It was 3AM; cold and chilly. I was sitting in a government hospital. After a rushed couple of hours, the area around me was unnervingly calm. It is precisely at that point that I got my periods. Nothing unusual – a pretty normal occurrence but for me it was immediate panic. I have always been used to comfortable surroundings, a warm blanket, garam nimbu-pani and lots of pampering while menstruating. The situation here was far from it. The most important thing was that I did not have a pad or a menstrual cup on me. Going back home wasn’t possible.
I’ve usually been quite open and forthcoming about my periods; but here in a completely unknown place, I was a little shy to ask for assistance. Something had to be done. I walked over to the maternity ward and caught hold of a nurse who was running busy amidst difficult deliveries, crying new-borns and over-work. “Ma’am, mujhe pad ki zaroorat hai, please – please mujhe kuch mil sakta hai?” She paused, looked at me from top to bottom and said “Aao mere saath, dekhti hoon main kya kar sakti hoon”.
She took me to her office and started ripping packets from which multiple items were coming out – scissors, cotton, a rope, cloth, sanitizer and other few thing that did not catch my attention because I saw an entire packet of sanitary pads. She gave me the entire bunch (8 of them). I took two and put the rest back. Amidst a series of demands; I asked her for a clean bathroom. My focus was so much on cleanliness that my ignorance did not check me while making this demand.
She showed me the way to the nurse washroom and left moments later by saying that the common one is really dirty. There was a nurse sleeping in that room. I apologised to her for waking her up in my anglicised Hindi and went towards the washroom. There was no light inside. Using my phone torch, I realized to my horror that I was standing in the filthiest bathroom I had ever seen. The extremely pungent smell was making me sick. I ran out wanting to cry; but that wasn’t an option. As I changed in the bathroom, making sure to not touch any surface, these were the thoughts that flooded my mind:
While demanding for the pad; I believed it to be my necessity and my right. But it had stripped someone else’s right to that packet. I later understood that it was a part of the delivery bag – whoever was to get it that night, would have two pads missing. My face got me my ticket to the nurses’ bathroom – I can crib as much about the lack of cleanliness but only imagine the situation of the common washroom. My privilege gives me the courage to demand but also strips someone else their basic right.
I came back to the room where we were placed and felt like choking up with all these thoughts but couldn’t do anything. My privilege had solved the issue for now. I was proud of myself for handling everything that night; but I realized later on that I had actually not handled anything.
Fast forwarding a couple of weeks, I was again in that hospital to get an RTPCR test done. The technician was kind to me. He asked me to come and sit inside, to not panic and even offered a cup of tea. He asked me all about my education and work. He was listening to me quite at ease when all of a sudden he shifted his gaze and yelled, “Bahar niklo; kisne aapko permission di hai andar aane ki, khidki par khade raho, aapka test wahi se hoga”.
Apart from being completely shocked, I asked him what was the issue. In that same tone he responded, “Inn logo ko samajh meh nahi aata hai; yeh room mei nahi ghus sakte, bahar se he test hoga, hume safe rehna hai”. Minutes later; he took my test inside while I comfortably sat on a chair. Soon after, he took everyone else’s sample from a small window.
My face, my privilege and my anglicized Hindi had yet again given me an upper hand, taken the right that is everyone’s right and made people feel inferior all in that instant.
These two instances got me thinking – What is privilege, and what is my privilege? Ever since I have come to Bihar, as an India Fellow, everyone tells me that they’re proud of me for the work I am doing. It would always make me happy but also uncomfortable. I chose this. I wanted to do it. There’s no compulsion or obligation.
A series of instances after this also highlighted the fact that I always end up getting a chance before some else in the same line. It is not caste, it is not gender but it is definitely something. Class – it is so embedded in our society that we see it in almost everywhere – hospital, commercial shops and even restaurants.
I shared this in brief with a close friend and their response was, “we cannot blame ourselves for the privilege that we have; however, what we can do is figure out ways in which we keep ourselves grounded and use this to work for and with those who don’t get the same opportunities.” What intrigued me further was that this is not specific to any sector; it’s universal.
I can use the opportunities I have got to help others to get the opportunities they desire and deserve. Isn’t that also what empowerment stands for? You learn something and then pass it onto others. For me, this is essentially my work.
Now that I know what my privilege can do; my work is to see how it can get someone their right. I may never, actively, be able to remove this burden, but transforming it and using it as a means for empowerment for others is the way I would honour what I have got in terms of opportunity. Definitely much easier said than done, but it is a process – a journey of self-realization and then working along with that to empower the lives of others.