It was a humid Saturday afternoon in Calicut in the year 1999. Most of my MBBS batch was in Coronation theatre after the Pharmacology average exam. The movie was Sangharsh. A Hindi remake of Silence of the Lambs. I was skeptical as to how the director would carry it off as the villain was bound to be a desi-fied, melodramatic version of the chilling eater-of-human-brain-with-a-teaspoon, Anthony Hopkins character in the same. As the movie progressed to interval, I realized it was actually not too bad. The petite heroine, Preity Zinta did make a convincing CBI inspector and Akshay Kumar the lead actor, whom I couldn’t stand, did manage to actually act. For the villain, instead of a suave, smooth-talking cannibal we had a red tilak smeared on forehead, Kali worshipper who sacrifices children instead. Ashutosh Rana at his eye bulging best. Cannibalism had not been dropped entirely though. In one gruesome scene, they did show the villain biting off large chunks of flesh.
Unfortunately, these were the only points of comparison with the original Hollywood thriller. Now in all my years as a Hindi movie goer, never in a Bollywood movie does the hero actually die. If he had fallen off a cliff, he would miraculously climb up. If he got life imprisonment, he would be out scotfree within in a year for unprecedented good conduct. If he had cancer, the heroine would miraculously find the cure, and so on and so forth.
The movie ended quite bizarrely enough. Here for the first time, the hero Akshay Kumar, actually DIED much to the chagrin of the heroine who was left high and dry.
As my roomie passed the packet of popcorn to me, she realized I was quietly wiping away tears. Me? Yes! I am a big one for melodrama. I can cry at the drop of a hat for the stupidest of sentiments expressed in the most tragi-comical way on screen. On a regular day, I could manage to escape unnoticed by surreptitiously wiping away a tear.
As the hall lights slowly came on, my roomie, Sujata was alarmed to see my tear-streaked face.
‘Hey!! why are you crying?’
‘H-h-h-he…sob sob…..d-d-d-died !!!’, I wailed.
‘Who?’, she asked, genuinely mystified.
‘Ak-k-k-shay K-k-k-kumar dddied’.
‘Get a grip on yourself….it’s only a movie, you idiot’,she hissed.
I of course, couldn’t stop.
‘People are looking at us now’, she mumbled .
I was sobbing uncontrollably now. As we tried to exit, a bunch of guys from our batch, sitting two rows behind us noticed the ruckus. One of them, stepped in front and confronted us, looking a bit concerned. He asked me, ‘What happened, did some boy try to harass you or something?’ I shook my head. Convinced that I was hiding something, he coaxed me again, ‘Just point out who it is, we’ll take care of him.’
I was struggling with words now, I started my reply, half-stuttering, ‘Akkkkk…kshhhh ay….kkkk’
And then, before I could blabber out any more, Sujata butted in and neatly refused his chivalrous gesture. ‘She is not feeling well. Errr…nobody did anything.’ The guys, of course looked utterly unconvinced and watched suspiciously as all ten of us walked full speed towards the exit. It would be difficult to wait with a sobbing me at a bus stop, so Sujata flagged an auto and two of us went back separately to the hostel. I was crying softly now. The auto rickshaw driver turned back two three times with concern writ large on his face. As we alighted at the hostel gate, he gravely refused to accept the fare. His eyes were brimming with tears and he was quite certain, some great calamity had befallen me. Sujata finally managed to thrust some money onto him and escort me by the elbow to my room. ‘You don’t even like Akshay Kumar!’ she hissed. ‘It’s PMS, right?’ she asked. I nodded my head meekly. She groaned and then started laughing. ‘That autorickshaw guy! Wonder if he was on his PMS too. He looked so distraught seeing your condition. If only he knew, that you were crying because Akshay Kumar died in the movie!’
I took a bath and was wiping my hair dry when the others trooped in. They were most amused to see my embarrassed, swollen eyed face.
‘It’s that time of the month, right?’
I nodded my head woefully.
PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is something I’ve dreaded to confess to. It’s those 2 days in the month when one is a little more on the edge. It’s not that you weren’t aware of this irritant earlier. It’s just that you are more acutely aware of it now. The irritant just appears terribly irritating now and one has less patience to deal with it. Reasoning or judgement doesn’t get affected , things seem to be more clearer actually. One is a little more snappy about things that one on a regular day, one would politely over look and grit ones teeth in silence about.
PMS is recognized disorder today, with definite guidelines* in place for treatment. A more disabling extension of it, called PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) even finds mention as a DSM-V criteria disorder.
So why do we women not like to talk about it?
1. Because of the incredible sexism surrounding it ever since time immemorial. It was first described by the ancient Greece as ‘Hysteria’, caused due to a wandering uterus. In a 1912 article entitled Progress of Medical Science, a doctor detailed a condition called menstrual insanity, which was observed in one patient. The article casually noted that the woman had fallen ill with menstrual insanity after her husband had molested their daughter, because, ergo! periods are always to blame for totally legitimate female concerns.
The first modern study on PMS is attributed to a gynecologist by the name of Dr. Robert T. Frank, who published his paper ‘The Hormonal Causes of Premenstrual Tension’ in 1931. He argued that PMS was caused by hormonal imbalance. Frank believed that women would seek relief for it, though foolish and irrational behaviors that resulted from it needed to be taken into account if women were to enter the workforce.
Premenstrual tension syndrome became a topic of fierce public debate in the early 1980’s when a few court cases were brought to trial in which women were defended on the basis of mental illness by way of PMS, successfully. In one case, a woman was acquitted of murder; another acquitted in a case of theft! While this seems like an incredibly funny defense, it had a flip side too. On the same basis, some argued that if they could get away with murder, women should be excluded from careers and even from holding public office because of a biological incapability to make decisions rationally. Another equally ridiculous attribution to PMS.
2. It’s used as a way to completely disregard female opinions and feelings as fundamentally irrational. It feeds to the stereotype that men are rational and women are emotional. A study** found that when people looked at photographs of men and women who looked sad, angry, or scared, they thought the women looked that way because they were “emotional,” but the men were probably “having a bad day. ” Although the photos included captions explaining the cause of the expressions (such as “buried a family pet” or “was threatened by an attacker”), participants still attributed the women’s emotions to internal character, while only the men’s were a response to external stimuli. In other words, HE is angry because of the context, SHE is angry because of her disposition. Even though there may be no actual difference between men’s and women’s facial expressions, people still view women’s responses as emotional outpourings from within (read: irrational) while men’s stem from outside situations (read:rational, logical). When perceivers see a woman acting in an emotional fashion, their goal is to explain something about her person (leading to an initial dispositional attribution), but when they see a man acting in a similar way, their goal may be to better understand the situation (leading to a situational attribution). Study authors Lisa Feldman Barrett and Eliza Bliss-Moreau say this may explain why “women continue to be under-represented in positions of economic and political power that require rational decision making ”.
3. The idea that it is imaginary. That it is a social construct. A cultural idiom of distress, as described by Frank Bures. He says that the physical symptoms are prompted by cultural beliefs and expectations. Gynaecologist, Dr Amy Tuteur believes that denying the organic nature of PMS is an example of the way society discounts women’s pain and other experiences. The fact that women describe their PMS symptoms differently in different parts of the world does not mean that it is a cultural concept. It signifies merely that the way women experience and talk about their symptoms can be ‘culturally mediated’ and not ‘culturally constructed’.
So, at a milder level, what can help?
Awareness of your cycle. You can be more watchful for negative emotions at that time. Mindfulness helps. The knowledge that there is an organic basis for it makes it easier to cope.
Indulge yourself with some self care. Take that trip to the spa. Go for that oil massage. Grab that bar of chocolate. Indulge yourself. As the model with smoky eyes in the makeup ad breathlessly says,
“Because we’re worth it”.
Catchy, but a bit ironic in the present day. Because the present day woman doesn’t need a make-up ad to tell her, that she is. She knows, she is.
*Green-top guideline N0.48, Management of Premenstrual Syndrome. BJOG 2017;124:e73-e105.
**Emotion 2009, Vol. 9, No. 5, 649 – 658
About the Author
Dr. Priya Mary Jacob is a pathologist working in a cancer centre by day and harried mother of two by night. She blogs and has written a still looking for a publisher novel titled ‘Scopegoats’ along with her friend Dr. Sajna VM Kutty. It is a medical campus novel from a woman’s point of view. #scopegoats_the_novel.
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