Why Does India Discuss its Sex Life with a 92-year-old Stranger?

Love and Sex

Why Does India Discuss its Sex Life with a 92-year-old Stranger?

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

W

hen I see Dr Mahinder Watsa for the first time I am surprised. Like countless others, I did not expect to see a frail, old man, neatly dressed in a light yellow shirt and trousers, standing hunched with a walking stick. I walk in late to a conference on sexual awareness in Mumbai and I see a 20-something in conversation with him.

“For me, sex education started with your columns. My parents never talked to me about it,” a young girl tells him.

His first reaction is disbelief. “Really?” he asks, before offering a slight smile but nothing more. He knows it’s not that unexpected, but he doesn’t relish the compliment either, despite being the educator of a whole generation.

Mahinder Watsa is the unlikely star of Vaishali Sinha’s riveting documentary Ask The Sexpert, which borrows its name from his widely popular column appearing daily in Mumbai Mirror. The bespectacled nonagenarian is India’s foremost authority on matters of sexual health, at a time when the country, riding high on soaring doses of morality, still shies away from openly discussing it.

Watsa, India’s favourite neighbourhood agony uncle, has been conscientiously responding to a motley smattering of queries in his sex column for the last 15 years. The questions he receives range from the mundane to the downright bizarre – ones that have been glowingly advertised in numerous listicles, and have led to conspiracy theories about him being fictitious, and them being made up to titillate. But the man behind the byline is not just real, he also answers the most ludicrous inquisitions with absolute seriousness served with a dollop of humour.

His answers are precise and littered with words like “vagina”, “masturbation”, “oral sex”, and “condoms” that don’t just normalise the completely natural act of sexual intercourse, but also set him apart as the one of the very few practitioners who refuses to beat around the bush or seek refuge in innuendos while talking about human desire. In discussing matters usually veiled in privacy with an unashamed openness, Dr Watsa has been surprisingly efficacious in normalising sex to an extent that makes people feel soothed enough to talk about it publicly with him.

Most importantly, Dr Watsa’s unparalleled following is an averment to the reigning curiosity among the youth (many of them even married) – a result of living in a society that fails to recognise sex as an indispensable facet of human lives. With sex education being banned from the curriculum of a staggering number of schools in the country, where does one acquire information about how to pleasure one’s body as well as satisfy one’s partners?

In a country where men are forced to rely on unrealistic porn scenarios, unhelpful advice from their peers, and complete silence from their elders, Dr Watsa is a saviour.

The perpetual joust between safeguarding morality and prohibiting promiscuity – in the very land that invented the Kamasutra, and one that sees couples indulging in PDA publicly, regularly and freely – degrades the significance of human desire. As a result, our hypocritical society holds a girl’s hymen as a prized possession, treats sex as a duty that should only be dispensed for baby-making, and makes masturbation out to be a sin bigger than the ones committed by criminals.

In a country where men are forced to rely on unrealistic porn scenarios, unhelpful advice from their peers, and complete silence from their elders, Dr Watsa is a saviour. Even more so for men whose masculinity would be questioned if they dared to seek help to solve matters in bed. On the surface, it may look like Dr Watsa is only fighting his nemesis Pratibha Naithani, an activist and lecturer at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College who has filed a case against him and the paper, accusing them of “obscenity”. But, in a way, he is rebelling against a set of orthodox traditions and mentalities that make up India – one that looks the other way when it comes to the younger generation’s urgent need to discover their bodies. No wonder then, Dr Watsa is their most trusted guide, as is evident from the revealing anecdotes in the film.

For instance, an 18-year-old girl recounts how she started masturbating with a water hose when she was 16, and happened to write to him after her friend chided her for it. As always Dr Watsa’s advice was to the point. He told her that there was nothing wrong with using a water hose as long as she did not insert it in her vagina. The film presents a fascinating thought: Who would she have asked this query to, if not for Dr Watsa?

In fact, it is this invigorating probity (a colleague laughingly recounts how Dr Watsa had started asking about oral sex in a conference about family planning) that fittingly describes his personality. This side of him comes out even more organically when patients drop in at his house (sometimes uninvited) for counselling sessions. From his chair, he advises a married man who hasn’t had sex with his wife in months to set aside two days to touch, kiss, and hug her, if not have penetrative sex, and assures another young man that there is nothing wrong with his ability to get an erection by taking him through an illustrated set of penises in different stages of hardness. More often than not, he even acquaints them with newer positions and recommends oral sex as a way to please each other’s bodies, but most importantly, he listens, when society would rather go deaf if placed in his position.

The disadvantages of Indians upholding their sanskari views, and their thundering ignorance about sex is best highlighted during a conversation between the sexpert and a middle-aged man attending Dr Watsa’s book launch. The man attempts to educate him about how different castes have different sexual powers, how height affects the sexual prowess of an individual, and last but not the least, the size of a woman is telling of how she’d be in bed. Dr Watsa promptly squashes all of these myths, and saves a stranger from the well of ignorance.

In a telling scene earlier, Dr Watsa had looked at the camera, telling the interviewer about how ignorance can be profound. He is referring to the hordes of people who think of sex and masturbation as nothing but a dirty deed. I wish I could tell him that if not for his existence, that same ignorance would have lasted forever.

It took a 92-year-old to tell us the only thing we need to know about sex: “It’s normal”.

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