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A Ritual of Exile: Notes from the Field by Poulomi Basu

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It was 47 degree celsius. Burning hot. I was living in a small hut without any electricity or running water. I wasn’t complaining because I still had decent shelter compared to the women enduring the brutal and degrading ritual of Chhaupadi, whose experiences I was documenting in both stills and 360 degree video (VR). This practice involves girls and women being made to live in rudimentary shelters, exposed to the elements, out of superstitious reasoning and a tradition, linked to Hinduism, that their blood is considered impure during menstruation.

One evening, about midnight, whilst I was sitting down and making notes, I heard the cry of a baby through the wilderness. In the darkness we could do so little to precisely locate its source. I started to make an audio recording. I knew that the next day we would have to find the source of this painful cry, which kept on long into the night.

The next morning we walked to the local medical post to check on newly born babies and their mothers. I chanced upon Saraswati, a young sixteen-year-old teenage girl. She looked perplexed, not happy. At her tender age, she seemed barely able to comprehend her new role as mother, something she would now have to learn and understand during fifteen days of exile in a chhaupadi hut. In mid western Nepal, not only are girls and women sent into exile the minute they hit puberty and begin menstruating, but also directly after childbirth.

A new mother, exiled, Saraswati, like all those observing the ritual, must forego dairy products, vegetables, meat, and lentils from her diet. She can only come out of her room when she needs the toilet (which she must do in the wilderness) or to wash her own dishes and clean her face. She isn’t however allowed to fully bathe and clean herself. So cruel is the ritual that even her baby has to practice chhaupadi. It was melting hot, an impossible existence in a small four-foot by four foot-hut. Saraswati was also forced to cook her food in this space, the same space where she and her child slept. The cooking turned the room into a smoke chamber, impossible for human survival, let alone a three-day-old baby.

Speaking to the local teacher, I was able to meet her family. Unfortunately, she could not give her own permission to be photographed — it must first be sought from the husband, in this case a lean, frail 21-year-old boy who is a migrant worker in India, and his mother.

When I met Sarawasti in her exile, her baby was only three-days-old. She looked sad and in pain. Following the birth, her legs had swollen to such an extent that she could barely walk. After a caesarian birth, a woman is meant to walk to exercise, breathe fresh air outside, and celebrating the birth with friends and neighbors. But all of this was robbed from her along with her childhood, her basic human rights, and her dignity. Saraswati used to get happy whenever we met. Perhaps this was because my colleague and I were the only other woman spending time with her during her exile, even though most of our interactions had the longest periods of silence.

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The walk from my hut and Saraswati’s house was roughly a two-hour walk. A mountainous path crisscrossing dry river beds, bushfires and forests; it was a path full of rural, exotic beauty masking the pain that lies within.

I used to make the journey four times a day in order to work in the early morning and in the evening. The heat of the day was too extreme to work – for us or for the local people. Photographing very little, I spent a lot of time sitting and watching her and being with her; all the time trying to understand all that she must be thinking and not saying, her complete lack of understanding of what to with a baby, being barely more than a child herself.

Then one afternoon while I was sitting outside peeling fruits, I heard a loud cry behind me. I watched Saraswati break down in a way I have never witnessed before. She let out a loud—a very loud—cry and her baby almost slipped out of her lap. I was shaking in fear for her. Saraswati was burning. She was running high fever. No one cared to ask or find out what was happening. We all rushed in to help her and calm her and hold the baby.

Later I learned that she had often suffered similar breakdowns. The first started two years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating regional floods in which she had lost family and friends. The breakdowns had returned during her pregnancy. She was suffering from high forms of stress disorder and was beginning to face her own defeat. It was painful and troubling to see, this young girl suffering from such a debilitating stress disorder.  

Following Saraswati’s breakdown, I was able to have a long chat with her husband. He did not like the practice of Chhaupadi, but like many, he is a slave to the tradition. But in this instance, the extremity of Saraswati’s conditions was a real challenge to the traditional ways, to the orthodoxy of the village. It was, however, clear that an exception had to be made.

The days of her post birth exile had taken their toll. Saraswati’s legs were swollen and bloated. She could barely walk. At a stretch, maybe she could walk for an hour, but the journey to the hospital was extreme: a two-and-a-half hour walk to reach a river, which she would have to cross, before she could pick up the bus that would take her on a further hour’s journey to reach the hospital. I went to see her again that day. She looked grave and hopeless and the fever had only gotten worse.

The alternative was no less a feat of endurance. She would have to be strapped to a stretcher and eight men would have to carry her across the river to the point where she could pick up the hospital-bound bus. An arduous journey in itself, but this would also require money, something that the family was without.

A medical intervention had to be made or she we would run the risk of losing her life. The husband kept crying to me, scared and worried and helpless. His monthly wage only 2000 rupees, which he makes from working in a street restaurant in India. I was witnessing first-hand the extreme impact of this damaging ritual, it was harrowing and in those moments I was forced to question the ethics of my own journalism: does one stay impartial or should you intervene and become involved in the situation you are documenting?

With a young woman’s life at stake, the choice seemed clear. We had to help. My colleague and I raised the money so that she could get a stretcher out and get her to the hospital. As we helped Saraswati get on the stretcher, I said my goodbye and tried to reassure her that everything would be okay and that she was going to a safe place. In her semi-conscious state, she didn’t say a word, she just held onto my hand and nodded.

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I returned from the wilderness, shell shocked and dazed. The brutality of chhaupadi had been laid bare. A young girl’s life, pushed to the edge by ritual and violence disguised as tradition. Why should this young girl, and others like her, be made to suffer for some sins committed in some past life? Religion and traditions keeping menstruation shrouded in taboo so that it can be used as a weapon, a means of control. It is barbaric. Truly shameful that violence should mark every stage of a girl’s coming of age.

— Poulomi Basu, 2016 Emergency Fund grantee

Katerina Voegtle