The monthly cycle and what would happen when it happened - this train of thought occupied prime real estate in the minds of all the girls in the slum immersion program. Except the lucky (see how context changes perceptions) few with erratic cycles that didn't follow the calender, it was inevitable for everyone because it was a one month stint in the slum.
The reactions we heard from various houses was quite an eye opener.
Rekha referred to it as MC. For the longest time, I thought she wa using a local term which sounded like 'im-see'. When I did realize that she was referring to the short form of 'menstrual cycle' I was very amused!
She told me she used cloth which she washed and re-used every month. 14-year old Poonam used sanitary napkins, but that month they had no money, so she had to use cloth. Much to Rekha's chagrin, Poonam would use and throw the pieces of cloth. She refused to wash and re-use the rags.
The don't-touch-the-idols-of-the-god rule prevailed of course, and it didn't surprise me.
In one of the houses, one of our fellows was told that her 'shadow shouldn't fall on anyone or anything in the house' during that time. A more progressive family took her in during that time, otherwise it would have been a tough week for her.
Another fellow was asked to leave. Downright. They asked her to come back when she was 'clean' again. They wouldn't even let her pack her stuff - she was made to stand at the door and direct the lady of the house about which of her things she needed. She was then taken in by a Muslim family for that time period.
The most surprising thing is that women do this to other women.
Rekha told me that when she was pregnant with her first child, her mother-in-law made her do heavy farm work up to the eighth month of her pregnancy. The doctor told her that she would miscarry if this continued, and she asked her mother and brother to come take her away. But as per some archaic belief-system, the girl of the house cannot enter the maternal house till she is in her ninth month of pregnancy. So they came and took her away only when the ninth month started.
The same mother and brother did not visit her for the first two weeks this time too when she gave birth to the baby girl. Despite the fact that they knew she was in this all alone. Clearly, antediluvian practices take precedence over the health and well-being of a loved one.
I noticed how these people have blind faith in God. In a room that can barely hold 5 people, one wall is still dedicated to idols and images of deities. And this is true of people living in makeshift houses on the pavements too. You are just left wondering if it is hope that makes them pray, or fear.
One of our fellows visited a house during the Ganpati festival where the people had been hungry for two days. Yet they had a Ganpati being worshiped at home because someone had donated the Ganpati to them. It is sad and perplexing that people will give you an idol to worship, but won't give you food to eat.