The bodega next to the post office is selling apricots. I pick one up. Have you ever held an apricot?
Young apricots, tart, tight and velvety, hung over the water tank in Ranikhet.
Green during spring, ochre in summer, they caught the sun in their orbs and pine needles in their fuzz.
Alexander—The Great, no less—took them to Europe. The Chinese called them xing, the Persians zardalu. We, mired in the Himalayas on pillows of clouds, said khoobani.
The apricots were flaming potatoes, velutinous, velvety, pubescent by turns. Pull an apricot open and the seed is an eye—an opening—a vaginal slit cupped by marigold lips.
In spring the apricot tree filled with pale pink flowers and spilled its branches on the terrace that reflected the chilly luster of the alabaster Himalayan peaks. Every evening when the mountain range turned the colour of an orange popsicle, my sister and I sat our Barbies down on the flower laden branches and explored their Scarlett O'Hara waists and the hint of a line in place of the vulvas, which we called shame-shame.
Have you ever smelled an apricot? Lush, sweet plastic smell of shampooed Barbie hair—each lock sunlight spun into strands—resting over the perfect, pointy Barbie breasts sans nipples.
One October morning I stepped out to pick up the newspaper and the world had turned white. "Snow!" I ran to wake up my parents. It wasn't "baraf but pala," my father said—the season's first frost—bleached white like salt left behind by evanescent water. When my sister gathered it with her finger and placed it in her mouth, it turned to nothing.
A few hours later I walked up to my mother sitting alone in her green-walled bedroom, knitting a grey-blue sweater under the false wooden ceiling, and told her, heart hammering, that I had started with my periods.
My mother showed me how to stick a sanitary pad on my underwear and where to throw away the used one. I knew what a period was—("when blood comes out of aunties' shame-shames")—but my mother still felt it was her duty to explain. "It's a normal part of growing up. I didn't expect it to happen so soon with you," she said, in English.
Talking to your mother in a language besides your mother tongue is like being encased in a translucent ice cube. I saw her but didn't hear, her mouth forming words slippery and strange.
When she had recovered after three hours, she asked me, in Hindi, to go check if I was still bleeding. Of course I was, I noted with dismay, oozing like a peeled beet on an immaculate palm.
Apricot is usually the first fruit of summer. The Romans called it praecocum, the precocious one, for being such an early bloomer.
The apricots in Ranikhet were acrid when unripe, like Tang-orange persimmons, like bruise-purple jamuns, like zucchini-green guavas. Chalky tannins on tongue, like the apricot chutneys my mother made with herbs found on the hill behind the house. My sister and I left the roti and pinched the chutney between forefinger and thumb and sucked-sucked-sucked.
By morning, our tongues were covered with fuming blisters, prickly like scorpion bicchuu grass, growing between the gaps in silica-laden stones laid down the path to the Haida Khan temple, right across the stationery store that sold pencils, candy, and erasers that looked like apples and smelled like oranges. We called them rubbers.
On a March morning, eleven children went to school squeezed inside a beige Ambassador car, twirling around mountains sprinkled with salmon-and-jade buildings that were like lurid birthday cakes.
We left the car and slipped down slopes of pine needles to reach school. The wooden chairs of 6-A were squat and shiny. In the fourth period, Miss Valerie led the girls to the library while the boys remained in the classroom. Then she told us about fallopian tubes and vas deferens and menstruation—"little blood, mostly water"—as the girls lowered their eyes and remained quiet. There was a power cut and the fans slowly stopped whirring in the viscous air. Sara and I refused to look down. What was embarrassing about blood and water? Besides, we already knew what a condom was.
When the bell rang, Sara and I remained behind with Miss Valerie in the library. "Miss, why does it hurt so much?" Sara had asked.
"When you cut your finger, doesn't it hurt?" Miss Valerie had said, and I was shocked at this stupid reasoning. We were twelve, not two.
But Sara, satisfied by the trinity of blood, water and tears, returned to the classroom to flirt with Rohit Kapoor, who had recently highlighted his brown hair with flecks of gold and let Sara take sips from his iced water bottle that he carried wrapped in a polythene bag.
Ayurveda says apricots are cold foods, filling your insides with a soothing, alkaline flush.
When ripe, the apricots were smooshed, squelchy sweetness, no juice, all redolence—heady and dire. I took some to school in my lunchbox.
During craft class just before the lunch break, we sat in the classroom under the school chapel whose floors were always clammy, filled with the tea-green coolness of giant cedars. We were trying to turn lightbulbs into rabbits by wrapping wads of cotton wool around them, but one by one the bulbs fell to the cold, slippery floor with dreaded gentle clinks.
Snowflake wisps of cotton stuck to my fingers. I wiped them on my pleated skirt and placed the Nataraj pencil (white with generic pink flowers) on my curled-up upper lip like a moustache. "Moochhi!" Ravi whispered and I beamed.
A slap sent the pencil and my glasses flying across the room. "No talking!" the teacher screamed. "Stand up on your chair!" the teacher said. Towering above the dark heads of my friends, I gave Ravi a guarded smile to veil my imminent tears, but the teacher saw us and exploded.
"No shame! No shame! Take off your clothes and I will take you around school!"
So I hung my head and stood on my chair, tears running down my spectacles-less nose, wearing a grey tunic with a charcoal cardigan knitted by my mother. The class was still, staring at me with fear. The black board was a shiny black, its bottom scattered with chalk dust. A light bulb exploded to my right with a sonorous chink.
"Take off your clothes!" the teacher said again, shrill in the most stereotypical way, and when she repeated herself the third time I started twisting my charcoal cardigan off, which must have given the stupid teacher a heart attack because she screeched, "Sit down!"
Later, Ravi and I crouched behind the ancient stone church built in 1811 where the air was another shade of green—damp khaki with a touch of moss— and shared the apricots. Then we touched our tongues together to find out what tongues tasted like. I was disappointed; tongues did not taste of anything.
That morning the apricots were picked, stuffed into boxes and sent to be sold in the "Plains."
They travelled on rickety buses streaked with yellow vomit of people sick with mountain-sickness. They travelled down mountains covered with knells of droopy turquoise deodars, dotted with grey graves, run over by herds of slate sheep guarded by tan Tibetan dogs that pounced on you to play and knocked you down.
Shakespeare called them apricocks.
In the Kamasutra, the Sanskrit phrase for woman-on-top is purushayitva, which literally means "to play the man's role." The author of the Kamasutra advises the urban and urbane readers of the text—the well-to-do city sophisticates who lived the good life—on how to act after sex.
Seventeen hundred years ago, Indian downtowners washed themselves after lovemaking, then shyly sat together, looking at the moon, nibbling upon dried apricots, almonds and post-coital paan—fennel seeds and candied rose petals wrapped inside a deep green betel leaf. As they bashfully chewed the paan, their lips and tongues turned red, as if phlebotomised.
Unripe apricots had a shuddery tang like Himalayan lemons stewed with sugar, black salt and poppy seeds. I scooped the lemon goop with dusty fingers and plopped it into my mouth while sitting on our cottage's tin roof facing the milky crags of the mountain range. In the afternoon, they glowed neon like a white bra under your top in ultraviolet light.
My father called my name. "Aditi's phone," he said. I walked to the edge of the tin roof with rumbling steps and hopped on to the top of the water tank and jumped down beside the rose bushes and ran into my parents' bedroom to take the call and while I chattered, my father, hovering around, kept telling me to change my clothes. I nodded and ignored him, polite and distracted—"Beta, kiddo, change karlo"—"Yes-yes Papu, one second"—wondering why the hell I should change, and finally my father—confused, embarrassed, unsure—screamed at me as Aditi listened on the other side of the line because the back of my yellow skirt was mapped with Rorschach patterns of my period. (Little blood, mostly water.)
My mother intervened and shooed him away, and I cried, wounded (but no blood, ha-ha) by his shame.
(The word taboo comes from the Polynesian word "tapua," which means sacred as well as menstruation.)
That year, I learned a lot in school.
To hide a blood spot on your skirt, take off your sweater and tie it around your waist.
In summer, rub the stain with white chalk or sprinkle it with ink. Yar, carry a fountain pen when you're down.
If you unwound the pen's cover to reveal its inner belly, it had a soft, pliable centre which, when pressed, squirted out blue ink in pleasing gushes that the girls shook over each other's skirts.
Apricots could be crunchy. They crackled sometimes like the layer of dead cockroaches under my rubber slippers at 6:00 a.m. as I opened the back door and placed a super-sized sieve on the pan for the milkman to pour in the five litres of milk. The wild rose bushes in the backyard got caught in the milkman's tartan blanket he wore like a cloak. Cockroaches did not disgust me then.
Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction is also the goddess of menstruation. She's black, like her name, and her eyes are scarlet. Her hair was created by death himself and her jewellery is a garland of human heads. She sticks out her crimson tongue and drinks celestial wine which is nothing but the blood of her sacrificial victims. Riding her lion, she killed the demon Mahishasur, who no man nor god could harm.
In winter when the apricot tree was stark like a shadow, food grew sparse in the jungles around and a leopard was seen stalking the village behind the cottage. One morning they found the local dog gone. Each night that week the villagers were out with drums and flares to drive the leopard away. Killing was out of the question, for to kill a Himalayan feline is a sin no sacrifice can assuage. Those nights were red and my dreams throbbed with drumbeats.
Have you ever heard an apricot? Robo and Koby barked at the apricots when they plopped on to the terrace. Papa picked out the ones half eaten by birds. Those were always the sweetest. My sister shuddered and smiled and said no. Cousin Tara—visiting us in the mountains during summer holidays—said, "Give."
Tara—only three days younger than me—suggested that we take a bath together in order to save bathroom time. I hesitated, unsure of how to decline, still too much of a child to make claims on privacy, too new to the privileges of adulthood. We'll keep our chemises on, she persisted. So I agreed.
When the water-heating rod was taken out of the bucket, the water was like a welcoming mouth—not too cold, not too hot. Tara and I picked up a mug each. Our white cotton chemises (hers stitched at home, mine bought at Sheetal Stores) turned translucent as we poured mug after mug of the warm water over our heads. We rubbed Neem soap on our underarms and scrubbed our ears, the chemises sticking to our bony ribs. We casually glanced at each other's budding, eleven-year-olds' beginnings of breasts, the flat buttocks, the reedy thighs. We could have been twins.
The bards of the Rig Veda three thousand years ago and the Gupta dynasty playwrights eighteen hundred years ago and the Sanskrit poets nine hundred years ago are always singing, calling, narrating, reciting, always, always, always addressing the women by their bodies—O fair-hipped one, O lady with the excellent waist, O enchanting one with the rounded belly, O lovely creature with eyes like lotus petals, skin like a blue lotus, breasts like the fruit of the palm tree, thighs like elephant legs: Who are you? Whose are you?
Tara and I did not know about these men. After bathing we ate deep fried lotus root sprinkled with black salt and red chilli powder, then dipped the remaining lotus stem—with eight holes on its cross section—into red paint and stamped it across cloth, culling patterns out of games, laughing like true lotus eaters.
The duchess of Malfi—the one from the play—secretly married a man below her station and became pregnant. She tried to hide this from her brothers, whose family name she had compromised. As a renaissance pregnancy test, the brothers sent her apricots, which the duchess devoured in "a most vulturous" way, and retired to her room, sick. The precocious apricot—the fruit that can't wait for summer—did its job. The duchess was in early labour.
Heed the siren call of a lush fruit and lo, you're a forever fallen woman. In a play that is named after her, the duchess is murdered by the fourth act.
So in seventeenth-century England, apricots were considered aphrodisiacs, and laxatives, and labour-inducers. The praecocum's sunny visage inspires floods of hormones and body fluids. There is something to be said of the liminality of apricots attracting appetitive creatures. Let it be known that I—carousing in the half moon of the Himalayas—was not the only one.
When my parents were sleeping in the afternoon, Tara and I ran into the woods behind the cottage and lit up pine cones with a long match. The DNA of turpentine they hid within themselves flared up, turning flowers into fire.
Do you know of apricot legends? The egg of the sun, the moon of the faithful. The Romans dubbed apricot juice the nectar of the gods. The Chinese believed apricots imbued people with fertility.
Tara, before she started with her periods, had spotted sanitary napkins hidden in her mother's closet and accused her of not letting the family use the "good napkins" during dinner. Everybody had tittered.
Tara had her first period during a family reunion at our Nani's home. Tara shut herself in the bathroom—the house filled with six sisters, three brothers, each of their spouses, and children (which included Tara and me)—and thought she was dying. "Papa, Papa, Papa," she screamed, allowing no one inside.
My period came the next day and when I asked one Auntie Reena for a "that," she handed me a diaper-thick Stayfree with an elastic string studded with plastic loops and buttons that you had to tie around your waist like a girdle in complex manouevers. I was too embarrassed to ask her how to use it—my mother bought the more expensive, stick-on ones for us—so I just tied the pad with the string on the crotch of my underwear, and with progressive rounds of I-Spy and Dumb Charades, the elastic turned redder with blood.
These were the days before "wings" on sanitary napkins became the norm and blood would seep into the sides of your underwear and dry up so that in two hours, the corners of your underpants were jagged knives, sawing into your inner thighs, gouging blue and crimson bruises. My mother told me to apply ghee on the boo-boos.
When I rubbed the blood-caked undies with the blue detergent bar, the water ran purple and the bathroom filled with the smell of flowery metal and bloodied lavender. The blood stains never completely go away.
Over three thousand years ago, the Shang dynasty oracles inscribed bones with characters representing—among other things—apricots. The pyromancer priests chiselled questions on the bones and heated them intensely, causing them to snap. Then the priests divined answers and read the future in the patterns of the cracks. Later centuries chose to paint the questions on the bones with ink and brush, and these bones turn up vacant to us. But the carved apricot questions—like brown splotches on frayed childhood underwear—remain.
A fifty year old woman with an average cycle of five days and two children has bled for 2,400 days. That's six and half years.
My mother is fifty-eight. Before she got married, along with the three kurtas she wore consecutively on repeat, she stitched her own menstrual pads, too, with cloth and cotton wool. She hand washed the pads after every use.
Ever since I had known Nani, my mother's mother, she never wore underwear under her saree and petticoat. After getting married she was constantly pregnant, producing six daughters and three sons, and then she stopped bleeding.
The ancient Egyptians used papyrus to absorb menstrual blood. Romans used wool. Women around the world have variously placed rags, moss, rabbit fur, even soil in their underpants during their periods. Some scholars say Elizabethan women simply bled into their ample skirts.
Most of this is conjecture because most books were written by men and these are women's matters after all. So while men have whole worlds of words that tell them what their male ancestors thought, felt, did and discovered, in subtle nuances of thought and feeling, I don't even know what my grandmother's mother did during her period.
The first modern menstrual napkin was derived from the bandages used to stem the bleeding of wounded First World War soldiers. It was filled with wood pulp.
Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree, the tree of awakening, in Varanasi by the Ganga River. It was a fig.
Alexander, hovering at the edge of the Indus, went looking for the kalpavriksh, the mythical wish-fulfilling tree of India.
I sat beneath the apricot tree and read Hindi comic books where the moon was a dollop of homemade butter, white-yellow, reflected in the grey-blue inkiness of a fictive river. My sister, the more rapacious one of the two of us, read Jane Austen and Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker.
Victorian literature was full of smelling salts and weak women fainting at the sight of blood. My sister said, "But we see blood every month."
Years later in Bombay, Priya's hand got stuck in the Levi's changing room door and dropped glass droplets of blood. My sister steered her to the convenience store to buy Bandaids where Priya promptly fainted on top of the pyramid of water bottles.
"Don't you faint when you chum?" we asked her later, settled into plastic chairs at the neighbouring Subway, the air thick with the smell of bread and cucumbers. She shook her head and said, "No. No, I glow when I chum."
The Gita, one of contemporary Hinduism's holiest books, was written over two thousand years ago. It says that the human body is like a temple with nine gates: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, urethra and anus. What about the tenth gate? The ancient poets who wrote this were men. Shame-shames were clearly not holy to them, unlike their own hallowed orifices.
Some scholars say that the Biblical tree of knowledge bore apricots, not apples.
Confucius distilled many of his philosophies into books while sitting in an apricot grove. Were the fruits in bloom? The grove must have been dappled with lambent apricots: holes punched in green curtains and behind the drapes, flame.
In summer, the sun-facing sides of apricots turned red. That's when the apricots burned. Every evening when the sky turned the colour of blood oranges, forest fires shimmered on the hills overlooking the apricot tree, like mountain mirages. The days were a white haze.
The fire came to the hill behind the cottage and blinded us with smoke that hung above our heads, floating over the apricots and the Barbies' blue eyes. My father shut all the doors and windows, my mother made chai. My sister and I sat in their bedroom with streaming eyes.
Three thousand years ago, the poet-seers of the Upanishads chanted that during the ritual yagna, the fire is a vagina, the firewood is the vulva and the smoke is the pubic hair. When pouring ghee into the sacred flames that grow lustier with fuel, the worshipper—in a sexual embrace with his partner—is mimicking intercourse. The crackling of the fire is their orgasm.
Decades later, my husband and I will sit in front of another fire. We will laugh at the sexist wedding vows and pour ghee into the snapping blaze. We'll be giddy with happiness, gleeful at this profanity, of forging our own path amidst the rituals, and thus getting away with something. What that something was, we can't ever define.
Sharing an apartment in Bombay, my sister and I slowly started synchronising our periods—so for three weary days every month, we circulated hot water bottles and painkillers, sanitary napkins and sympathy. We cooked comforting daal-rice for each other and fantasised about menstruation days-off from work.
On the internet, the history of menstruation is a mystical, moony thing, filled with esoteric stories of goddesses wearing flowery headbands—like a Brooklyn-based clothing line's idea of fairies, Instagrammed and selling on Etsy. There are no bloody toilet bowls here, as if women release not blood but blue water, as shown in tampon ads.
What is it about goddesses and blood? In Guwahati, India, every June when the monsoon rages and the Brahmaputra River swells, devotees throng to the Ambubachi festival to celebrate Devi Kamakhya's month-long period. Kamakhya is an avatar of Kali and is represented by a stone shaped like a yoni—Sanskrit for vulva—the whole goddess packed into the shame-shame. Like a black hole, like a supernova.
But when Gupta auntie—my painting teacher at thirteen—took me to a contest held in the premises of a temple, she pulled me aside and asked, "Are you ok?" She sheepishly explained that girls "with menses" were not allowed to enter the temple. My mother never applied this rule to my sister and me, although she followed it herself. "No, I'm fine," I said to Gupta auntie and she smiled at me with relief. Obviously I lied.
An article in Salon about the shortage of sanitary napkins in Zambia— leading to Zambian women using tree bark and getting infections—received outraged comments. "I feel for women who suffer, but is this really among the most important public health issues in Africa?" "I'm not sure how using tree bark externally to absorb blood would cause a vaginal infection."
Against this hierarchisation of third-world problems, there are the third-world women. In India today, only twelve percent of women use disposable sanitary pads. Rural women, finding the cost prohibitive, use rags, dried leaves, newspapers, saw dust and ash. Seventy percent of reproductive diseases in India, including high rates of cervical cancer, are linked to poor menstrual hygiene. One out of every five girls in India drops out of school after she starts menstruating. This is because she does not have access to sanitary napkins to use during her monthly ritual, and the schools lack toilets.
The word ritual comes from the Sanskrit "ritu," which means an appointed time for worship, a season, and menstruation.
My season has come and gone, every month of every year since the apricots, regular like a pulsing disco light. Maroon clots bloom in the bathtub like dark roses, diaphanous globules unfurl like crimson mushroom clouds in toilet water. Until one month when they did not.
Until I waited a week and waited another week. Until I tracked each twinge in my abdomen, each thrum in the lower back, each moistening of the shame-shame a sign, a hope. Until one afternoon I cried while splayed on the bunk bed, where my sister found me, with a snotty nose and dry underwear. Until a medical store far away from home and a pregnancy test kit. Until the toilet in the McDonald's where my sister stood waiting outside, ready to say, "I told you it was a false alarm." Until I unlocked the door and walked past her and kept walking through the red and yellow tables, the ketchupy, sticky floor, the golden French fry-scented air, the crowds of the market outside, the crush, the dirge, the turmoil of motor bikes and cycles and auto rickshaws and cars and my sister running behind me shouting, "Didi, stop."
Until a friendly doctor. Until a kind chemist. Until some pills and two discreet days, no pain, blood, glorious blood.
That fall we left the Himalayas for the North Indian plains where no apricot trees survive.
Have you seen apricots? Unpicked, rotting on the branches. Auburn, cinnamon, ginger like the vistas of hills that faded away in the gap between Ravi's home and mine. Deflated, shrivelled apricots, forgotten, still on the tree.
I buy three apricots from the bodega, but they're not the same.