It was the eighth or ninth grade in school. I was 14 or 15, and trying to fit in (and failing miserably at it). We had an SUPW project and the teacher made us into random groups of 8. We then picked chits and had to do our project on the chit our group picked. My group had some of the most intelligent, talented and 'cool' girls and boys in it. And since that rarely happened to me, I felt confident our project would be a hit. Our chit said "Women's Problems".
So we started working on this project. We met at a group mate's house and started listing down different issues faced by women - right from foeticide to discrimination at work, to dowry and female genital mutilation.
Then one boy asked if we should cover women's health problems. I don't remember whether it was me or somebody who brought up 'menstruation'. The boy kind of dismissed it as a 'problem'. So I said, "It hurts! I would know!".
Everybody froze. The boy managed to mutter out, "I hardly think you should be talking about it like that", horrified that I actually talked about my periods in front of everyone.
There was an awkward silence - even the girls didn't know what to say. That was the moment everyone just alienated and ridiculed me for making such a statement. At school, even girls ridiculed me for talking about it and I became the outcast. In subsequent projects, boys would whisper in each other's ears about 'what I said' and then gasp in surprise.
I couldn't understand what I did wrong, except know that it was something unacceptable among my school mates. And their mothers, it turned out. Some mothers who LOVED me began to ignore me. And I need hardly say that they were the ones their sons told everything.
But here's the thing. I never once thought I did something wrong. And because I got ridiculed for it made me realise how far ahead I was, not how uncool. Sure I hated every minute of it. But I knew there was nothing to be ashamed of. It was disappointing that one of the most elite schools in Mumbai had such backward thinking about a very natural, very normal, human process.
I probably wasn't conscious of it then, but am now -- it was one of pivotal moments in my life when it hit me that the bubble we live in during school isn't real. It doesn't matter if the popular kids like you or not. It doesn't matter if you were the prom queen or the teacher's pet. What matters is who you are and being true to that. I was a 14 year old girl, who had hit puberty two years ago and wasn't afraid to talk about it. Hell, the project was 'WOMEN'S problems'. Ask any woman on the street around the world and she will tell you that menstruation is a big one. And although I had no support till the end of school, I want to thank those boys and girls for doing what they did.
It is their ridicule and shock and condescension that made me realise that I wasn't the one who was inappropriate or abnormal. I simply accepted nature and wasn't afraid to talk about it. Had they marveled at my boldness I would have lost the importance of it and thought I was 'cool' and not understood that it doesn't matter if they accepted me or not. I would have gone on another train of thought - far, far away from where I am now.
Where I am now is critical to this past experience. I work in a slum on the periphery of one of Mumbai's biggest dumping grounds. The communities that live here are small and conservative. The children that I work with are between 8 and 18 years (and growing). When I came here, the girls found it difficult to even tell me they had their periods. Because they had been told periods are 'dirty' 'unnatural' and 'unspoken of'. It's just a time of the month you bear silently and try not to stand out. The girls wouldn't even help each other and ridiculed first-timers when they didn't know how to deal with it and didn't have sanitary napkins (which I provided). Seeing this shocked and hurt me. After talking repeatedly with them and explaining how natural a process it is, after two years, I have finally reached a place where they can openly tell me they don't want to come to class because they have their periods. And my colleague is the only male they have indirectly communicated with about this. Probably the only male in their lives. Now they ask questions. They want to know more. And knowledge is the best friend one can have.
They finally have taken one small step forward in understanding that menstruation is a woman's time to bleed and shed the food her body created for the egg which wasn't fertilized. And there's NOTHING to be ashamed of.
Had I not understood that last statement back when it was most important to know, in school, I wouldn't be able to inspire women today to speak up and be open about this beautiful but god-awful process we go through every month.