It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. Deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin rarely shows his face, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…
I was aware that there is no equality for women in Nepali society, why else would the charity run a ‘Women’s Empowerment’ program? But as a visitor from another culture, whose own society has made significant, if not absolute, steps in equality, I didn’t think those rules applied to me.
So women, the time of the month is never your favourite time of the month. You’re uncomfortable, painful, those around you more imbecilic than usual… Imagine if, during this time you were forced to live in an outhouse with a sack for bedding and a diet of dried cornflakes for nutrition…
I was becoming comfortable in the household routine. I had got into my daal (lentils) baht (rice) rhythm and every morning I made a point of buying an English language newspaper (small things), which I would read when I got home from the office.
One day, making myself comfortable with The Himalayan Times, Prem came to sit with me. We had our usual non-sensical exchange – a kind of small talk made even smaller because we are usually not even talking about the same thing – before he stood up and announced that we were to be special guests at ‘Mummy’s Brother’s’ house.
I had met Mummy’s Brother – in Nepali culture it is common to refer to people by their family role – along with his wife, a day or so earlier. Mummy’s Brother told me he had been in the Gorka Army and between tours to Cypress, Brunei and Honk Kong, had been stationed in Aldershot, England. I was happy to be invited to the family’s house, if only a little disappointed that The Himalayan would have to wait.
Then Prem began talking to me about mints.
‘Mints?…Mints? You have mints?’ I told him that I had not had any mints recently, knowing that was unlikely to really be asking about mints. He was close, in front of me and he moved his big hands from his throat to his waist in a flowing motion, repeating ‘mints, mints, mints.’
I strained, trying to summon any inspiration. Then he added a new word, ‘nat-ur-al,’ spoken very slowly.
With a creeping horror I realised Prem wanted to know if I was menstruating.
‘Mints,’ meant menses. I could see the funny side; this huge, Mongolian decendent, standing in his front room, hands moving as if in some Hawaiian dance, talking about natural flow. But what right did he have to ask? And what right would somebody have had to decline me dinner if I had said yes?
Whether I would have been kept in an outhouse with only a burlap sack for my bed and denied real sustenance for the fear that I would make anything else I touched impure, I don’t know. But I do suspect I would not have been able to go to dinner, had I answered yes.
This primitive practice of ostracising women during menstruation and following child birth is Chhaupadi. Some Nepali men believe that menstruation and child birth render women impure; their solution, to remove them from the house and the food and the clean water supply. It was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005, in theory. But only this month The Kathmandu Post (Friday 12, ‘Doti village to be free of Chhaupadi’) covered the story of a district Village Development Committee preparing to declare their village the first ‘Chhaupadi free area’ by October. Now, I know things run late in Nepal, but that is seven years late; it strikes me as the action of a disinterested government looking to appease some international pressure. But what do I know?
Shadows stretched long under the setting sun and the weight of our cultural differences, Prem and I set out for Mummy’s Brother’s house. He mouthing and repeating the English word for menstruation, which he had made me tell him, ‘men-stru-a-tion.’ Me, having given up trying to tell him that it was inappropriate, stunned by the destructive power of superstition.