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Priya’s Mask Has Our First Indian Female Superhero: An Exclusive Interview

From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.

Ram Devineni

Today, more than ever, we need creators who leverage their voice to talk about important societal causes and Ram Devineni is one such creative. A documentary filmmaker, technologist, and founder of Rattapallax– a not-for-profit organization focused on documentary films, poetry, and transmedia storytelling, Ram has been named a “gender equality champion” by UN Women for creating PriyaIndia’s first female superhero who is a rape survivor. He is the co-creator of an award-winning comic book series based on this character. 

In December last year, he released a new comic book and a short animated film based on this character titled “Priya’s Mask”. With a focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2-minute animated film shows how Priya befriends a little girl named Meena and teaches her about the sacrifices made by frontline healthcare workers while instilling courage and compassion during this difficult time.

For ‘Surabhi’s Notepad’, in this month of women, I interviewed this award-winning filmmaker to learn more about the creative process behind the film, his inspirations, the beautiful message of coming together of India and Pakistan amidst this health crisis, and more. I also speak to Rattapallax Producer Shubhra Prakash briefly to better understand the editorial process for “Priya’s Mask”.

I understand that the idea to create Priya came to you after the horrible 2012 gangrape in Delhi. Can you share more on why you felt the need to create this symbol and how you think it helps create awareness and empower women?

RD: The idea to create “Priya’s Shakti” comic book series came after the horrible gang rape that happened on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. I was involved in the protests in Delhi and I observed gender-based violence was a cultural problem. I also realized after talking to survivors that there was a lack of support among society for the survivors of gender-based violence. I created a female comic book character who can reach young audiences. My goal was to change people’s perceptions at a very early age about the role of women, and especially their perception of survivors. 

Priya is India’s first female superhero and a survivor of gender-based violence. We created an empathic and powerful character that is relatable to both girls and boys. Priya challenges deep-rooted patriarchal views and the role of women in society, and through the power of persuasion, she is able to motivate people to change.

One of our main goals is to teach teenage boys with the series because they are going through a critical age when they are learning about gender relationships, violence, and sexuality. That is why we create a strong female character in a comic book format. 

                       Priya and the tiger Saahas

Can you share more on the creative process of conceiving the character Priya – her looks, her ride, and for Saahas: The Tiger – her voice, and traits?

RD: For both characters, we went through many different names and Priya just felt right. I wish I could give an elaborate answer, but the sound of her name resonated with many people. Her name also translates to “love” or “beloved” which was very important because her mission is out of love and not anger. In the first comic book, we did not have a name for the tiger, and only in the second comic book, “Priya’s Mirror” did we name the tiger Saahas. Saahas means courage and is Priya’s friend and inner strength. 

We created a “look-book” for each comic book with a collage of images, colors, and aesthetics we want to feature in the stories- these helped the illustrators with the initial designs. 

In the pursuit of fighting against crime against women and gender equality, Priya’s Shakti- the comic book has been also recognized by the UN. Priya is the first-ever Indian female superhero- why do you think no one thought of creating a female superhero before- what does that say about the mindset of creators in India today?

RD: I am surprised too because there are many strong female characters in Indian mythology and Bollywood films have a comic book melodramatic aesthetic to them. So, it was strange it took this long. Comics only recently had a resurgence in commercial mainstream media and Hollywood, so maybe it would have eventually happened in India. 

Tell us more about Priya’s Mask- the new comic book and short animated film in this series. What was the creative process like and what was the inspiration behind this?

RD: Priya returns in the new comic and short animated film, “Priya’s Mask.” She has been re-imagined as a teenager, but still is fierce and strong. The new edition is for a younger audience and will dispel misinformation about Covid19. The pandemic has challenged everyone, and the level of fear and uncertainty is very high. Priya’s message has always been about conquering your fears in order to find strength. Priya shows us why it is important to work together to defeat the virus and basic safety practices like “wearing a mask for your safety and mine.” Lastly, we focus on the emotions children are going through during this turmoil. 

I think Meena in the comic book expresses her anxiety really well about the pandemic — she has no one to talk to and share her emotions. Priya tells her that she needs to be strong so others can be strong. In these uncertain times, fear can overtake us — but stay strong so you can support your family and community. Things will change, and get better. 

The entire team worked remotely in multiple cities in different time zones from New York to New Delhi. We organized the project on Zoom and then worked independently in our houses and apartments. Even the actors’ voice-overs were recorded remotely, and we finished everything in 3 months.

Shubra Prakash

I understand that Rattapallax Producer, Shubhra Prakash wrote this comic book series. Could she share more on the writing and creative process?

SP: Priya aligns with my macro vision of mainstreaming the brown girl narrative globally it is something I am passionate about – so the connect was instant – her origin story is positive and empowering subverting the victim shaming syndrome usually associated – a desi girl with superpowers on a flying tiger, yet rooted and authentic to the core – in a climate where the gender and diversity dialogue is so activated someone like Priya brings with her so much relevancy and stands a chance to become a true role model – more importantly we need someone like her right now. And that visual of her on Sahas is a game-changer. 

I live on my own and have been isolating since March 10 as I got a bit of a cough – just about the time when the first COVID case hit the city. The 1st month was blurry and fairly surreal and involved lots of Netflix and discomfort as one adjusted to domestic chores – the no help situation, the hygiene of the pandemic, and of course sorely missing family. Month 2 was about wrapping one’s head around the new normal – strange things such as ZOOM and House Party. Month 3 onwards somewhere I began to make peace with the situation, work conversations energized too around the same time which was a big help – from then it’s been weird but okay. Dealing with losses – our own or people we don’t know continues to be tough – so keeping one’s mind out of the rabbit hole is an everyday process. I did not bake banana or sourdough bread.

The 2-minute animated film features the voices of Bollywood and Hollywood movie stars including Vidya Balan, Rosanna Arquette, Mrunal Thakur & Sairah Kabir. How was it working with these artists and how is it helping with the reach of the feature film?

RD: Having a remarkable array of talented actresses bring the characters to life was critical, and we are lucky to have Vidya Balan, Mrunal Thakur, and Sairah Kabir voice the characters. Equally important that all the characters in the film and comic book are women. I saw Ms. Mrunal Thakur in “Love Sonia,” and her acting was powerful and compassionate, so the entire team envisioned her to voice Priya and bring the character to life.

The animation was something new for all of us, and very exciting. Although young people read comics, this is small in comparison to the number of people who watch animated films. So, it was important for us to take Priya’s journey to another level and a larger audience. 

The comic includes Pakistan’s Burka Avenger (their female superhero)- a first where the two rival countries’ characters came together to fight the pandemic. This was a stroke of genius as it sends out a great message to the world that we all need to come together and fight this virus. How did this idea come along and what was the process like?

RD: I have known about the “Burka Avenger” for a long time and the amazing animated TV Series that has been playing in Pakistan. So, when we started this comic book we felt we needed to include her in the story. There are some obvious correlations — both are female superheroes who fight for women’s rights. Her name is Jiya and our character is named Priya

Also, the virus does not respect borders so it was important two comic book female superhero characters come together to fight. The US Embassy in New Delhi helped arrange the meeting and it has been a pleasure working with the “Burka Avenger’s” team.

The comic book also uses AR. How important a role do you think technology plays today when it comes to creating awareness, spreading information, especially when the target audience is mainly children?

RD: Augmented reality is very popular now and much more than when we started in 2013. Especially for our main audiences which are teenage boys. We are able to embed a lot of information, interactive elements, and stories from survivors. I think it is a powerful and imaginative tool to make our comic book come to life. Augmented reality is still new in India, but becoming popular because of Instagram camera effects and Snapchat. We have an AR effect on Instagram called “Priya’s Mask” which people can try out. Lots of fun and important messages. AR turns a comic book into a pop-up book, so it makes complete sense.

On a technological level, we believe the use of augmented reality will have a significant impact on readers in India who are not as familiar with this approach. There is a huge “WOW” factor when readers first experience augmented reality. Our comic book was one of the first publications to use augmented reality in India and helped define the new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality. We created augmented reality murals in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore on the sides of buildings that were seen by millions of people.

SP: Tell us more about Rattapallax.

RD: Rattapallax started as a poetry magazine and now produces documentaries and comic books. We also produce transmedia storytelling and one of the innovators of augmented reality and comics. Rattapallax produced The Russian Woodpecker, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Rattapallax’s most recent film, The Karma Killings, about the Nithari serial killings in Noida was out exclusively on Netflix worldwide. The Karma Killings is hailed as a “true crime watershed moment” in India (Arré)

SP: How do you think film and literature can contribute towards making society more resilient as we usher into this new year where in addition to political turmoils and social issues, we are still fighting the virus?

RD: Priya is a survivor of sexual violence. She is not a victim. She takes tragedy and overcomes fear to challenge herself and society. The big question is how will you come out of the pandemic? Will you be a survivor or a victim? This will determine your psychological state and the state of society.

SP: Any special message that you would like to give to India Currents readers?

RD: Overcome fear, and become the superhero you were meant to be.

You can follow Priya Shakti on Instagram at @powerofpriya and learn more about the character and comic books at https://www.priyashakti.com/.


Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram

The Good and Bad of Living as an NRI

From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.

Sitting beside a window in my house in West Singapore, as I stare thoughtlessly at the view of lush green trees and a verdant Bukit Timah hill, I see a family of yellow parrots playing around enjoying the tropical weather. When we moved to this house two years ago, they were a family of two. Now, they are three- mom, dad, and baby parrot. The sight of this lovely playful family makes me nostalgic, it makes me sad. It makes me miss my family back in India even more.

Where I come from, living in a foreign country is considered fashionable and glamorous. While I don’t deny the better lifestyle and surplus savings, the fact remains that living abroad comes with its own set of challenges. You can feel displaced and lonely. With a pandemic imposing travel restrictions, it can very easily cause anxiety, stress, and even depression.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the realities of living away from the Motherland are not necessarily that glamorous and fun as portrayed in popular culture. In Yash Chopra and Karan Johar movies, we see Indians abroad in big landed homes, driving fancy cars, and living a life of luxury. What is rarely depicted in pop culture is the other side of the coin. Living away from India can take a toll on you emotionally and psychologically. The lack of a robust community support system, similar traditions, and enthusiasm for festivals and important occasions can be very alienating and daunting. However, in many parts of the world, Indians have managed to build a community for themselves. 

House used for the Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham Set (Image by Wikimedia Commons)

It can take some adjustment and a lot of patience to “settle down”, especially if you are a new immigrant. One tip I can give to my readers planning on moving abroad soon is to seek help. Start looking at online forums and groups based out of the place where you are moving, connect with people, and be open to putting yourself out there. 

Having some connections and being open to new relationships always helps. But in your head, be prepared. Even something as small as different weather at a given point of time of the year can take some getting used to. For example, when I moved to Singapore, initially, it took me a while to adjust to summers round-the-year as I’d grown up enjoying four lovely seasons in India. 

The blind race to marry an NRI and its ugly consequences

For me, the struggles have been more on the psychological front caused by the displacement and lack of a sense of belonging. I have been lucky to have a supportive and loving husband and some great friends.

For some, unfortunately, the repercussions can be worse, even life-threatening. That is why, people, especially, women should think twice about how badly they want it and for what reasons. I know a lot of girls who specifically seek NRI husbands just for the sake of the coveted label of being foreign-settled. In this blind pursuit, sometimes, women end up marrying the wrong guy landing themselves in abusive families – sometimes they are subjected to mental torture, sometimes they are abandoned, and sometimes they even end up dead.

In a case that came to light in 2017, highly-educated and well-qualified Usha Parikh left her lucrative job in a top-drawer IT company in Ahmedabad to marry a US-based NRI engineer only to realize later that her husband was an unlettered ordinary mechanic and an alcoholic. In another case the same year, Rekha Shah, daughter of a silk-stocking Surat diamantaire, married a Singapore-based doctor and within three months, the 29-year-old pregnant woman was desperate to come back to India from the physical abuse she faced from her husband and in-laws for dowry. 

In the first seven months of 2017 alone, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs received over 300 SOS complaints from Indian women stuck abroad in fraudulent marriages. According to a 2020 report, there are over 30,000 ‘honeymoon brides’ in Punjab who have been deserted by their NRI husbands within days or months of their marriage this year alone.

According to a 2018 article by Reicha Tanwar, Former Director of Women’s Studies at Kerala University, there has been a steady rise in cases of Indian women being deserted after marriage or tricked into fraudulent marriages by husbands and their families who are residents of a foreign country in the past ten years. She writes that between January 2015 to November 2017, the MEA received 3,328 such complaints. Most of the complainants were from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana followed by Gujarat. This year, amidst lockdowns and stay-at-home impositions worldwide, cases of domestic violence- both mental and physical- surged.

What’s worse is that these NRI husbands leverage the gaps in the laws and policies, and generally go untouched. Fraudulent NRI marriages are also cases of rape, torture, human trafficking, violence, and extortion. Between September 2009 to November 2011, around 800 cases have been registered in India’s National Commission for Women but not a single NRI husband was extradited back to India as of July last year. 

The problem lies in the implementation of Article 498(a) of the Indian Penal Code wherein cases of domestic violence, the presence of NRI husbands cannot be secured in Indian courts. There is no strong law to help bring them back and that is why most of them go untouched.

Know your rights and weigh your options

It is important for every adult woman to know their rights, weigh their options, and seriously consider if they want an NRI husband at the risk of not knowing enough and going in blind. Generally, there are some red flags and patterns that can help catch the trouble early in the process of meeting the families and the boy.

Are they in a hurry? Is the boy not around and will directly come over at the time of the wedding? Have you seen the legal documents like passports, visas, etc? Are you in touch with any relatives, friends, and foreign acquaintances of the groom’s side?

Living in a foreign land seems dreamy and glamorous but at what cost?

Women and their families must do their due diligence and think twice before entering into a union with a foreign-based boy. Having said that, I completely understand that there are many scenarios where the person is smooth and there are just no alarming signs ahead of the wedding and a woman can find herself in trouble after landing in a strange country.

At that point, it becomes crucial to know where and how to seek help. Reach out to the Indian embassy or High Commission in your country. Go to the Ministry of External Affairs website or Twitter handle and reach out to them. Reach out to government organizations like NARI or non-government organizations in your area.

Here are some relevant links for readers in California: 

I am saddened by the lack of family visits this past year amidst the pandemic and as we usher into the new year with uncertainties and bleak hope, I feel even worse. However, my struggles are nothing like these thousands of women who go abroad with dreams of starting a new family, a new life, and are faced with such atrocities. It is important for us all to remember that life is not about the material side of things but in the end, it is the people and the relationships that matter. If anything, this past year we have all learned the value of having loved ones in our lives. 

I wish and pray that the new year only brings happiness and health for all of us- in India and abroad. Happy, safe, and healthy 2021!


Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram

‘Beyonce Sharma Jayegi’ is More Problematic Than it Appears

From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.

Beyonce does not need an introduction. She is arguably one of the most influential artists in the history of pop music. An inspiration to millions of women, especially women of color, an ally of the LGBTQ community, and a powerhouse of an artistBeyonce is an international icon.

Brown skin girl, ya skin just like pearls

The best thing in all the world

These are the lyrics from her song “Brown Skin Girl” released last year in July. The lyrics bolster Beyoncé’s crusade for cultural pride and female empowerment; the song went on to become the most-streamed female song of the year. In the video, black and brown-skinned women are portrayed beautifully in celebration of their skin color and diversity. For me, the highlight is the part where the video features a dark-skinned South Asian woman in all her glory. 

Enter Bollywood.

Back at home (India), a group of educated, young creatives decided that a song titled Tujhe Dekh K Goriya, Beyonce Sharma Jaegi” (Beyonce will be ashamed when she sees you oh fair lady) is what the world needs. Barely a month or so after the whole #FairAndLovely debacle in India and #BLM campaigns worldwide, women found themselves back to square one with this inappropriate song.

A Sad State of Affairs

Composed by India’s leading music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar, sung by Nakash Aziz and Neeti Mohan, featuring lyrics by Kumaar and Raj Shekhar, this song was released last month with a promotional video on YouTube. Soon after the launch, the video, starring young actors Ananya Pandey and Ishaan Khattar, amassed over a million downvotes and widespread criticism due to its racist undertones, and for unnecessarily dragging singer-actor Beyoncé’s name.

The film director Maqbool and lyricist Kumaar apologized and said that they never intended to offend Beyonce’s fans and that the “lyric in question was never intended racially”. If this is true then the state of affairs is scarier because if in 2020 learned practitioners of art do not even realize that they are being racist or sexist or colorist, then we probably haven’t progressed as much as a society as we’d like to think.

In an interview to an Indian national daily, the film director Maqbool said, “The term ‘Moriya’ has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl, that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in a literal manner.” 

First of all, this statement in itself is a glaring warning sign. If the urban population of educated creatives is so oblivious to the deep-rooted colorist trends in the Indian society, how can we expect things to change at the ground level. The term “goriya”, which means a fair girl has been used synonymously for “girl” in numerous hit songs like “Chura ke dil mera goriya chali”, “Goriya Churana Mera Jeeya”, “Goriya Re Goriya Re” and many more over the years.

Secondly, the very idea of using Beyoncé’s name in the song and reducing the Grammy-winning icon to just her skin color reflects poorly on the mindset of the creators. In a culture where the colonial hangover is still quite relevant and cinema is more than just a form of entertainment but a social agent of influence, it is high time that filmmakers, actors, and songwriters start taking some responsibility. 

From Plato to Aristotle and Kant: Exploring Art and Its Impact

The debate of art as means versus art as an end has been ongoing for centuries and this song brings us back to it. While Plato was completely against artists and poets and wanted to banish them from his Republic because he believed that art was corrupting, Aristotle, on the other hand, saw art as therapeutic and cathartic. Later, Kant came up with the ends and the means theory where he stated that treating anything as a means to an end is problematic. 

I personally believe that the extent of the impact of art and its influence depends on society. In India, art is never welcomed as just an end in itself. Bollywood is big and people (literally) worship actors. Cinema has the power to influence young minds and when it comes to sensitive challenging issues like domestic violence, crime against women, colorism, sexism, and casteism, can India as a society afford to have such “item songs” blaring on loudspeakers?

India accounts for 37 percent of global female suicides. Last year, in October, a 21-year old woman killed herself over dark complexion taunts in Rajasthan. In 2014, a 29-year old girl’s husband drove her to suicide by taunting her over her dark complexion— this was in close proximity to the national capital (Gurgaon). In 2018, a 14-year old girl in Hyderabad burned herself alive and succumbed to death after she was bullied in school for her dark complexion. 

Even today, most, if not all, matrimonial ads say that the groom is looking for a fair bride. We all saw the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking— an embarrassing but sadly, mostly, true tale of the realities of arranged marriages in India.

However, we need to remember that this is not just an issue in India. It is everywhere— it is a universal challenge. As a 30-year old Indian living in Singapore, I get comments like “for an Indian, you have great skin” or “how come you are not that dark” and sometimes a direct “are you Malay or Indian”. I see whitening and skin lightening treatments and cosmetics everywhere I look in a mall. In Korea, I’ve heard people gift cosmetic surgeries to their daughters as soon as they turn 16. In the US, a recent study has revealed that racism is linked to cognitive decline in African American women.

Young girls are fed with a singular idea of beauty and suffer major self-worth issues growing up. Colorism is affecting the mental as well as the physical well-being of women all over the world. It is high time that we realize the gravity of these issues and stop obsessing over fair skin on a global level.


Surabhi Pandey is a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram

 

What If We Don’t Talk About Our Kids?

Lately, there have been many reports about women choosing not to have kids all over the world. Despite the changing times, unfortunately, bearing a child still seems the very definition of womanhood in many sad parts of the world where a woman is deemed “complete” once she “fulfills her purpose of bearing life”. Well, last I checked this is 2020, and isn’t humankind supposed to be more evolved than that by now? 

Before you judge me, let me clarify that I am very much pro-kids and maybe, someday, I’ll have one too. However, I also totally get if someone chooses not to have kids, to each her own.

And yes, it is a choice – some people just don’t want kids

However, this article is not about women choosing not to have kids (you do you, girl!). This article is about those who not only choose to have kids but are also incapable of talking about anything but their kids. This is a real problem. There are online discussions about this with people (including mothers) venting about why some women cannot stop talking about a smiley their kid drew the other day! 

Hold On To Who You Really Are

We all have that one friend whose life circulates around her baby. I understand that having a child is a life-changing event – priorities shift and personalities evolve as we embrace motherhood and learn to parent. But, do we have to completely lose ourselves? Does our life have to be only about the kid’s poop, fart, food, and sleep? 

Women undergo many physical, biological, emotional, and physiological changes in the process of delivering a child. Our appearance, the way people see us, everything changes. I strongly feel that amidst all this, it becomes even more pertinent for us to hold on to who we really are. Women as mothers have been put on these unrealistic pedestals where in some cultures they are treated like Goddesses (I won’t argue that though). However, jokes aside, we are not Goddesses. We are only human and we should have the liberty to freak out, get exhausted, and demand a break when we need, even from being a mum. 

Trust me, I have never met a man who is only capable of talking about his kid. That makes me wonder if the real cause behind this is the deep-rooted heteronormative gender bias in all cultures around the world. The brand of the mother is always associated with care and nurturing while the stud dad goes out and earns a living. Well, this isn’t the 1950s, so women, please chill!

How The Society Is At Fault Here

Sometimes, this can be because of other reasons than just being over-excited about motherhood. If you observe closely, you will see a pattern. First, they obsess over their fathers, then over their husbands and eventually, over their kids. This pattern is alarming because it hints towards a total lack of sense of identity. 

Across many cultures, especially in Asia, a woman’s entire life can be broadly divided into three milestones:

  •     Being a dutiful daughter
  •     Getting married to a fine suitor 
  •     Mothering a child

You must think I don’t know what I am talking about and that this is all ancient news but look around and tell me – is it really? In many parts of China, if women stay unmarried, they are called “leftovers”, and in many parts of India, if women choose to marry someone they love, they are slaughtered in the name of honor killing.

This brings me back to my original point. The fact that some women talk non-stop about their kids is probably because they have been made to believe that their existence on earth is not enough as themselves. They are made to feel that they must latch on to a man or a child whom they serve, care for and nurture to be essential.

I really hope that as we take baby steps towards a more progressive and open world, women are able to feel free and own their identities. 

To those, who just love talking about their kids and disagree, I have only thing to say: “No, I don’t want to know what your child did today. Tell me, what you did.”


Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram

 

Let Us Talk About Our Periods

In light of the World Menstrual Health and Hygiene Day observed recently (28th May), I won’t pad how I feel about the stigma and taboo around periods.

We all came into this world from the same place – the uterus. A concept that apparently requires reminding. The same process that is essential for bringing life on earth is associated with shame, humiliation, and even disgust in many parts of the world. 

My father is a doctor, so menstrual health was treated as just another health issue in my household. Despite growing up in a small non-city (district) in the state of Bihar in India, I was fortunate enough that my home was a safe space where there was no disgust associated with this topic. I was allowed to sit in all poojas and welcome to whine about my horrible cramps. But, outside the house, things were different. Friends and even aunties had strange names for the monthly cycle – from “Aunty flow” to “being down”. 

Fifteen years later, telling the same people that I am writing an article on menstrual health and hygiene was in itself a great litmus test for the taboo and stigma around this topic even now. No one said that they were disgusted by the notion to my face but I got a lot of uncomfortable nods and grunts.

This is a matter of health

People need to understand that menstrual pain is a medical condition (and unbearable one at that) and we need to talk about it – create awareness and bust myths.

According to a study, at least one in four women experiences distressing menstrual pain characterized by a need for medication and absenteeism from study or social activities. Period cramps (also known as dysmenorrhea), are mostly caused by a hormonal imbalance, which can start before the period commences and last for several days.

And right now, amidst lockdowns and increased isolation due to COVID-19 all over the world, there have been reports of increasing “period stress” that is affecting women’s cycles and overall menstrual health. According to a study by Mayo Clinic, stress can not only cause increased menstrual pain but it can also delay the periods or cause Amenorrhea or the absence of menstruation. 

So, instead of disguising this very natural and normal occurrence as a matter of shame, disgust, and humiliation, we need to de-stigmatize it and create conversations around this topic.

Some natural remedies that have worked wonders for me

Period cramps can be horrible and many women go through this pain every month. To mitigate it, here are a few easy, reliable, tested, and tried natural remedies for better menstrual health.

When it comes to cramps, I try not to pop painkillers (anymore). Full disclosure: I used to pop 3-4 Ibuprofen tablets during one cycle when I was younger but now that I am 30 and probably a bit wiser, I find myself more inclined towards natural remedies. 

Herbs like chasteberry and wild yam have been used for thousands of years for treating menstrual pain and boosting women’s health.

I recently discovered and subscribed to The Scarlet Company’s Scarlet – a natural tonic that contains both these super herbs and more, and it has helped me a lot with my cramps and flow.

Another thing that never fails to work, is a hot water bag. I swear by hot water bags and cannot go without them during my periods. They not only help with cramps but also ease the flow.

Yoga also helps a lot. Just 20 minutes of sun salutation every day can make those horrible back pains go away.

This is 2020

The world is getting crazier, stranger, and scarier every day. When one girl comes out of the “period-shaming” closet, she voices the pain and struggles of many others who might be still stuck inside. As a society, we need to do better. And, creating unnecessary sensationalism, stigma or taboo around serious health concerns and issues is not doing anyone any good. Can I get an Amen?

Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. 

A Woman Must Make Up Her Own Mind

You might think it’s strange, but I chose having an arranged marriage in the midst of an era with dating apps like Tinder.

And I love my husband.

Generally people find it hard to reconcile these two things.

When I turned 24, my parents decided that it was time they made ‘arranging a daughter’s marriage’ as their top goal in life. As with any arranged marriage, entire families were enlisted to convince me that it should be my top priority as well. Although I was young, I knew that marriage would be a giant leap for me. It has always been thus for women – from moving into a new house and adjusting to a different environment, to changing her last name and finding her place in a new family; the institution of marriage was something not to be entered into lightly. I was not ready. 

I managed to dodge and escape for a year and a half before I caved in. But I made it clear that I would not meet gazillion boys in the dance of acceptance/rejection that plays out in the arranged marriage system. No problem, my parents said, and created a profile for me on a matrimonial portal. I had complete freedom to screen and choose proposals based on my personal preferences. After scrolling through multiple profiles, Gaurav was the first boy whose digital proposal I accepted, and after two-three months of ‘courtship’ in the virtual world, we decided to tie the knot.

Although still sceptical of marriage, with both of us being based in India at the time of our engagement, we looked forward to the wedding, unaware of the change in dynamics that would occur in a few weeks. G was offered a job in Singapore, an offer that was too good to refuse. This added to my dilemma. I had not considered the possibility of leaving my full and fulfilling life behind to travel abroad to join my husband. 

After the wedding, I chose to stay behind in Delhi, ostensibly to take care of pending matters. I had been working as a TV presenter at Doordarshan for the past three years and was on the cusp of a promotion. My second book ‘Saturated Agitation’ had recently been launched, and I was busy with book readings. I had just completed my Master’s degree in journalism, and was waiting to collect my original mark sheet. I was teaching journalism as a part-time lecturer and was reluctant to abandon my students in the middle of the semester. One of my dogs had given birth to seven pups. The other one was sick. 

Nine months after my wedding, I kept adding more excuses to the already long list of valid reasons for me to linger in Delhi. Despite the distance, G was very considerate in not insisting that I move to Singapore. Was it because he was as tentative as me about our union? Things seemed fine on our occasional short meetings. We often connected over various digital devices and channels. But we did not share a home; we had no history together.

*****

It is the month of August, the month of my husband’s birthday. This is his first birthday as my husband, and I do not want us speaking over flat screens. For some reason, I feel compelled to be with him; I want to make this day special. Is this love? I make plans and buy gifts. I am flying to Singapore tomorrow morning to see him. This is not a surprise visit because I cannot afford the risk of him being elsewhere if I arrive unannounced. I know that G has also made plans. We are both excited to see each other. It has been three months since our last rendezvous. 

I pack my bags and lay out my favourite white cotton Anarkali suit for the flight in the morning. I wash my face, kiss my pups and dogs good night, apply night cream and sleep. 

I wake up with a mild sense of excitement when my alarm goes off at 4 in the morning. I have to leave home at 5:30 to reach the airport on time. A I am getting ready, I sense a commotion outside our home, and the TV news confirms my misgivings.

A sleep-deprived, tired reporter screams out news about fire, mobs and roadblocks. People have turned violent to protest the rape conviction of Baba Ram Rahim who had subsequently been jailed. Oblivious to the implications of this news, I get ready to leave for the airport only to realise that I cannot step outside. People are walking the streets with swords and fire torches. It is a communal riot-like situation. There are half burnt vehicles on the roads with mobs screaming “Baba bekasoor hai, Baba ko riha karo” (Baba is innocent, release him from prison.)

I have a long phone call with G; I don’t want to disappoint him. I argue with my father about the unfairness of his demand that I stay home. Before long, I have to accept defeat. There is no way I can safely make it to the airport in time for my flight, thanks to the harsh reality of things beyond my control. 

“The important thing is that you are safe at home. It is alright; we can always plan for next month or the month after.” G is incredibly sweet and understanding. He is the one consoling me even though I am the one throwing tantrums for not making it to his birthday.

As I sit with my head in my hands, my sick dog walks towards me, lifts his leg and pisses on my bag. And something finally snaps.

“Am I taking advantage of my husband’s understanding and supportive nature? Is this a punishment for being a terrible wife? ”

I see my father leaving for his clinic despite the unruly situation outside, knowing that there may be additional patients who need his help. I have grown up seeing him devote his entire life to the welfare of the people. His passion for his work and dedication towards helping others has been an inspiration for me. Being the youngest one in the family, I was naturally close to my father. What I hadn’t realised was how interdependent we have become in the past few years… I am so much like him. His preoccupation with work had always kept him away from his family. Am I doing the same thing?

A woman’s life changes entirely after marriage, and so does her opinion of it. Before marriage, my focus was more on the “wedding”- clothes, jewellery, make-up, events, music and whatnot. However, the next morning, when the band baja baraat was over, I found myself transformed from the kid of my family to the eldest bahoo of my husband’s family, a promotion of sorts that required significant adjustments to my outlook about my life ahead. With the completion of the rituals of marriage, I had wondered what other literal and figurative changes lay in store but had not ventured to find out.

Today, thanks to Baba Ram Rahim and his followers, I can finally see that it is not my career nor my dogs, not my students nor my mark sheet holding me here. I got married and was ‘given away’. From kanyadaan to bidai- every ritual confirmed my departure from my maiden home and guided me towards the road to becoming a wife. The only thing that is holding me is me. I haven’t mustered the strength to leave my father, my home, and begin a life with my husband, to become a wife in its real sense. Only I could correct this unfair situation. I had to let my marriage take shape, even though I had no idea how to create it. It was time to fly.

*****

In the next ten days, I resigned from work, completed my assignments as best as I could and started looking for work in Singapore. When G came to Delhi to escort me to Singapore, my father waved a tearful goodbye. I knew then that my father was happy for me – he would not have asked his daughter to go away because he wanted me to take that step by myself. He would be fine, and so would I.

As the aircraft gained momentum and trembled with new-found energies to take off, I felt a gush of overwhelming emotions soaring within me that gave me the courage to start my married life. 

Sometimes it takes more than mere rituals for a daughter to accept the position of someone’s wife, but it is never too late to start, and there is nothing wrong in allowing yourself some extra time to graduate to the idea of being a Mrs After all, marriage is one small step for man and a giant leap for womankind.

Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Surabhi’s work has appeared in various publications in India, Singapore and Australia. Website | Blog | Instagram


A version of this essay was published in Desi Modern Love- An Anthology published by Story Artisan Press, Singapore.