I got a call early this morning that my cousin has “Attended Age” and the ceremony is on Monday morning. Would I be able to attend? At first I felt the Westerner in me leaning no, as a blur of excuses rushed through my head. But I ignored my instinct and agreed.
The whole thing is rather antiquated and thoroughly embarrassing for the girl. I know well enough, since I got my first period in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan English way of saying it is, “Attending Age.” The more common expression is becoming a “Big girl”. Haha Reminds me of “Eya dan Loku Lamayek” an old Sri Lankan film featuring Malini Fonseka. Tangent.
I will never forget the whole thing, because of trauma or hilarity or because as a Sri Lankan it actually mattered to me I don’t know yet.
It all started the day of my Inter-House Sports meet (you Harry Potter fans will recognize ‘House’) I was 12. I came home from a day of playing Bass Drums, marching in the squad and running up to get all 15 gold, silver and bronze medals- only to find… Well you know what I found.
I had been advised for months from various female relatives, mostly my mom, to let her know as soon as I saw “the sign.” This was in the midst of third person conversations by various aunties commenting on the size of my breasts and explaining,
“Is she a Big girl? No? My my, time is close I would say. Quite the bosom no? What’s her Bra size? How old is she? 12? Ah then time is near. Have you spoken to her Kumari? You know, what to expect? And the changes of course?”
And so it would go, while I sat twitching uncomfortably, feeling a little bit like a show horse. Or cow. Occasionally, they would actually notice me sitting there, and i would get orders.
“Sit up, child! Young women shouldn’t slouch!”
“Sit with your legs together, you’re not a baby anymore.You’ll be a woman soon.”
“Stop running around like a wild child, you’ll be a young woman soon. And young women don’t run.”
“My Pavi, how dirty you are… go clean up. No young woman should be filthy.”
Becoming a woman sounded boring.
Of course I was well trained by the time the day arrived. First I yelled for my mother- (AMMMMMAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ennnnaaaa!!!!) then the cook came running into the room with a large cast iron machete. I was to keep it by my side at all time, especially when I slept. I was also not to be left alone. The explanation was because apparently a girls first period is a time when she is vulnerable to demons and spirits, but looking back on it now I think it’s pretty clear a young girl with a machete, and a female chaperone had more to do with protecting her from men, than demons.
My mom came home from the astrologer and told me the auspicious time was set for a week from the day. She called an older cousin sister to come and spend the week with me, since the cook couldn’t stay with me all day for a week. She told me I’m not allowed to look at any men, and no man is allowed to see me. I was not allowed to shower (“You must never wet your head during this time, or you will die!” Explained the cook), and only sponge baths were allowed till the auspicious day. I was not allowed to eat any fatty foods, no meat, fish or eggs. I was to stay in my room- the rest of the house was off limits. Partly because of my brother, father, grandfather, the driver and Gardner- but also because its better to stay in my room with the machete. To protect me from demons of course.
Back to the present, I’m not quite sure how my aunt is going to manage all these traditions in a 2 bedroom apartment in Boston Suburbs- but she’ll follow it to the best of her ability. It’s her Sri Lankaness. My grandmother’s Sri Lankanness. My uncle’s. But I wonder if my cousin sister will take away anything from this ordeal. My own Sri Lankanness tells me that no matter how much I wail and complain about it, I will put my daughter through the very same thing for the sake of culture. Plus, it’s a great story to tell.
On the morning of the auspicious day, I’m positively sour from not showering in a tropical country for a week (some of my class mates didn’t get their auspicious time for 3-4 weeks!!!) I’m woken at 5AM and shoved into a white dress. At exactly twelve and a half seconds passed 515 my mom covers me in a white sheet and runs me into the garden. First I swing the machete at a tree until the sap starts flowing. Then I head to the garden tap where my mom pours a pot of freezing cold water with herbs and flowers over my head. My first shower as a woman. 530am. In my garden. Freezing cold. So far being a woman sucks.
The rest of the morning wasn’t bad. I had to smash a coconut open, light some lamps, enter the house and see my dad and grandfather who adorned me in various gold jewellery. My mom gave me a set set of clothes in my auspicious colour- Yellow/gold. And the day and week progressed with various family members, cousins, family friends, office workers coming to the house. I had to greet them and graciously accept their gifts.
It all seemed fun as a 12 year old girl getting gifts and skipping a week of school. But culturally I was being paraded to the community as a woman, ready for marriage. Again- show cow?
I’m sure in the past the tradition worked quite well, for girls being married at 15-16 years. But now can my aunt (or my mom) justify the tradition in this increasingly modern and westernized world? It’s difficult to do with tradition. It’s difficult to do with Culture. Sometimes it’s difficult to do with religion. There may be things that don’t make sense in this day and age, but made perfect sense in the past. I always find the roots of culture are always based in good sense.
Does that mean Culture, Tradition and Religion should progress with time? Or fundamentally is the very essence of culture, tradition and religion that it is is constantly behind the times? Should we let go of traditions that seem out dated to us? Or do we keep them alive because of what they tell us about our past?
The more pressing question is
What kind of a present should I offer my now ripe-for-the-picking cousin, who is barely out of middle school?
It’s not just antiquated traditions like this, but many lessons and parts of my personality that have grown from the traditions my parents always exposed me to. There is no doubt my culture has shaped me and the decisions i make. Antiquated or not, this culture is mine. And from this i have created my own brand of Culture. The Sri Lankan- American culture. I will make my daughter stay in a room with a kitchen knife, i will bath her at the break of dawn, adorn her in jewels, but to save her the embarrassment I would skip the announcement to the world, and refrain inviting all my friends and relatives to celebrate my daughter’s first period.
A Sri Lankan tradition, with an American twist.