I consider myself somewhat of an expert in taking journeys. Apart from packing well in advance, reaching the station or bus stand on time and boarding in an unhurried composed manner (none of which are true by the way) there is one reason why I’m proud of my travelling skills. I can comfortably hold my pee in for 20 hours at a stretch if I restrict my intake of liquid to about a litre. In bus rides that can be tricky. All the bumps along the way make it uncomfortable. Overnight buses usually have one stop scheduled in the night at these typical roadside dhabas where the toilet is inevitably dirty. I have a whole routine worked out in those situations. I make sure I’m one of the first few women to get off. I dash to the toilet before anyone else from the bus gets there so I don’t have to stand in queue. A queue, by the end of which, the already dirty toilets are also wet.
But that’s just pee. It’s easy to handle.
Periods. Now that is a whole different deal.
In July this year I was taking a night sleeper bus from Mumbai to Udaipur. It was your standard privately owned AC Volvo. Dusty dark coloured berths which have an odd bump on one side as a replacement for the pillow. Single sleeper berths on one side and double on the other. I always take the single upper berth. It’s smaller compared to the lower berth but it has a bigger window . So I began my journey at 8 pm. I had packed everything I needed. I was wearing my comfy pyjamas. For once I was on time. I had had dinner and picked up my one litre quota of liquid and chips for the journey. I had a top bunk in a bus ride to Udaipur. Things were looking good.
I settled into the bus, plugged in my earphones, glued myself to the window and settled in for the night. The movement of the bus rocked me to sleep around 1 am. At 6 am the bus reached Ahmedabad for passengers disembarking there to get off. It stopped at a crossing on the main road and we were told we had to change busses as this one had broken down. I drowsily saw from my window that luggage kept in the compartment under the bus was being moved to the other bus so I took my time in waking up and getting down. By the time I picked up my bags and got down a crowd of people had formed around the bus. By the looks of it, the luggage shift was going to take more time. Some men were strolling around taking a leak behind parked cars or standing against walls. Women, like myself, stood around looking hesitantly to see if there was any place suitable for peeing. Perhaps a clump of bushes to hide behind.
As I joined this group of men and women I sensed very peculiar vibes directed at me from the group. Men were strictly avoiding eye contact with me while women were glaring at me. Confused I backed out slowly right behind everyone and touched the back of my pyjamas to check if it was what I thought it was.
It was. My time of the month. In the middle under my ass my pyjamas had a very familiar change in texture. I climbed back into the empty broken down bus to double check if it was that which must not be named, seen, talked about or acknowledged in public. I went right into the back of the bus and lifted the back of my pyjamas to see the visible evidence. And there it was. A dense patch of maroon the size of my hand spread in an abstract patterned stain on my pale blue pyjamas . It had dried up and gotten caked from the air conditioning in the bus. I didn’t even want to think of the mess that lay beneath the two layers of clothing through which the blood had soaked.
I would have to change my underwear and pyjamas. That was the only solution. But where? That was the problem.
I heard the engine of the replacement bus turn on so I ran to board. I would have to take care of it on the way. As I drew the curtain and settled into the semi- privacy of the 5 feet by 2 feet bunk a plan began forming in my mind. It was simple. I got under the blanket and began preparing for the mission that lay ahead. I took out a roll of toilet paper (I had by some miracle packed), sanitary napkins , underwear and a pair of clean pyjamas from my bag. I stuck a sanitary pad to the clean panty, placed it next to me under the blanket and waited for everyone else to settle down as the bus started moving. A few minutes after it left the city and got onto the highway I got into the setubandh asana  I had learnt in yoga class a year ago. I didn’t want to dirty another bus with my blood stains. One at a time I lifted each leg and removed my stained clothes. Then with toilet paper in one hand I reached out under the blanket and wiped. Despite not being able to see the site of damage I managed to do a good job. I continued holding the setubandh asana to avoid exposing my bare bum to the dusty berth below and put on the pad cum panty combination followed by the clean pyjamas. I hurriedly folded and rolled the dirty clothes and stuck them inside my rucksack. The entire process was completed in under a few minutes for mortal fear of someone brushing aside the curtain while passing by my berth and finding me fiddling around under the blanket. After having seemingly shocked all my co-passengers already I did not want to scandalise them more.
I lay down and took a moment to let that fresh feeling of wearing a clean pad soak in. I couldn’t sit up straight as the berth to ceiling distance was only around 2 and a half feet and I couldn’t lie down completely comfortably as I am taller than the length of the bunk. Lying down when you’re on your period and wearing a pad is complicated. Gravity makes the blood run in all sorts of directions and there is great fear of it running to a part not under the Pad Coverage Area. So for the rest of the journey I locked myself into a cramped position to avoid moving lest the pad slide away from the source area and begin leaking again.
Needless to say I was very glad when I reached the guesthouse I was staying at in Udaipur. A bath and nap later the experience turned into an anecdote to be shared with friends while exchanging stories of fieldwork. But really is it too much to expect a dry, lit, clean loo in public spaces? Nothing fancy even- just a hole in the ground and a washbasin with running water in a place which doesn’t make your eye balls pop out as you choke on the thick stench caused by a cocktail of human waste.
1. Buses win over trains for that by the way. ↩
2. Sometimes I think if I take pictures of the fascinating shapes period blood stains form I could start an art blog. Menstrual art- that could be a thing. ↩
3. I always pack these and hand wash as a rule. ↩
4. A literal translation of that in English is ‘Bridge pose’. In this asana you lie on your back, lift your hips upwards till the stomach to the knee are in a straight upward bend and hold your body for a few seconds. It’s also very good for those of us who suffer from Sciatica. ↩
- Inayat Singh Kakar, Mumbai Nov 25, 2015