Periodic Tales by Aparna Singh

Book Review by Naina Dey

Periodic TalesAparna Singh
Virasat
Price: ₹ 250
November 2022
Pp 94
ISBN 978-93-93063-15-1

Although menstruation is a natural, reproductive process, it bears a strong cultural taboo that commands that it not be seen, discussed, or in most ways, acknowledged. This desire to keep menstruation a secret is often paired with an attitude that menstruation is dirty and disgusting. Many women have considered and still consider menarche as an experience that ‘contaminated’ their bodies. Despite recent attempts to celebrate form and function of women’s anatomy, such as Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, it is still a matter of fact that there is little attempt at sensitizing both women and men towards women’s sexual functions. What are the implications of feeling shame about menstruation and the body? Conversely, might women’s comfort with menstruation promote well being in other areas of their lives?

Aparna Singh
Periodic Tales, a volume of twenty short stories, tries to address the issue of menstruation by bringing under purview a cross-section of women including housewives, pubescent girls, working class women and athletes. The book dedicated to Arunachalam Murugantham, the maker of “Pad-Man”, and Sobhan Mukherjee, a student who promoted menstrual hygiene by stocking public toilets with sanitary napkins, - tellingly begins with a quote from Chapter 5 of the Vasishtha Dharmashastra that refers to the guilt of Indra.

In Aparna Singh’s book, we find practices and inhibitions relating to the seclusion and restrictions of menstruating women explicitly or implicitly linked to the mythic story of Indra’s slaying of Vritra, that is variously associated with the evolution myths. Each story centres around a female protagonist of a particular age group, belonging to a particular section of society. Through each of them, Singh highlights the necessity of sanitation and hygiene in relieving menstrual trauma in young girls and grown-up women in a third-world country like India. In this, she brings into focus the importance of sensitization within families, institutions and local NGOs. It is due to lack of awareness as well as social apathy towards sexually sensitive issues that make women vulnerable during medical crisis within their respective social settings. The shame, inconvenience and ignorance linked to menstruation are identified as key reasons for keeping girls and women away from school and work for several days each month – thereby decreasing the quality of their education, lifestyle and ultimately their chances in life.

Naina Dey
Significantly therefore, the female body becomes a site of defilement when it menstruates and hence a problematic trope in cultural and religious contexts. Tellingly, in the first story “Her Body”, the young woman faces ostracism because she was menstruating. ‘Don’t enter the kitchen, don’t sit on the sofa, stay in the bedroom, keep to yourself’ – says her mother-in-law, and Rima realizes the pain of marginalization Dalits are subjected to for a lifetime. The story gives an account of the discomforts and mood swings experienced by a menstruating woman within a household that does not bother about her physical and mental uneasiness. Menstruation was ‘a hush-hush affair, a sad and uncouth secret, never to be uttered or discussed.’ Pain, cramps, nausea, headaches and low hemoglobin levels were just a few of the discomforts that menstruating women faced. Then there is Mrs Gupta in “Expectations” plagued by PCOS that prevents her from begetting children, thus jeopardizing her married life. “School” depicts the humiliation and insensitivity inflicted upon Aditi, the brightest girl in class by her uncouth and boisterous male classmate because she had stained her skirt. Equally disturbing is the school’s callousness towards her plight and her mother’s refusal to purchase sanitary napkins because they were expensive.

Stories like “Maa”, “Shibani”, “Charcoal and Wood Dust” are penetrating in their portrayal of the risks to which women subject themselves as they ignore their medical emergencies as they give more priority to their families. “Charcoal and Wood Dust” is a chilling presentation of Usha, a mother of four, who fashions sanitary pads out of unhygienic used cloth and charcoal and wood dust for padding during menstruation because she cannot afford clean and comfortable sanitary napkins thus contracting severe uterine infection.

“Blue Blood” is a humorous take on the general discomfiture of a middle-class family with TV ads of sanitary pads. The story concludes by paralleling the replacement of  the discreet looking ‘blue’ menstrual blood in the ads with ‘red’, with the welcome change of awareness about menstrual hygiene within the family a generation later. “Let’s Run”, “Becoming”, “Disabled”, “Death Wish” question stereotypical attitudes towards female bodies in portraying the menstrual agonies of female athletes, hermaphrodites and differently abled women. “Frying Pan to the Fire” is an extreme example of the miseries of menstruating women in reformatories. Sonia the prostitute, is told that the only way she can procure sanitary napkins is by bartering her body like many other female convicts.

It is therefore, hardly surprising that plagued by their own physical agony and insensitivity of their surroundings, the women cannot but help being overcome by bouts of depression, anger and anxiety – a fact that has been interpreted negatively down the ages. Even early medical writers and doctors believed that the female reproductive system exercised a powerful influence on the mind giving rise to physical and mental disturbance. In extreme cases, it was believed that hormonal changes in women could lead to mania, producing violent, even murderous or suicidal rages that moral and political philosopher David Hume would term ‘disagreeable’ passions. However, these ‘disagreeable’ passions are also channelized through personal awareness and consciousness raising in “Charcoal and Wood Dust”, “Blue Blood” and “Pad-Man” – a particular focus of interest for feminist theorists. Thus, Periodic Tales is a significant work that encounters problems of female sexual hygiene, initiates and encourages sexual health and awareness while interrogating old sexual prejudices about women’s bodies that have hindered human progress in general.

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Bio: Dr. Naina Dey is a widely anthologised critic, translator and creative writer. She has authored numerous literary and academic articles in noted journals, books and newspapers. Her books include Macbeth: Critical Essays, Edward the Second: Critical Studies, Real and Imagined Women: The Feminist Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Fay Weldon, Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction, Macbeth: Exploring Genealogies and three books of poetry titled Snapshots from Space and Other Poems, Homing Pigeons and sundry stuff and Crimson Corset: poems on love. Her translations include Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s “Gupi Gain O Bagha Bain”, and One Dozen Stories.

She was awarded the “Excellence in World Poetry Award, 2009 by the International Poets Academy, Chennai and was among a team of young Indian writers felicitated jointly by Sahitya Akademi and Visva-Bharati University in 2010. She is functioning as member of editorial board of several literary bodies and is currently Eastern Zonal Secretary of The Shakespeare Society of India, New Delhi. She is concept creator of literary and artistic organ Chamunda’s Dream..


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