MUMBAI, India - Every morning, a 90-year-old newspaper columnist named Dr. Mahinder Watsa takes a seat in the study of his apartment, where, on a good day, a breeze lofts in from the direction of the Arabian Sea.
Before him is a fresh delivery of anonymous correspondence from all over India, some of it handwritten and dropped into a village mailbox, some typed and sent by email. Inside is a crescendo of sexual anxiety.
“My friend saw me while bathing. According to him, the size of my penis is not more than that of a cashew nut. What should I do to increase the size?” “If a man and a woman masturbate at the same time, thinking about sex, can it lead to pregnancy?” “Also, I was wondering whether there is any possibility of a guy getting pregnant if he has anal sex with another man?”
Watsa does not laugh when he reads these letters, nor does he weep; he has been at this too long. He admits to being irritated from time to time, and this is sometimes evident in his responses, which manage to be both grandfatherly and withering. To wit:
“Take a foot rule and measure from the pubic bone to the tip of your organ. If it’s longer than 2 1/2 inches, it is enough to satisfy a partner.” “There are no angels to carry your sperms to the person you are dreaming about.” “Mr. Ignoramus, for the rest of your query, visit Google and educate yourself on the basics.”
In a culture that is both obsessed and bewildered by sex, Watsa has carved out an essential spot for himself as a crotchety, unshockable truth-teller. As the Ask the Sexpert columnist in The Mumbai Mirror, he has - gently, gently - pushed the limits in Indian popular culture, among other things by introducing the words penis and vagina instead of the squeamish euphemisms that are commonly taught to children.
Over the nine years he has been writing the daily column, by his editor’s estimate, he has received upward of 40,000 letters seeking advice on sexual problems, the vast majority seeking basic information. Answering them, he steps into a vacuum in a country where, according to a government study conducted several years ago, only about a fifth of young men and women reported receiving any type of sex education.
Plain-spoken enough to inspire occasional police reports on the grounds of obscenity, Watsa is also so courtly and gentle that it is impossible to imagine anyone’s doing anything about it. And this, it seems, is at the heart of his form of insurrection.
“When you are trying to do something new, you always find some obstruction,” he said. “Better get the thing done. You can say sorry later.”
Then he gave an impish smile. “I’ll meet you in jail,” he said.
The peculiar overlays of Indian history - with its prudish Victorian viceroys, Mughal harems, Hindu reverence for celibacy and soft-focus Bollywood fade-outs - have left behind a complex set of prohibitions about sex.
If popular surveys are to be believed, Indians on average lose their virginity late, at the age of almost 23. Most marriages in India are still arranged by parents. Three-quarters of men in Indian cities say they expect their brides to be virgins, and newlyweds often share tiny dwellings with their in-laws and other relatives, and are under intense family pressure to reproduce.
Though experts in India acknowledge that plenty of recreational sex takes place below the radar - “we’re hypocrites, there’s no doubt about it,” one remarked - these social structures set the stage for frustration.
Watsa has gathered a different type of data. In his Mumbai practice, he has seen couples who have been married three years - or even as much as 10 - without managing to consummate, unable to confront physiological problems or paralyzing tension. He has consulted young men adopted by the Mumbai matrons he calls “aunties,” who invite 14- or 15-year-old boys into their beds while their husbands are working overseas.
He has referred so many brides-to-be for hymen reconstruction, allowing them to fake virginity on their wedding night, that mere mention of the subject causes his eyes to roll upward wearily. Whatever impulse he may have to challenge India’s social mores, it is outweighed by the desire to address the practical problems of the young women who write to him.
“The only advice you could give them is, ‘Keep quiet, deny everything,’” he said. “You have to save the marriage.’??”
But mainly, the people he hears from are worried men. They are worried about the size, shape and angle of their penises, and they are worried about impotence. They are worried about whether it is OK to fantasize about their friends’ mothers. And they are endlessly, endlessly worried about whether they will damage themselves by masturbating, a fear born of some traditional Hindu beliefs.
“Fifty percent of my questions are about why their hair is not falling out,” Watsa said. “It is the zillionth time I have answered it.”
The son of a military doctor, Watsa trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist and joined the ranks of the progressive activists at the Family Planning Association of India, which promotes sex education and the use of contraception. But even in that liberal-minded group, his focus on the quality of sexual life made him an outlier.
Amita Dhanu, a longtime colleague at the association, recalled the furor that resulted when Watsa introduced human sexuality to the association’s training sessions, illustrating his workshop with slides of erotic carvings from medieval Hindu temples. The response of the other activists, she said, was to say, “This is basically pornography.”
It was, in a way, logical that Watsa would surface in a more populist venue. For decades, as conservative groups battled against the introduction of sex education curriculum in Indian schools, advice columnists have found themselves barraged by basic questions, often in huge quantities. When the women’s magazine Femina introduced a sex column, an outraged reader filed an obscenity complaint with the police, claiming that the magazine’s editors were fabricating outrageous letters to increase readership. Sathya Saran, then the editor, responded by delivering a sack of unopened letters to the judge.
“He read them over the lunch hour and dismissed the case,” she said.
Watsa said yes when Meenal Baghel, the editor of The Mumbai Mirror, approached him with the idea for Ask the Sexpert. It was the first time such questions had appeared in a daily newspaper in India, rather than the specialized venue of a men’s or women’s magazine, and it remains - even nine years later - a daily shock to Indian sensibilities.
Commuters in Mumbai can be spotted folding over their newspaper before reading it on the train, and subscribers have been known to snip the column out with scissors before sharing the newspaper with their children. One Mumbai journalist said she liked to read the column aloud to her mother as a form of torture, routinely forcing her to run from the room. She said she caught her grandfather reading it in the afternoon when the rest of the family is napping. When she asks him about it, he always says he is reading the international page.
As for Watsa, he will take his position in his study in the morning, working his way through another batch of letters. His wife, Promila, died in 2006 after a 52-year marriage, leaving him to look after the orchid she had nursed on the balcony. It was a happy marriage, Watsa said - “I hope she thought so, too” - but he was diffident when asked about their sex life. “Sometimes you felt in marriage that you’re not performing as well as you should,” he said. “I think the wife handled it better than I did.”
Year in, year out, much in the letters seems the same to him. Affluent elites get the information they need, and the poor are in darkness. But he has noticed some changes - women have begun to write for the first time, and now make up about 3 in every 10 of his correspondents. The middle classes have become more religious. And as workers migrate from villages into cities, the delicate layers of Indian society have begun to overlap and intersect in unpredictable ways.
“If you ask me what is the setup in India, it is completely haywire,” he said.
But it is difficult to speak to Watsa for long without being interrupted by a member of the general public. Downstairs, a man had been waiting for him in a corridor for almost an hour, and when his phone rang it was a 28-year-old man from Bangalore who had begged a newspaper editor for his number. Watsa barked a few questions into the phone - a reporter listening in could make out the word stiffness - and then excused himself to see about his visitor.
Before he left, it was noted that he was now giving sexual advice to men who were 60 or even 70 years his junior. “Well,” he said cheerfully, “they don’t have much choice.”