Images, phrases, and characters from books that we read, films we watch, and art and music that we experience and places we visit leave impressions on our minds. Without realising it, each one, is intertwined with another and contributes to shaping our lens on the world. The iconic designer Paula Scher wrote: “We can pick our teachers and we can pick our friends and we can pick the books we read and the music we listen to and the movies we see, etcetera. You are a mashup of what you let into your life.”

In the Introduction of Period Matters: Menstruation in South Asia, I explain the idea of the book, and why I decided it must be genre crossing. Period Matters was published in July 2022, and in December that year I travelled to India to meet some of the writers and artists who had been in my mind’s eye for decades.

While growing up in Kenya in the 1980s, was when I first came across a character menstruating in a novel. I was shocked to see it discussed in a book so openly and also to learn how the character’s experience was so different from my own. In my family, while periods were not openly talked about, I had no restrictions imposed on me. However, there was no language for the experience, no word that was used in our everyday exchanges that described periods. I learnt later how my mother and aunts shared a coded language. They referred to their periods as “Mgeni” which is the Swahil word for visitors. For many years I had no idea who the “invisible monthly guests” were.

It was in Shashi Deshpande’s novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980) set in India where in my teens, I read about the protagonist Saru and how she was banished from participating in the domestic life of her family during her period. For her: “It was just torture. Not just the three days when I couldn’t enter the kitchen or the puja room. Not just the sleeping on a straw mat covered with a thin sheet. Not just the feeling of being a pariah, with my special cup and plate by my side in which I was served from a distance, for my touch was, it seemed, pollution. No, it was something quite different, much worse. A kind of shame that engulfed me.”

Saru’s experience left an indelible impression on my young mind. I could not forget how her utensils were kept separate, and her shame. Without realising it, this was my earliest and formative exposure to understanding how periods are experienced differently by each person. 30 years after reading her novel, I finally met Shashi Deshpande.

Chapter one of Period Matters is “Menstruation Matters” by Shashi Deshpande. In her essay she discusses what it was like for her to get her period in the 1940s, the practical reaction of her mother who started sewing pads for her, and her father, who suddenly no longer saw her as a child. She also talks about how women’s bodies and controlling them is inherently political and mentions the recent Sabarimala Temple controversy as an example.

While growing up in Kenya I had friends from all backgrounds. Thanks to them, I was able to visit a gurudwara, a temple, mosques, different churches, and a synagogue. This exposed me to the different ways people tried to connect with something they believed was greater than themselves. As a Muslim woman I had never been barred from entering any of these sacred spaces. So you can imagine my surprise, when during a visit to India in 2019, I was stopped at the entrance of a temple and asked if I was menstruating. Being questioned like that about intimate details about my body by a stranger made me realise how much I had taken for granted growing up in East Africa.

Period Matters shows how menstruators’ experiences are coloured by their contexts, religious rites, and practices. Tashi Zangmo writes about the Buddhist nuns in Bhutan, Ayra Indrias shares the story of the Lahore Christian sweepers, and Siba Bartataki talks about the annual Assamese Ambubasi festival which celebrates the Hindu goddess, Maa Kamakhya on her menstrual cycle.

In the 1990s I read Shashi Tharoor’s satirical novel, The Great Indian Novel. In those days, he often appeared on Kenyan television because of his work in the UN. Years later, during the summer of 2019 when I was thinking about the draft proposal for Period Matters, coincidentally I attended a book event in London where Shashi Tharoor was speaking about his favourite books. Because of the research I was doing related to my book, I’d read about the Sabarimala Temple issue. After the event I approached him with a handwritten note telling him about my book. Five days later I received an email from him.

In Period Matters, Shashi Tharoor discusses his Menstrual Rights Bill which he put forward at the Indian Lokh Sabha. He argues that menstrual dignity is a basic human right and makes a case for menstrual equity.

While visiting Vancouver in 2005, I watched Deepa Mehta’s film Water. The film is about a widowed child bride who resists the practices in a Hindu ashram where she is expected to atone for her fate. The sensitivity with which Lisa Ray portrayed the character stayed with me for a long time, as did what I learnt about religious rites in other contexts.

In the final chapter of Period Matters, Lisa Ray writes about how for her the menopause was triggered early because of chemotherapy. She shares her journey of how she coped with the many difficult emotional and physical changes, and came to a new realisation of herself as the source and embodiment of feminine power, and the importance of having healing female friendships.

In 2009, I saw Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. He had flung and splattered crimson paint on the walls and floors, leaving the impression of a trail of red blood. When thinking of which South Asian artists should be included in Period Matters, I recalled Kapoor’s work and did some research. To my amazement I found that he had just made a series of menstrual paintings with oil which were on display at the Lisson Gallery in London.

How could it be a coincidence? Period Matters contains three visuals of the paintings from Anish Kapoor, where blood gushes and leaks from corporeal pink and black orifices and cavities. The works are entitled, “Blood Hole”, “Out of Me”, and “New Blood”. He was accused of appropriating women’s bodies to make this art. In his creative process he asked, “Can a man deal with women’s issues? Is he allowed to? Black is deathly, but also, like red, a colour of earth.”

In 2017, when visiting Lahore, I came across Love in Chakiwara by Mohamed Khalid Akhtar, translated from the Urdu by Bilal Tanweer. These lively, interconnected stories are set in the backstreets of Karachi. But what struck me most about the book, was its clean, sparse prose. I checked the Acknowledgements to see who the editor was and there found Teesta Guha Sarkar. I wrote to her to congratulate her on her fine editorial skills and told myself, that if I ever wrote a book, she would be the editor. I met her for the first time after five years at the book launch of Period Matters in New Delhi, at the Kunzum Bookshop.

In 2019, when I first conceived of the idea of Period Matters I wrote to Teesta. She was instrumental in helping to realise the vision of the book, assisting to fine tune the prose and bringing it into the world.

In 2018, I came across K Madavane’s collection of poignant short stories To Die in Benares. One of the stories, “Paper Boat”, left me quite shaken, and I contacted K Madavane to tell him how much I enjoyed his writing. We started corresponding over email and when I told him about the anthology he offered to write a story. When I visited him in Pondicherry, he showed me the street where he had set the story. “This is where Guna’s house was,” he said. “Can you see it?”

Period Matters carries short fiction by K Madavane, translated from the French by Siba Bartataki. Set in Pondicherry, “Behind the Braided Coconut Leaves” is the bitter, sweet story of a young boy, Guna’s gaze on his sister’s first menstruation experience. His understanding is influenced by his family’s traditions, cultural context, and religious myths of the bleeding goddess, Badra Kaali.

While in Lahore in 2019, I had the chance to visit the Faiz Literary Festival in Lahore. In the setting of the Lawrence Gardens ampitheatre, I witnessed a moving dance performance by Amna Mawaz Khan. Dressed from head to toe in black, she moved across the stage with strong, powerful movements to show how dance could be used to bring about awareness for societal change. Through her hand gestures and foot work she told a story which provoked me to reflect on patriarchy and state oppression. I realised how dance was another strategy for storytelling and how words are not always necessary. Music and gestures can speak volumes.

All through my childhood and youth in Kenya, I grew up listening to Indian classical music because my parents both loved it. On Sundays especially, our house was filled with the sounds of ancient raags, ghazals, and qawaali. Amna’s work resonated with me, and when we met, we formed an instant friendship.

Period Matters carries a QR code for Amna’s dance. I contacted Amna when I was compiling Period Matters and asked if she would be interested in choreographing a dance where she interpreted her menstrual cycle through dance. In her essay she explains how she choreographed Raaqs-e-Mahvaari, to convey her relationship to her monthly cycle. In her dance, her hand gestures indicate her embracing female power, at other times, using other mudras she shows how she resists control over her body by external forces. She dances with red paint on her feet, leaving red footprints on the floor, to show her defiance of period shaming and her reclamation of the lived spaces or “chaar deewar” which menstruators have to navigate every month. Amna also translated two poems, by Victoria Patrick, from the Urdu for the book.

Earlier this month I read “Love in the Footnotes” published in Asymptote, translated from the Persian by Maryam Zehtabi Sabeti Moqaddam and penned by Mahsa Mohebali. In it the writer explores the trajectory of a woman’s relationship and how it is interwoven with artistic, film, and literary impressions.

This essay, “Book in the Footnotes” also traces the artistic and literary influences leading to the compilation of Period Matters.

Period Matters, Edited by Farah Ahamed, Pan Macmillan India.