Wednesday, October 08, 2008

‘Those’ days

SACRED FEMININE: The Divine Flow TOI, 6 Oct 2008, Narayani Ganesh

Three days in a month my mother would hang around looking cool in her bedroom. She would read magazines and novels in a supine position, her head resting on a block of wood fashioned like a pillow. She would sometimes practise drawing kolams — patterns that are made with rice flour at the entrance — in an unruled notebook, and would ask me which ones I liked.

Amma looked so relaxed, unhurried and undisturbed. She wouldn’t take part in household activities nor go out shopping or attending functions. On ‘those’ days, Amma wouldn’t wear the usual crimson, tear-shaped kumkum on her forehead. Instead, she sported a black, round bindi, what we called chaandu pottu, made of dried, burnt rice that was left to coagulate and dry in the cradle of the empty half of a coconut shell.

You made your thumb moist with a little water and gently rubbed it on the stuff and the paste would be transferred to the index finger with which one drew the round mark a little above but between the two eyebrows. When pestered with questions, Amma would say: “I’m on my monthly three-day vacation!”

The family — like many others in the community — has long since discontinued with the seclusion tradition as archaic and regressive. Yet, ancient tradition revered the Sacred Feminine, and regarded the menstrual flow as affirmation of life. At Assam’s Kamakhya Temple — one of the nine Shakti Peeths — the annual Ambubachi Mela celebrates the Sacred Feminine in the Devi’s annual menstrual flow. The spring water from the Yoni — symbolising the power of procreation — and pieces of red cloth are distributed as prasad .

What would my grandmother — if she were alive today — have to say about recent medical research that finds menstrual blood to be rich in stem cells! A US company promoting this concept says that women can collect their menstrual blood, after following instructions carefully to avoid contamination, and send it to the laboratory where it will be put through a purifying process and stored for future use in the treatment of diseases like cancer.

As cord blood banking is a recent phenomenon, culling stem cells from menstrual blood could be easier than mining bone marrow. It would also be free of controversies over the ethics of using embryonic stem cells. Above all, it could help remove superstitions and taboos associated with ‘those’ days.