Print Edition - 2017-08-12  |  On Saturday

Banished

Aug 12, 2017-A bill proposing the criminalisation of banishing menstruating women, through a practice called Chhaupadi, was recently passed in the Parliament. Menstruating women in general are deemed impure in several Nepali communities. And thousands of women in Nepal are still forced to live in isolation and away from home in a ‘Chhau Goth’—an outdoor shed that they are banished to for the duration of their menstruation.   Over time, several accidents have been recorded, and many more have gone unreported. Often, women lose not only their dignity but also their lives while staying in these huts. Author Raj Sargam’s Madan Puraskar nominated book, Chhaughar, explores this malpractice and the effect it has had in several communities and their psyche. Sargam, who has authored two novels and also written scripts for several movies, talks about Chhaupadi as a practice, the importance of open dialogue and what it’s like writing about women’s issue as a man in this conversation with Samikshya Bhattarai. Excerpts:

Menstrual huts have made their way into the news again after a Nepali teenager was recently killed from snakebite while being banished to a Chhau Ghar. The news caused uproar in the media and pushed many human rights activists to condemn this age-old malpractice, which culminated in the passing of a bill criminalising it. Do you anticipate any breakthroughs regarding Chhaupadi in the coming years? 

I do anticipate some positive changes as more and more people have been educated about menstrual health and hygiene. Many people have been able to bust the taboos related to menstruation in the last few years and this is good news. However, it goes without saying that much effort still has to be made at the governmental level. If we want to end the malpractice of Chhaupadi, the awareness has to be spread at the grassroots level as it is the women in the remotest villages that suffer the most. The government has made attempts, time and again, to eradicate Chhaupadi but has also failed when it comes to effective implementation. Much needs to be done in order to wipe out the conservative school of thought which has given birth to Chhaupadi in the first place. The recent bill is much-needed progress, but it will not amount to anything unless changes take root in people’s psyche.

 

In your book, you talk about the physical menstrual huts, but also of mental menstrual huts. What do you mean by that and why does it need to be deconstructed?

We cannot hope to stamp out the long-run and deeply rooted Chhaupadi tradition by only demolishing physical menstrual huts; we have to knock down the menstrual huts in our minds; that is, we need profound consciousness about the ills of Chhaupadi. I think it is only after each family internalises that this menstrual ritual does more damage than good that we can truly knock down these huts. 

It’s all in the head. Once we set our heads straight, there’s no stopping from eradicating Chhaupadi. 

How difficult was it as a man, to write this very personal story from a little girl’s perspective, having never undergone the experience of being banished to a hut yourself? How did you find the right voice for the novel?

Being a man, I haven’t experienced menstruation. But what I lack in experience, I made it up from research and interviews with young girls. The challenge lay in getting girls to speak about menstruation, as they would shy away from answering my questions or even feel offended. Some even thought that I was trying to make a pass at them.  Having decided to tell the story of a girl who tries to make sense of menstruation and taboos associated with it, it was quite easy for me to decide to tell the story from her point of view and in a format of a journal. You can say that the story found its voice on its own. 

 

There have been a lot of articles and academic papers written on the 

practice. Why was it important to talk about the issue in the form of a novel? What does a novel offer that non-fiction or academic writings don’t?

I am a fiction writer and I could have touched on the issue only in the form of a novel. Also, as a fiction writer, I think, I have certain responsibilities towards the society where I live in. This novel about Chhaupadi was my attempt at fulfilling my responsibility of making our society a better place to live in. 

I think the novel allows the reader to live the experiences, which non-fiction or academic writing cannot. Which is why, I wouldn’t say it is more powerful than non-fiction, but it turns the table on the readers and invites them to explore Chhaupadi malpractice through lenses that might otherwise not be accessible to them. With non-fiction, and particularly academic writing, it is easy to detach yourself from the subject matter but fiction gets you invested and involved, and that is important. 

Published: 12-08-2017 08:04

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