Illustration by Anne le Guern

My very first period came to me like a stranger on a train. My parents and I were taking an overnight sleeper from Delhi to Bombay to visit my paternal grandmother. Because of a feud between her and my mother, Dadi and I had never met, but the stories I’d heard had already caused me to fear her more than anyone else in the world. Perhaps it was the dread of seeing her that sent my organs into overdrive, but sometime around the break of dawn I felt the urge to pee, and even though using a toilet on an Indian train is an exercise in an extreme form of Buddhist tolerance, I had my mother rush me there. I lifted my shirt, and from the folds of my ochre salwar, a blossoming field of red stared back.

I was convinced that sometime during the night, while we were sleeping, a man had snuck into our compartment on the train, entered my body, and punctured my delicate innards. I was thirteen and obsessed with Nancy Drew; I believed I could solve the mystery of my body’s behavior like my auburn-haired hero, by making a list of all possible suspects. By then I’d already been molested more times than I had fingers on my hands. Strange men had offered me their penises behind bushes, watchmen at chai stalls had aimed stones at my breasts with remarkable precision, and a family friend, a boy just a few years older, had explored my vagina with his teeth. What if the man came back to finish the job? I’d have to make sure I wasn’t alone for the rest of the journey.

As I peed, more blood rushed forth. I withheld the urge, hoping to conserve a bit of my life.

“What’s the matter?” my mother asked, watching me hobble back to our seat.

I didn’t know how to tell her that her only child, the one who she hoped would take care of her in her old age, was going to die.

Once we reached Dadi’s house and my mother and I were finally alone, I told her in the most solemn tone I could muster: “I’m going to leave you.” Slowly, I lifted the hem of my kurta to reveal the river of blood.

My mother’s face permanently aged that day. The lines on her forehead hardened, her nostrils took in breath and thinned. My father, on the other hand, expressed his scorn with a single word. He watched me scrub my bloodied salwar under the shower, the red making its shameful, bubbly journey to the drain, and the corners of his mouth curled. “Korhni,” he pronounced, a Punjabi curse that meant leper. He washed his hands in the bathroom sink for a long time and marched away.

As for Dadi, as soon as she found out, she pinned me to the wall with her eyes. “Doesn’t your mother have the sense to keep you home on your dirty days?” Her eyes looked enormous behind her glasses. “Don’t enter my kitchen, don’t touch my gods, don’t touch my holy books. Don’t touch the food, and don’t appear before my friends.”

For the next several days, I was kept confined to the guest room. I wasn’t allowed to say hello to aunts and uncles and cousins who stopped by. I couldn’t show off my newly acquired roti-making skills. If I touched the dough, I’d contaminate it. My shadow would make the food unfit for consumption. I felt as though I’d done something horribly, irrevocably wrong. Unlike the errors of stealing, or telling lies, or eating too much sugar, I couldn’t apologize my way out of this.

My grandmother, I now understand, was coping with my growing up the way her mother had coped with hers, by turning to mythology. Her religious texts told her that menstruation was a punishment, and a punishment for a crime women didn’t even commit. The god Indra killed a Brahmin, the gravest of sins, and he decided to share his guilt with the land, the water, the trees, and women. The land was cursed with deserts and barren soil where nothing grows, the water with unpleasant bubbles and foam, the trees with sap and gum that cannot be eaten, and women with periods that cause pain, suffering, stigma. In Hindu mythology, women became associated with nature; we became known as elemental, vast, capable of creation and destruction, unpredictable, untamable. Whereas Christian ideology believes that women are subordinate to men, ancient Indian texts view us as equal, or as even more powerful than men. But because they think us capable of cunning, they also condone the need to punish us. The Rigveda, the oldest Vedic text, lumps us in with drums, “the illiterate,” “the lower caste,” and animals, all of which require a sound beating once in a while. And monthly bleeding, along with physical pain, confinement, humiliation, and association with filth and ill luck, functions as a sound beating from the universe. If all this shame is too much for our birth families to handle, the infamous Manusmriti, believed to be the first legal text in Hinduism, recommends marrying us off before we begin menstruating. Behold the advent of child marriage.

Although there was no talk of marrying me off, my family constantly reminded me that I was no longer a child. There’d be no more Navaratri festival celebrations for me, no more neighbors lining up to wash my feet and offer me food and money. They’d push me away from their gods and their kitchens. As a pre-menstruating girl, I’d represented the Goddess Durga; now, I was part bearer of Indra’s guilt, looking to sap on the trees and bubbles in the water for company, seeking their shame to hide mine.

As though the mythology wasn’t severe enough, my mother came to deliver a stringent dose of science. “Dadi can think what she wants,” she said, tucking a jumbo pack of overnight sanitary napkins in my school bag. “This is her house, so I have to follow her rules. The way I see it, you are on your dangerous days. You have to hide your ‘body’” — she looked at the offending space between my legs — “from the gaze of men.” What she meant was, the next time an errant penis wagged its way to me, I’d end up pregnant. She’d have to move me and my bastard baby to a hill station for the rest of our lives. Shame, excommunication, probable suicide.

Dirty days, dangerous days. My grandmother and my mother might have disagreed on the semantics, but not on the essential fact: I was a problem now.

* * *

In civics class at school, we learned that India was a very dirty society. Our temples got muddy in the rains, our streets were punctuated with trash, our drains clogged. Because we lacked toilets and the government didn’t care to build enough public ones, we shat on railway tracks. Infrastructural problems had dictated our habits for so long we came to believe that there was something inherently dirty about us; otherwise, our streets would glitter like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The British colonizers certainly formed this opinion as soon as they transitioned from traders to permanent residents. In letters home, in novels, and in sanitation reports, they whinged about the filth of the native cooks, butlers, and waiters who held together the colonial household. In The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, an 1888 guide to domesticity in the British Raj, Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner, wives of British civil servants, described the “dirt and slovenliness” of their employees as “simply inconceivable to the new-comer in India.” The Indian heat and humidity didn’t help matters. Bathed in our sweat, festering with diseases, the colonized body became an obsession for Europeans who were only too happy to position themselves as agents of cleanliness, who viewed colonial rule as a necessary force of sanitation and hygiene.

Despite the spirit M.K. Gandhi ignited throughout India to liberate the country from the British Raj, he internalized these colonial attitudes. He was educated in London, after all. In trying to answer the question of how we became a subjugated people, he dug deep within himself and encouraged his followers toward similar introspection. Why did England hold us in chains? Because, he argued, we lacked social sanitation. In speech after speech, Gandhi made a direct link between cleanliness and sovereignty: “Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are?” he said at Banaras Hindu University in 1916. “If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be?” For Gandhi, a straight line connected the ideals of cleanliness and nation-building. “Members of a family will keep their own home clean,” Gandhi laments in another speech, “but they will not be interested in the neighbor’s. They will keep their courtyard clean of dirt, insects, and reptiles, but will not hesitate to shove all into the neighbor’s yard.”

How could cleaning overcome the entrenched divisions of caste? Arguably the worst hierarchy in the world, the caste system is so strict and damning that it doesn’t allow people of different groups to sit and dine together, let alone pick up after each other or care for each other. The social reformer and chief architect of the Indian constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, called caste a division of laborers. People who are tasked with the work of picking up shit, cutting hair, and burning the dead are permanently condemned to the lowest ranks of society. In The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy described caste as “the love laws” that tell us “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” But caste can also be thought of as the “who-should-we-call-dirty” game. Growing up in India, I watched the Brahmin priests chanting Sanskrit mantras at the temples. I could see the crusted dirt in the priest’s toenails, smell his sweat as I got closer, but a thousand showers wouldn’t make me cleaner than him. By arranging people according to their ancestral occupations, caste becomes a hierarchy of cleanliness.

A system that condemns and dehumanizes people who play vital roles in society is a vehemently evil system. Gandhi strove to liberate the people of India by elevating the habit of cleaning as well as the workers who did this work. By locating the reason for our subjugation within ourselves, Gandhi attempted to turn independence into a goal we could achieve. The work of cleaning, Gandhi said to a gathering of sanitation volunteers in 1938, “requires a pure and tender heart, as it requires clean and stout hands. If you have both, and address yourselves to this task, 1,200 stalwarts like you will be enough to win swaraj (self-rule).”

In the end, we didn’t quite clean our way to independence. If you ask me, the cost of World War II might have had something to do with the British departing. But we ought to be thankful to Gandhi for pointing out the links between colonial stereotypes, caste, and cleanliness. Because, a century on, we are still subject to them.

* * *

As a child, I suffered from severe bouts of asthma. My body constantly exhausted from wheezing, I couldn’t play any sports. Even my youngest cousins outran me. When I was fifteen, a maternal uncle sponsored us to immigrate to the United States, the fulfillment of a promise made to my grandmother to bring her children closer together. Hours before my parents and I boarded our flight, a relative promised that the minute I set foot on American soil my asthma would disappear. The air in America was just that clean. I was gullible enough to believe it. My uncle in the US had rid himself of his association with the third world and worked as a medical resident at an American hospital — the Mecca of cleanliness. Anything was possible in America.

Our first jobs in the new country were at a local motel, where my mother and I worked as housekeepers, and my father worked at the front desk. My mother and I scrubbed toilets, washed soiled linen, made beds, and vacuumed nicotine-scented carpets. My mother’s never been fond of cleaning, nor is she very good at it. She’d left a job as a science teacher to move to America. She’d launched her school’s first chemistry lab and almost finished a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Now, she sprayed chemicals whose contents she contemplated as she watched her face disappear and reappear in bathroom mirrors. It felt like a fall from grace.

As soon as she began to work as a housekeeper, her eyesight began to deteriorate. She regularly overlooked water stains on bathroom mirrors and couldn’t detect blond hairs on white sheets or countertops, which prevented the hotel from achieving the four stars its owners desperately desired. Our manager gave her an earful after every shift and threatened to fire her if she didn’t improve.

I tried to clean up after my mother to save her job, but soon, the manager found something else to complain about. “Every time you leave a room it smells of garlic and onions,” she complained to my mother. “I think it’s your clothes. Or your armpits. Or could be your va-jay-jay. Don’t you douche?”

It was none of these. It was, in fact, the breakfast my mother cooked for my father at seven, right as his night shift ended and her morning shift began. At breakfast time, he was eating his dinner, robust curries flavored with strong spices to remind him, as loudly as possible, of our lost home. My mother chopped onions, fried garlic, sautéd tomatoes and seasoned them with spice. The sauces splashed on her work clothes, staining the pale pink fabric an offending shade of yellow-brown.

“It isn’t my vagina,” my mother pleaded with the manager. “It’s my breakfast.”

“You smell bad, Miss N.,” the manager replied. “Your armpits are always leaking. Don’t you use deodorant? Look at Miss Vera, look at Tony, how neat they look. You always look so shabby.”

To keep her job, my mother and I spent our tips at the dollar store on cheap bottles of perfume. We gave up on sandalwood talcum powder, a staple in most Indian homes, and learned to use deodorant. We replaced our natural hair oils with chemical products. But no matter how much perfume my mother doused on herself, she couldn’t mask the smell of the garlic and onions she fried before work. To keep the manager from complaining, I took to sneaking into the rooms my mother had cleaned to pour bleach into the toilet and spray bleach on the mirrors, even as the fumes made me dizzy and exacerbated my persistent asthma, which hadn’t magically disappeared. Our rent was five hundred dollars, an astronomical sum to us then, and we made $5.15 an hour, the state’s minimum wage at the time. We needed our jobs.

The manager didn’t fire us, but not because she felt pity; it was pure economics. In a town with a population of two thousand, reliable workers like us were likely hard to come by. Our manager had to ignore our smell and our black hair falling out of hairpins (we weren’t aware of such drastic measures as hairnets and shower caps). But she constantly tried to shame us into looking cleaner and smelling better. Once, she had the motel’s owner, Mrs. Shah, give us a dressing-down, pitting one Indian family against another.

Mrs. Shah’s black hair, unlike ours, was never out of place. She wore impeccably ironed light-colored trousers and silk shirts purchased from expensive stores like Belk’s, stores we didn’t dare step inside. She drove a Jaguar, impeccably white and shiny. I had the grand luck to hitch a ride in it the one time my father worked a double shift. Mrs. Shah taught me about the association of wealth and power and cleanliness. She never had turmeric-stained fingers or garlic-scented hands. She smelled clean and artificial, like her car.

Nothing could make me and my mother smell like that. We just couldn’t understand how to look like Mrs. Shah, and, more than that, we couldn’t afford it. The only way to access our memories of home was through our food, and we didn’t understand that the trick was to show up to work without those memories splattered all over our clothes. Better still, to give up cooking our food altogether.

Many years later, while working at a software firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, my very first job out of college, I was reminded of those disputes with the motel manager. On pleasant afternoons, my colleague and I used to have lunch on the picnic tables outside the office. The colleague, a young engineer from Tamil Nadu, lived a lonely bachelor’s life in a one-room apartment but still managed to cook two meals for himself every day. One day, our boss happened to notice my colleague’s lunchbox full of potato and cauliflower curry spiced with turmeric and cumin and hing. “Uhh,” came a sound out of the boss’s mouth. He had a look on his face like he was transfixed by the horror of what he was seeing. “That’s food, is it,” he said. “Why is it that color?” He shut his eyes with a shudder. I couldn’t talk back to my boss; I couldn’t tell him that potato-cauliflower was indeed food, very tasty food.

From that day on, my colleague stopped bringing his lunch to work.

* * *

I must’ve copied the phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness” in my cursive-writing exercise books at least a thousand times as a child. Even then, I knew that “godliness” had little to do with the Indian gods who sat on our mantle. In the soaps on TV, based on ancient myths, the gods lied, cheated, killed, menstruated. Some of them looked monstrous with their mud faces and black eyes. On our mantle, their brass idols tarnished. Godliness had to be a quality exclusive to the god of the Bible. Many years later, my hunch was confirmed.

As a freshman in college in the American south, I found myself in a dorm full of enthusiastic proselytizing girls who singled me out, due to my non-Christian name, as being in dire need of the gospel. Given my lifetime of questioning Hindu mythology, I was an easy convert. And I was starved for love, to boot. The promise of Christ’s eternal love came to me like a cure-all.

Our church met in the chemistry building’s lecture hall. The pastor’s wife — very pretty, very blonde — would cover her head with a piece of white lace, the sort my grandmother draped over her television set. “You look like a bride,” I once plucked up the courage to say. “It’s a veil,” she revealed. “The bride is always veiled. We are all the bride of Christ. You are, too!” (Thank goodness my parents weren’t around to hear I’d found a husband without their approval.) Jesus was the groom; he was also the bridge between the world and the heavens, and he was the savior. “Just like an Indian god, always multitasking,” I once blurted in a group meeting, only to get a sound chastising because comparing the son of God to other, “satanic” gods was a big no-no.

I felt that I had a lot to prove. Which is why, one Sunday, when the pastor asked which of us “baby Christians” the Lord was calling to get baptized, I rose to my feet, in slow motion and full of conviction. Baptism, I hoped, would be a grand enough gesture, a legitimate sign of purification and rebirth. True to its born-again creed, my church believed only in full immersion baptisms, the kind that John the Baptist performed on Jesus.

On our next retreat, the pastor and a mentor walked me into the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was choppy that day, and the waves rose to five or six feet. For a minute, I wasn’t sure if I’d be reborn or buried there. Still, I persevered. I was letting go of the part of myself that was instructed to stand several feet away from Brahmin priests, the part that wasn’t welcome at my grandma’s on my “dirty days.” I was only too happy to release those unsavory bits of my identity into the Atlantic.

The Atlantic was a far cry from the Arabian Sea, with its moss-green tinge and fishy sea smells. Bombay’s Marine Drive curved outward, imposing the Indian skyline upon the water; you couldn’t see the infinite blue beyond, unhindered by the local. Your imagination reached only as far as Dubai. But the Atlantic, with its blue-white tinge, was the beyond. And if we know anything from watching Windex and sanitary pad commercials, we know that blue is the color of clean. So is white. White is clean. As I was dipped backward into the blue-white ocean, every single one of my pores opening to accept its salty, eternal life truth, I told myself I was shedding a layer. The pastor was smiling benevolently; my mentor too, despite her auburn hair slapping into her face. They were welcoming me into their eternal family. They’d love me forever. For the rest of the day I felt scrubbed. My insides squeaked. Seawater trickling down your eardrum and up your nose can have that effect.

But the feeling didn’t last. I’d offered up my soul for them to save, and still the church wanted more. They concerned themselves with my parents’ souls next. When were they going to join me in worship? Had I shared the gospel with them yet? Did I not care that they were hell-bound? I grew tired of their constant badgering, and after graduation, stopped attending Sunday service, ignoring their daily calls asking me to come back.

It didn’t occur to me then — in fact, it took a graduate degree in postcolonial theory for me to see — that the American Jesus I’d accepted into my heart had a colonial cousin in the Anglican Jesus of the sanitation reports, who’d traveled with the missionaries to wipe us Indians clean of our satanic gods and unsanitary habits. Seeking redemption in the Atlantic, I’d forgotten that the same Atlantic had facilitated the slave trade and the extraction of South Asia’s resources and wealth. The Atlantic was tainted, too.

The image that hasn’t tarnished is of my mother slicing garlic and onions and offering them into a cauldron, her fingers tinted saffron and glistening with oil. Like a goddess, she conjured delicacies of childhood and home. Home — maybe, someday, it could be the place where bodies come as they are and do what they can for one another, where we could be enough and everything.

Shilpi Suneja

Shilpi Suneja has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her first novel, about the long shadow of India's Partition, is slated for publication in fall 2022 from Milkweed Editions.

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