By Divya Unny
I was draped in a bright red sari with a dull gold border on the last day of my very first period. Water dripped from my hair onto my bare shoulders and my little feet shivered from the cold. “Don’t wipe yourself dry until I finish the pooja,” Amma said to me as I stepped out of the bathroom. She smeared vermillion on my forehead and drew three big circles around my face with a lamp holding burning camphor sticks.
I’d only seen her do that in front of the idols in our temple. Why was she doing that to me?
I was 15 that day and around me, these things that I couldn’t comprehend were happening. My mother was hyped up on all the puja action, but my dad was only a presence lurking in the background, just a witness to the ceremony from a distance. I thought maybe he was uncomfortable with the big deal that was being made of his daughter’s first period. It was only much later that I realised that he was only making sure I wasn’t uncomfortable around him.
I belong to a simple South Indian family whose mornings would start with the smell of incense and Suprabhatham chants of MS Subbulakshmi. My sister and I were never forced to come first in class, were never compared to boys and were always encouraged to speak for ourselves. All thanks to my Amma, the pillar of our home who shunned every discriminatory remark, from our skin colour to our gender to when we got our periods.
Very few girls of my generation and those growing up today have the luxury of being brought up by fathers who educate themselves about what their daughters experience during menstruation.
I remember mum handing over a ₹100 note to dad and asking him to pick up a pack of sanitary napkins for us. Dad would do it as easily as if he were going to buy bread. It was almost like this unsaid understanding where both he and Amma would make sure they never made us feel like we were going through something extraordinary or bad. Periods were normal, like having our meals or going to bed.
The more I talk to people the more I figured what a privilege it was to grow up in a house like that.
Last year, I wrote my first film Her First Time. The short film is about a girl who comes of age when her mum is away working. Who would take care of my 11-year-old protagonist in a situation like this? To me, the answer was natural. Her father, obviously.
When my protagonist announces her period to her father and disappears into the bathroom, the dad googles the words “My daughter’s first period”. As he slowly understands the momentous role he is playing in his daughter’s personal history, he rises to the occasion. He waits patiently for his daughter with a hot water bag in his hand and a concerned smile on his face. He isn’t a superhero dad, ready with immediate solutions to his little girl’s questions. But he is available, and he is trying.
The father is often an absent figure in a young girl’s journey to womanhood. This became apparent to me only when so many women reached out to me and thanked me profusely for portraying the father as someone who should feel equally responsible for his daughter. Very few girls of my generation and those growing up today have the luxury of being brought up by fathers who educate themselves about what their daughters experience during menstruation. It makes them uncomfortable, and they think it’s just the mother’s job (like many others) to deal with it. During the research of my film, I found that more than 90 per cent of Indian dads are unaware of how to deal with their daughters’ period. That’s a massive number.
A friend of mine shared a real story about a 40-something widower in Lower Parel: Apparently, he kept his daughter locked inside a room for seven days because he had no idea what to do when she began menstruating. Fathers of young girls who came in to audition for the part in my film would step out of the room or pretend to be busy on the phone when I’d explain the scene to them. But why blame only the fathers? So many mums shied away from the subject and told me, “We don’t think we can allow her to do a film that talks about this.”
These were parents from educated backgrounds, most of them from double-income households with seven-figure salaries. These were parents who had little idea of how they were passing on conservative social conditioning of so many years down to their children, without the slightest idea of what needed to change. These were parents who would ask the sons in their homes to go play outside in the evenings, but wouldn’t even bother to explain to the daughters why they were not being allowed inside the kitchen four days a month.
Let’s break it to them. If mothers can talk to their sons about puberty, dads must talk to their daughters too. This is an experience that changes the lives of your little girls forever. It’ll be nice to read up about it and be prepared in case she comes to you with a question. It’ll be nicer to tell her that this is something that empowers her, and she doesn’t need to be afraid or ashamed.
Trust me; that little chat will bring you closer to her than you ever were. You’ve been her dad – this is the time to be her superhero. For life.
Divya Unny is an author at Arre.
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