When I was eight my family moved to Australia from Malaysia. I remember my Aachi (grandmother) wailing as we said goodbye. Perhaps she was worried about who we would become without the support of the community my grandfather had worked hard to build. In Malaysia, our door was always open to our family and friends: Indians, Sikhs, Malays and Chinese. I later learned that, for my mother, moving to Australia was an opportunity to escape the crushing constraints of tradition.
When I was 11, during one of my Aachi’s visits, I got my period for the first time. We had only just started sex education at school, so I was unsure of what was happening to me. I told my mother, and as she looked at me, alarmed, my Aachi laughed, clapped her hands and said, “I knew it was going to happen! I looked at your face yesterday and just knew you were going to be a woman while I was here!” I’d finally got my own bedroom the year before, so I figured this was the next step. I felt proud.
In my culture, a girl’s first bleed is celebrated, as it symbolises her official passage into womanhood. My mother shared the news with her father over the phone that night, which was then seemingly broadcast to the whole of Malaysia. My grandfather liaised with monks to organise the ceremony which would commemorate my passage into adulthood. Custom forbade me from seeing any men before the ceremony, so I said goodbye to my father and spent a week at home, sleeping beside Aachi at night.
That first night, she walked into the bedroom with a broom, which she placed under the bed to “chase the evil spirits away.” Every morning she woke me up early and forced me to swallow a raw egg. “I did this too,” she said, smiling each time I gagged and tried to bargain my way out of it. I was forbidden from going outside or looking at mirrors, as it was considered bad luck, and it would “make you ugly”.
On the day of the ceremony, Buddhist blessings chanted loudly through the speakers. A ceramic pot was filled with water, flowers and herbs. Traditionally, the girl would be bathed by her aunt, but Aachi insisted that she do it. As I was drying myself off, I heard a loud crash as she threw the pot to the floor. “The pot didn’t break so much, and that means you are going to have a happy marriage.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her, as the pot had shattered into crumbs.
Wrapped in a white towel, I cracked open a coconut which indicated the gender of my future child. “She is going to have girls like you,” my Aachi said to my mother. I didn’t tell her that my aim was off from trying to hold up the towel with one hand, and handling the largest knife I had ever seen with the other.
After getting dressed in new clothes, I was adorned with special jewellery, and we feasted on the traditional Sri Lankan milk rice dish, kiri bath. The celebration was held a few days later in a big hall. I wore a bright pink lama-sari. I remember being embarrassed explaining to my younger cousins that I was now a woman, and that I couldn’t play with them as I had to be a good host. However, after the lighting of the lamp and dancing with my father, I couldn’t resist the lure of their laughter, and I joined them in a game of tag. The next day, as I was opening my cards and presents, a small plastic packet fell into my lap. My mother grabbed it from me and said I was too young to have it. Later, I snuck into her room to find that it was a condom.
When my close friend got her period for the first time, I took her to the school toilets, handed her a pad, and showed her how to use it. The next day she was back at school. I asked her what her mother said about her becoming a woman. She shrugged and said “nothing”, and the event passed by without much fuss. There seemed to be a level of secrecy around it that I found strange.
In hindsight, my ceremony made me feel loved, special and part of a community. It taught me that change was something to be celebrated, and it made me feel connected to the women in my family. Although I didn’t feel any different at the time, looking back, I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced it because the event tied us to each other. My great-grandmother celebrated my grandmother who celebrated my mother who celebrated me and eventually we celebrated my sister who looked beautiful on the day of her celebration.
I will always remember my Aachi telling me, apple cheeks lifted to her eyes in a chuckle, “now you can be like me and get married at 16.” In her day, the ancient celebration used to announce to the village a daughter’s readiness to be married. For me, it announced the beginning of the next chapter of my life.