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Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.

In celebration of a girl’s first blush

he moment of transition from girlhood to womanhood is not something many of us like to talk about. I haven't got a clue when my sister started, and I don't think she'd appreciate me asking. My wife had a similar experience with her family in England. She told her Mum, but her father and brothers were kept very much in the dark about this most personal, unspeakable of subjects. I can barely bring myself to say the word, but I think I've put it off long enough: Menstruation.

I was therefore somewhat scandalised when my charming new doctor friend invited my wife and me to attend his eleven-year-old daughter's 'Tuloni Biya': her 'Little Marriage,' or, put bluntly, a celebration of starting her period. It seemed a bit wild for this small conservative Assamese village, but apparently it's seen a resurgence in popularity round here. I made my excuses, but my wife, delighted at the prospect of this festival of femininity, decided to attend. So did, by the caterer's estimate, another thousand people.

The little girl, unlike conventional brides my wife had met, was pretty spritely. She prostrated herself respectfully during her blessing, but at the end she arose with a flamboyant flick of her unruly mop of hair.

It wasn't by any means an all-female affair; Georgie told me afterwards (exhausted but verbose in her borrowed purple mekhla sador) that there were lots of small boys muscling through the party, grabbing sweets and ducking the remonstrating slaps of aunties who scorned their presence. In a special tent, there were also a few dozen male village elders who, dressed in white dhotis and traditional gamosas, opened proceedings by blessing the girl in presumably euphemistic terms. Once they had performed their brief ritual, the girl was handed over to the next door tent where the fun really began. Elderly women, also dressed in white, sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle while the rest of the ladies pulled up plastic chairs to watch the action and sing.

The little girl, unlike conventional brides my wife had met, was pretty spritely. She prostrated herself respectfully during her blessing, but at the end she arose with a flamboyant flick of her unruly mop of hair. There was little that was demure about the grin she wore throughout the ladies' ceremony either but, from my wife's account, it sounded pretty funny.

irst the girl was dressed up as a bride, then rubbed with all sorts of creams, scents and potions to cleanse her. Perfume was sprayed liberally over the gathered well-wishers, and caught one singer squarely in one eye. Undeterred, she carried on singing lustily, with one hand clasped over her socket. Next, the girl's grandmother, mother, favourite mami and other important women in her life were seated one by one next to the little bride and ritually humiliated. First they were jovially beaten with a mango branch and then smeared with red powder paint. They were offered water to drink, but, to Georgie's horror, their up-turned mouths were filled with raw rice which they crunched frantically as they stumbled out of the crowd to go and wash up.

The girl's younger friends hung around her enviously, wondering when it would be their turn at the centre of this colourful spectacle. Hundreds of adults milled through the house all day, eating vast quantities of fish (three varieties), rice, dal and sabzi cooked in giant pots in the temporary cooking area. All normal wedding fare, except for the odd absence of a groom.

By mid-afternoon, everyone grouped around fans and gossiped. Things seemed to have gone to plan. The village elders had met, been honoured, fed, and all were satisfied that another young girl was, well, fertile.

It's apparently a very popular ceremony, and perhaps one many of you are familiar with. I was told by a friend that a well-known Guwahati lawyer and his optometrist wife wanted to celebrate their daughter's 'coming of age', but being educated and very urbane folks, they just had a small gathering in Mainland China. Frankly, it sounds like most middle-class Indian's worst nightmare. I'm sure everyone had to spend the entire night avoiding the subject of what brought them all there.

I also heard somewhere, plausibly, that there was a time (and place) when daughters were not supposed to start their period in their father's home – they were supposed to be married by then. The ceremony was designed as a sort of panic button for parents who hadn't managed to rid their daughter by that happy moment to tell the world that there was someone new on the market. There are various theories surround the ceremony, but it doesn't matter how I look at it, or how much Georgie tries to explain that this was a splendid opportunity for a get-together, it just seems somewhat fantastic to invite the entire village to celebrate something that, after that day, no one will ever mention again.

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