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Letters From Mumbai

Ask the Sexpert

Among India’s treasures, the Mumbai Mirror’s Sexpert column stands apart, advising modern Indians on the confusing sexual issues of our time, like why the foot lacks the vagina’s power.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TREY RATCLIFF

“Sexpert!” I cry from the rearmost seat of our work shuttle. “Sexpert! Sexpert! Read the Sexpert out loud!”

My Bengali-American colleague obliges. Answers from the Sexpert, one Dr. Mahinder Watsa, crack him up just as much as me.

“Dear Sexpert,” my colleague intones earnestly, “What is ‘G-Spot’? Where is it located? How can it be identified? What role does it play in sex and pregnancy? Please guide me.”

“The G-spot,” he continues in a more serious voice, “is a small annular area, located behind the urethral opening on the anterior surface of the vagina. It is said to be a secondary erogenous (primary bring the clitoris) area which helps a woman reach orgasm.”

He pauses. We’re waiting for the kicker.

“It doesn’t play any part in pregnancy. It’s best not to bother about it.”

With that last sentence hanging in the air, the whole shuttle cracks up. As we speed through the shabby-chic neighborhoods of Mahim, Dadar, and Worli, toward our office in the center of Mumbai, another day of stamping papers and deciphering broken English doesn’t seem quite so grim.

 

* * *


Living in Mumbai, a self-proclaimed “Maximum City” with 14 million inhabitants and just as many motorcycles, scooters, cars, and ox-carts, it’s important to keep yourself sane. Some of my expat friends make a weekly ritual of luxury hotel brunches—rotating in a precise order between the Marriott, the Hyatt, the Taj, and the Oberoi. Two of my colleagues—30-something men—took up horseback riding at the Mahalaxmi racetrack. My boss works on his Scotch collection.

As for me, my saving grace is reading the Mumbai Mirror’s daily “Ask the Sexpert” column. More than obscenely cheap generic pharmaceuticals or thrice-weekly maid visits at the tune of $1.50/hour, it’s the column that makes living here worthwhile.

“I recently shared a rickshaw with a lady who tried to arouse me. I understood her plan and decided to stay away. But my elbow happened to touch her breasts. Will it cause AIDS?”There’s something about the questions posed to “Sexpert” Dr. Mahinder Watsa: They’re a mix of extreme naïveté, standard and not-so-standard fetishes, and many pregnancy scares. The doctor’s responses are practical and terse to the point of catatonic. G-spots? Who needs them? Unlike Dan Savage, of “Savage Love,” this sex columnist doesn’t select his questions for shock value. Rather, he seems to publish whatever he gets, and, as a result, you get a pretty accurate look into the sex lives of Indians—Indians who seem mostly concerned with broken hymens, frequency of masturbation, early ejaculation, and penises shaped like “crooked banana[s].”

Editors everywhere shudder when a writer says India is a land of contrasts and contradictions, but, dammit, it’s true! There really are legless, homeless beggars sleeping on the street in front of the Rolls Royce dealership. And Indians do have bipolar attitudes toward sex. On the one hand, India is seriously erotic, the hot and humid home to X-rated temple carvings, the Kama Sutra, and Bollywood soaking-wet-sari scenes. Modern-day India, though, is also culturally conservative (code for no sex before marriage, after marriage, outside of marriage, with members of the same sex, and certainly not involving freaky porn or rubber suits).

Of course, that doesn’t mean Indians aren’t doing all of those things. It just means it’s not the ideal. And so steps in the Sexpert, here to reconcile these apparent contradictions, three to four questions per day.

 

* * *

I am a 24-year-old Army cadet. When I am alone with my girlfriend, I often get excited and get an erection. I do not want to have sex with her before marriage. My friend suggests I take anti-sex tablets. Which ones should I take?

You are doing exactly what nature wants you to do when you are sexually excited. Please do not take any medicines. You can be firm not to have intercourse and can stop at petting. Your thinking is correct.

Far from anti-sex himself, the Sexpert seems reconciled to the fact that 50 percent or so of his correspondents are unmarried. While sex is ideally saved for marriage, there is an alternative magic number: 21. Sex before that is “incorrect behavior [that] will affect your future.” Odd behavior seems to transcend age: Cross-dressing husbands get a pass—after all, “Women are wearing pants these days, so why stop him?”—as do people who like to bring vegetables (“smooth and washed thoroughly”) into bed. Anal sex, however, is completely off-limits. An expert not only on sex but on dodging the question, Dr. Watsa “cannot advise you on anal sex since it is illegal in India.”

It seems to me that the crux of his column is the contrast between unwarranted concern and lack of concern when warranted. An ad for emergency contraception pills on the back of my in-flight magazine declares, “When your lust of love doesn’t allow anything to come in between… Don’t compromise with your feelings & excitement because they don’t wait for anything… Why should you? Live that moment up to the max.” So a pill that’s meant in the U.S. to counteract broken condoms and bad decision-making is something else in India entirely, STDs be damned. And that’s “STDs be damned” in a country where the HIV infection rate stands at 2.4 million people and rising.

On the other hand, there’s still good, old-fashioned, early-1990s-style paranoia. Correspondents write in sharing their fears of catching diseases from toilet seats, shared drinking glasses, and French kisses. One particularly concerned fellow wrote in to say, “I recently shared a rickshaw with a lady who tried to arouse me. I understood her plan and decided to stay away. But my elbow happened to touch her breasts. Will it cause AIDS?”

The Sexpert won’t take the bait: “Congratulations on not being enticed. There is absolutely no way you could have caught an infection of any kind, including AIDS. Looking forward to your rational thinking in the future.”

The paranoia extends to conception, as does the laissez-faire attitude. A teenager writes in with an account of how he ejaculated on his girlfriend’s foot. “Later, she washed her foot ensuring the semen doesn’t touch her vagina. However, I am very scared. Can she get pregnant? If yes, what’s the procedure to solve the problem?”

Have no fear, the doctor reassures the teen, while “ejaculation near or around the vagina has at times resulted in a pregnancy… fortunately the foot does not have the power of the vagina!” Fortunately, indeed!

Another correspondent has “heard sperms swim rapidly,” and so writes in: “Recently, I had a nightfall [i.e., nocturnal emission—ed.] which smeared my undergarments and I washed them. However, my pants smelled of semen as well and I was wearing the same unwashed pants later when my cousin-sister slipped and fell on my lap. Are there chances of her getting pregnant?”

To the Sexpert’s credit, the answer is a firm no. On the other hand, non-married couples also write in to ask if sex twice a day, for five months, without a condom, might possibly be a bad idea. And the Sexpert’s own faith in the rhythm method can only rival that of the Pope and a select few pontiffs.

The one topic the Sexpert steers well clear of is homosexuality, which is still very much illegal under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, prohibiting sexual acts “against the order of nature.” The law is a holdover from British rule, and while the U.K. has gone on to embrace gayness in all forms, India is a little less open. There have been some recent chinks in the armor—a gay pride march a few months ago in New Delhi and other major cities, a gay Gujarati prince, some female cops shacking up without shame in Madhya Pradesh—but there’s still a long way to go. And reassuring a panicked call center employee who has “heard from many people that if I sit and work in front of a computer, I’ll become a homosexual,” that “looking at the screen of the computer can in no way turn you into a homosexual,” is about as far as the Sexpert will go.

“Ejaculation near or around the vagina has at times resulted in a pregnancy. Fortunately the foot does not have the power of the vagina!”It will be interesting to see how long the Sexpert can hold out, bridging India’s sexual ideal to the reality of being a modern-day teenager on the subcontinent. Sex in India is changing. The very same Mumbai Mirror that runs the Sexpert’s column has featured over the past year articles about the custody of a Japanese baby born to an Indian surrogate mother, an Indian couple’s national fight to get a late-term abortion, and the mysterious—or not so mysterious—skewed sex ratios in rural Rajasthan. One billion people don’t come out of nowhere. As long as Indians are procreating, Dr. Watsa will have a steady source of questions for his column.

And I’ll have the perfect reading for my 10 a.m. chai break; something funny, important, and down-to-earth to keep me sane in a city with $1 billion single-family homes, 25-cent rickshaw rides, quadrilingual newspapers, the occasional religious riot, and mutton biryani that can’t be beat.
 

Jil Wheeler is entering her third year in Mumbai and her seventh year living abroad in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She does not own a monkey, yet, but if she did she would call him Asher. She is known across the Indian subcontinent for her ardor for mutton biryani. More by Jil Wheeler