Vijaya was only 12 years old when her world came crashing down. The girl from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu was banished by her family in November to a shed outside her home when she menstruated for the first time. She stayed there for three days, until a gathering cyclone whipped the state and the temporary shelter collapsed on her. Vijaya died.
In a nation of more than a billion people, the death of a girl in a far corner of the country made no difference. The news was mostly buried in inside pages of newspapers and barely found mention on television channels generally obsessed with celebrities, controversies and scandals. There were plenty of them in 2018 and Vijaya’s tragic death was generally ignored.
To find space—however fleetingly—under the spotlight is never easy in a country such as India where there is never a dull moment. 2018 was no different. The year began with a rare press conference by four senior sitting judges of the Supreme Court—interpreted as a virtual rebellion against the chief justice—and the nation remained transfixed for days on the rumblings within the highest levels of the judiciary. No sooner had the story died down, more high-octane events surfaced to sweep the nation off its feet with all their attendant drama.
Highs and lows were never in short supply in the year gone by. We exulted as a nation when ace athlete Hima Das scorched the racing track in Finland or cricketer Virat Kohli set the field ablaze with another exquisite century. We went into collective shock when innocents were lynched, whether in Assam or in Rajasthan. We were dismayed when diamantaire Nirav Modi bolted after defrauding banks. We were outraged when the government cracked down on dissent and detained several academics on what seemed to be flimsy grounds. State elections had us in thrall, while a landmark judgment decriminalising homosexuality gave us a feeling of liberation.
The tumult that marked the progress of 2018 provided a kaleidoscope of our emotions: from joy and excitement to grief and sorrow. You name the sentiment and each of them was on display in the past twelve months.
With so much to choose from, it’s never easy to sum up and pick one strand that defined the past year most emphatically. Time magazine, our venerable role model, has set a global trend, selecting a Person of the Year for its yearend issue. We at Outlook have, however, decided to settle for something more substantive from now on to encapsulate the 12 months by settling for an Issue of the Year.
Vijaya, in her death, helped us make up our mind. Menstruation is a necessary rite of passage for women, who constitute over 48 per cent of our population. Yet, the girl was made to pay with her life for a natural biological phenomenon. India never ceases to surprise, and the stigma, prejudice and ignorance attached to menstruation is indeed baffling.
India’s unease with natural changes in the women’s body stared at us in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict. Women of menstruating age were banned from the temple in Kerala, a tradition which the highest court struck down. All hell broke loose thereafter with many arguing that letting ‘bleeding’ women into the temple would make the deity ‘impure’.
Without being judgemental and abstaining from the larger debate over faith versus law, the upheaval that swept through Kerala is an astounding statement of our inability to come to terms with menstruation. Not every woman meets the fate of Vijaya. But what they are forced to endure is no less heartbreaking. Our ignorance is our collective shame and, therefore, our choice for Issue of the Year is Menstruation.
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