By Priya Iyer
The day I became a woman, biologically speaking, was the day I learned that God hated me.
Looking back, I realize that there had been signs, little nuggets here and there.
Like the time on a family vacation in India seven-year old me noticed something rather odd. I was tiny, with short, boyish hair that my father cut and enormous too-big-for-my face glasses – clearly no evidence of impending womanhood. In those days, my life revolved around my mother, as perhaps most children’s lives tend to do. Only a few years earlier, my entire day had consisted of circling through our big, blue-tiled kitchen back home, in my tricycle, while my mom did her “kitchen things” – whatever that may be.
So when I observed her, one fine morning, taking furtive glances around her before entering the enormous kitchen at my paternal ancestral home, almost as though she wasn’t meant to be there – I knew something was up. Later, I observed my mother cross-legged on the floor, amidst a plethora of empty chairs in the spacious living room, while my grandfather eased back in his lounge chair with a newspaper. I tried, but for reasons I could not understand, she refused to sit anywhere but… on the floor. So I plopped down beside her, because well, if she wouldn’t sit in a chair, I wouldn’t either.
The mystery of why both the kitchen, and chairs, became no-go-zones for my mother, would remain unsolved for a few years longer.
Then there was the time I learned about Sabarimala, a temple in the heart of Kerala venerating Lord Ayappa; the Hindu pilgrimage site involves a 40 days of preparation and a grueling hike. A visit to Sabarimala is much revered and devoted Hindus strive to go at least once in their lives. One of our trips to India coincided with the preparation of some family members for this journey. I remember that one of the travelers was an older aunt. There were a lot of people, and an elaborate auspicious ceremony was underway, with fire, offerings, priests and slokas chanted. I remember the noise, the chaos, the hustle, and the excitement of the travelers. It seemed interesting, like something I might want to partake in myself.
It was then that I learned all men, but only women above a certain age, or girls below a certain age, were allowed to make the trek. “Can I go? Why isn’t Amma going?” I must have asked, and been met with a laugh. “Well she can’t, of course. Women between 10-50 years of age are not allowed. Your father went a few years ago though.”
As most such things go, no satisfactory explanation was provided. Women of a certain age were weaker, or something, I was told – they couldn’t withstand such a long trek. That didn’t make sense, because I had just witnessed an older aunt preparing for it. I heard, from another source, that Lord Ayappa had been spurned by a woman and didn’t want them there; then that he was celibate. I was only eight, but the immorality of a God that was limiting human behavior because of some personal slight, did not escape me. Why would anyone want to pray to someone like that?
I was nine the evening I went to the bathroom and found blood. Sex-ed wasn’t in the school curriculum until fifth grade; I was still a year away. As before, ‘why’ was a question that came with no answers. “No one knows,” I was told, then handed a pad and told how to wear it. Google didn’t exist in those days, though we had encyclopedias. I was curious – did anyone know? The next day, I was told not to go near the devotional shrine in our house. Every Hindu house has one; usually, a diya (lamp) is lit every morning and evening. That day, it wasn’t. Because nine-year old me found blood in her underwear. My brother looked confused for a second, and then the light dawned.
I was nine, when I solved that first unsolved mystery.
I now understood that this thing we called God, whoever he was, didn’t want me near him – particularly at those times I was most distinctly me (I knew after all, that men didn’t bleed). Furthermore, this “thing” that would now happen to me, as it did to all women, on a monthly basis was so egregious that we were not permitted into the kitchen, which, ordinarily, was the place you might most often find us. We were so undesired that we were to sit on the floor rather than soil chairs with our impurity.
The day I learned God hated me was the day I gained my first understanding of freedom – freedom from the hold of religion.
March 10, 2018