Pliny the Elder, who lived 2,000 years ago, was a man with an interesting mind and very many admirable gifts. It could, however, be argued that on certain topics, an overmastering desire to sound singularly authoritative caused even this venerable philosopher to spout what must necessarily be described as balderdash. Menstruation—a topic as alien to free and sensible discussion then as it is today—was one such subject. For, according to Pliny, this flow of blood constantly threatened to unleash grave, terrible catastrophe upon the world. If, by some horrific accident, menstrual blood touched earth, “seeds in gardens are dried up", “the fruit of trees falls off", and whole fields could turn forever barren. Beehives were instantly destroyed, and if dogs went anywhere near menstrual blood, it could drive them mad, infecting their bites with “an incurable poison". A reflection in the mirror was adequate for the mirror itself to lose its shine forever, and such, reported Pliny in his Natural History, was the calamitous power of the menstruating female that “hailstorms…whirlwinds, and lightning even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly courses are upon her".
Pliny was not alone in the ancient world for sincerely believing all kinds of nonsense where the female body was concerned. The physician Hippocrates declared that men didn’t menstruate because they could flush out impurities through sweat; women, as inferior beings, had less efficient bodies, and were compelled, therefore, to bleed. Aristotle, meanwhile, was certain that the ideal human body was male—what was not male was a deformity, and the female was one such deformity whose body had altogether peculiar functions.
In China, the seventh century doctor Sun Simiao was somewhat more intelligent in approaching the subject from a medical perspective, though some of his treatments for menstrual ailments do not necessarily inspire confidence—featuring the consumption of beetles, horse-flies and wingless cockroaches, with a dash of ginger and pepper, presumably to help it all go down.
Not to be left behind, our ancestors in ancient India found their own logic to understand menstruation: The king of gods, Indra, needed to distribute his accumulation of sin, and while part of it was deposited with the earth, the seas, and trees, one portion was accepted by women, fated ever since to bleed. The only pearl of wisdom, perhaps, in this tale is that yet again, for the doings of a man, it was the woman who had to pay the price.
It took a long time for the world to make up its mind on what precisely menstruation was all about. Not too many centuries ago, the red taint was married to ethnic prejudice to serve other purposes—it was commonly believed in medieval Europe that Jewish men tended to menstruate. As late as the 19th century, menstruation was considered a “disease" by the most serious of doctors, with the potential to escalate into comprehensive madness. In societies across the world—from villages in Turkey to hamlets in Nepal’s hills to little towns in Spain, where bleeding women may not cure pork—menstruation was perceived as a “dirty" function, a polluting reminder of human infirmity, dealt with by secluding women and enveloping them in rules and endless regulations. They could not enter kitchens, touch certain items, look at the moon, look at themselves—and so the list continues, turning women into outcasts, though formally they were “getting rest" . It was, of course, the genius of some that they succeeded in defying this worst of traditions in their own small ways—a Namboodiri Brahmin woman in Kerala wrote in her memoirs that while books were prohibited in their life of strict purdah in the early 20th century, their periods were the only time when, hidden from the gaze of men, they could finally devour those magazines and political pamphlets bearing electrifying news from a changing world.
But where there was a culture of spouting nonsense in the not-too-recent past, today we are still fighting what is a culture of silence. One study last year found that only 55% of women in India understood menstruation as a wholly natural process, while only 48% had any knowledge of it before menarche. Last August, a teenager in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, killed herself after she bled in class, and statistics on girls dropping out of school for want of toilets are all too familiar in the subcontinent. One needs only to look around oneself—a year ago, this columnist’s aunt would not enter the room where her father’s body lay before cremation because she was menstruating. In school, the lack of sex education meant that we boys thought sanitary pads were a variant of the diaper—because girls were not just silly but also incontinent. Clearly, it was still possible to continue in that tradition of Pliny and Hippocrates as recently as the last decade, and my own ignorance as a 13-year-old was demolished only with a smack (and then a talk) when I tried to shame my older sister by asking about her “diaper".
There is, of course, a slow decline in squeamishness about menstruation, but there is also irony in rich measure: Where a movie about a man who makes sanitary napkins gets tax exemption in a state, the actual product itself is deemed a “luxury item". While there is a goddess who periodically bleeds—and whose menstrual cloth is every devotee’s dream possession—there are millions of girls who must hide away when their “time of the month" arrives. The only reassurance, then, is that barriers have been broken in the past and we can count on women again to stand up where society is hesitant and afraid (or full of foolish characters, like I once was). What men could seek, in the meantime perhaps, is to rise beyond parroting aimless lines about the glories of motherhood and the divinity of the female, and learn about things that involve flesh and blood—things like the spot that appears every month on the menstrual cloth, which once threw even Pliny the Elder off the mark.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
The writer tweets at @UnamPilla