Absolut if she’d been footing the bill. “God, I swear. I heard these guys are making people wear paper bands because they’re so afraid a couple of randoms will come have a drink. Oof, yaar, so cheap!” said a designer, notorious for underpaying his staff, on the odd month he deigned to pay them at all.

It was a people-watcher’s Happy Sunday. If she could’ve played wallflower and coalesced with the fancy ricepaper from Zhangjiajie while sipping her Cranberry and (gasp!) Absolut, she would’ve. But here she was, playing imposter again. She excused herself from the grip of a pushy ex-editor giving her a liquor-tinted spiel about ‘Drivers these days!’ and beelined for the bathroom.

She walked into the loo (the kind with couches and potpourri), and, since noone was there, decided it couldn’t do too much harm to stare at herself in the mirror for a little bit. Her reflection was passable. If some wandering neophyte had caught a glimpse of her, he would’ve been well-fooled into thinking she belonged here.

She looked the part—and would’ve played it with crackerjack dexterity if she hadn’t made her start regularly advertising her ignorance. In turn, even the nuances and nuggets of skill and information she had accrued in her time there were now treated as novice babble.

The girl in the spotless glass had stark red lips, the colour of blood from movies with high production value. Her dress was black, cut in a style she wouldn’t have chosen off the rack, but worked for her body. That body went to the gym now, so it worked with more outfits than it had two years ago. She was wearing nude flats—or what she'd called ‘beige’ before this place had happened to her—and her undomesticated hair and eyebrows were the only things that hadn’t been moulded to fit the tenor of the evening.

It felt odd to recognise herself in much the same way she would an acquaintance she saw regularly. There was that surface familiarity—with a vague, egalitarian air to it—she knew that face like she knew lots of faces she ‘knew’. 

Her eyes darted instead of focusing—it had become the norm, nowadays. She could never fully absorb that image in doses longer than seconds. People wouldn't understand if she said she minded what it had become—"But you look so much better in your Facebook pictures," they'd decree.

If one skipped down past numerous ‘Load More’s perusing those pictures, one would find a cornucopia of photographs with a girl making faces that could hardly be described as ‘poised’, her template Fabindia shirt changing prints, colours and states of disarray. A world-weary bra-strap, fraying at the seams, often went rogue and peeked out at her collarbones (for extra glamour).

Her shoulders were always cut into by thick, black straps that would reveal a pregnant fossil of a backpack if turned to profile. The hair, still a riot of curls, had lost the thin halo of frizz it once had. Scrolling back upward, that hair found itself lopped shorter, then untamedly longer, then frozen at a length that ‘worked’ (this word was an inextricable part of her livelihood now—things and their most laudable qualities were quickly pared down to this phrase). And her clothes had ‘evolved’ from college-girl clumsy to middlingly urbane.

The chubbier, grimier ghost of her former self slow-clapped in awe at the size 25 waist and the semblance of cheekbones she now possessed—the very notion of those things had, in retrograde, seemed unfathomable. Yet here she was. Something she’d never imagined she’d be.


It didn’t seem right.

Her phone began to buzz with reckless abandon, throwing the thin, marble counter into frightened turmoil. The summons from her couture-clad-clan had begun. Her eyes swept over the gilt-framed mirror. The uncharacteristic black dress looked uncharacteristically good, and the ‘nude’ flats and red lips played their parts in the charade flawlessly.

Only one, ill-fitting bra-strap played peek-a-boo on her left shoulder.

As she slid her finger underneath the thin strip of fabric to tuck away and conceal it, she felt the roughness of jagged fabric—chewed on by her kitten to contribute to it's waning life. She realised how close the strap was to giving away and dropping the facade of her breasts being in perky place. The idea, itself, was scandalous.

She smiled at the thought as she sauntered out.