Grandma Sutra

Modern Family

Grandma Sutra

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

have always felt that the most difficult journey for an Indian child, is the one he or she undertakes to explore their sexuality. If, like me, you grew up in the 1990s, you’d recall the quietly stifling atmosphere that accompanied any hint of sex – when your mum would casually flip the channel during a kissing scene or a sanitary napkin advertisement on TV, without batting an eyelid. Luckily for me, I had a most unusual ally to help me along with my sexual awakening: my aged, toothy grandmother.

We lived in the tiny town of Kathgodam, in the foothills of the lesser Himalayas, known as the gateway to Kumaon, the abode of Gods. As is common around these parts, everything was attributed and distributed first to God, such as the day’s first meal or a slice of birthday cake. The day I had my first period, my mother even made a secret offering of sanitary napkins in our home mandir.

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But that was the extent of puberty being acknowledged. There were no discussions around sexuality, no insights into one’s evolving body, and certainly nothing around the act of sex.

In such a restrictive environment, my only relief was Hindi magazines. My mum had the world’s best collection of those crafty journals, Grihashobha and Kadambini. As a pre-pubescent girl, I’d wait to flip through the racy fiction stories in each edition, getting strangely excited with every mention of the words aalingan (embrace), bistar (bed), and badan (body). With straight As in Hindi, I never had difficulty skimming through stories that bore the sweet smell of sex. So I knew something funny was up if on a rainy night, Manoj took Kavita in his arms and kissed her until she couldn’t breathe.

Every story I read stoked my burgeoning need to understand my own unexplored body, which to my mother’s alarm, was developing quite early. At age nine, and with two not-so-tiny breasts popping out of me, I was donning the loosest, baggiest clothes that were available in the house. No questions were asked, and no answers would be forthcoming.

With no one to turn to, I turned to the unlikeliest person in the house. Dadi, the tall, beautiful, unsmiling matriarch of the house. The skin of her face and arms swung loose, the result of years of tending to her lemon, litchi, and mango trees under the undiluted mountain sun. I imagined her as a bronze Egyptian goddess, only many times wrinklier.

To my utter shock, the old woman giggled like a child, bared her two front teeth and flashed me. Her breasts were wrinkled, pear-shaped, brown deflated balloons.

Dadi lived in an utterly neglected part of the hill region, without cars, buses, or a television. I doubt she’d ever encountered a copy or a pencil – or for that matter, a condom (my father has 11 siblings). She was the last person I thought would know her own body intimately.

One night, as I prepared to sleep after having read another raunchy tale from Grihashobha, I asked Dadi if her breasts hurt on being pressed. When she answered in the negative, I was suddenly emboldened by my own question. “Mummy doesn’t let me wear sleeveless tops. And now I have to wear this,” I complained, showing her the strap of my 26-A sports bra.

Then I told her the most bizarre thing an Indian gran has probably heard. I said: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

To my utter shock, the old woman giggled like a child, bared her two front teeth and flashed me. Her breasts were wrinkled, pear-shaped, brown deflated balloons. They must have once been a beautiful olive colour. In that one flash, my grandmother became the best girlfriend a 10-year-old could ask for.

From that night onwards, Dadi magically transformed from being my dad’s illiterate mother to my confidante. For a woman who’d probably never participated in a discussion on sex, my Dadi came to signify power, courage, and freedom. Her body might have given way, but her spirit was roving beyond her potato fields. Soon, I was discussing my Grihashobha encounters with her, as she oiled my hair on the terrace.

In this pre-Internet Eden, my circle of confidantes was restricted to a single neighbourhood girlfriend. Sara and I would often unclothe our dolls and colour their plastic nipples. The boys around us, likely bursting with their own curiosity, were too smart by half and wanted to have the suhag raat the minute you started playing ghar-ghar with them.

I knew how to fob them off because of Dadi (and not my mother), who taught me the difference between good and bad touch. She was the one who told me how babies really came into existence and that I was not given to my parents by the panditji at the mandir. She warned me that if I was playing with a neighbourhood boy, I should never close the door.

And then there were the old men in our town, whose laps, I learnt, were far from kind. I knew I should never eat pistachios sitting in the lap of our 80-year-old sexologist neighbour. She extended that advice to men in our extended family and immediate environment: distant uncles, older cousins, the household help.

Back then, I was oblivious to her teachings. Now when I think about it, I realise how strange it was to receive all this information from my grandmother and not my parents. My other exposure to the world was my Catholic school, where sex education remained an untouched, foreign subject (I don’t think that the sisters who ran the school even acknowledged that sex was one of the seven deadly sins).

My grandmother, by comparison, was a reservoir of knowledge: accessible and heart-warmingly humorous. I am still discovering and redefining the limits of my sexuality, but for clearing up my basics, I only have one woman to thank.

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