'My mom injected some French feminism into my imagination'
When we talk about waking India up, we're talking about waking up a language from its slumber - Hindi can't be used to talk about sex, says an author whose introduction to sexuality began with violence. Palash Krishna Mehrotra writes.india Updated: Dec 02, 2013 18:19 IST
I studied at an all-boys school in Allahabad. When I was 12 or 13, the word 'sex' started doing the rounds. It was at this age that we made the transition from junior to middle school. Standard six was when we got serious about maths, physics, biology and chemistry. There were always a handful of boys who'd find it difficult to make this transition. It was the policy of the school to hold them back for a year or two, until they got better at academics.
My introduction to sex came through the older boys who'd failed in class six. These self-styled gurus of sex education may have been weak academically, but they willingly, and happily, took on the mantle of educating us about the birds and the bees. They were the ones who taught us to look at the junior school teachers through powerful binoculars. In an instant, distances shrank; the terrifying Miss Gomes was now inside our eyeballs, and magnified into a sex object. Women would never look the same again.
The instrument deployed to impart much of this carnal knowledge was the humble hand. You arched the middle finger over your forefinger and that was the vagina illustrated. You wrapped the fingers of your left hand over the thumb to form a hollow fist, then inserted the forefinger of your right hand into it: This was the act itself. Someone did it and we giggled dutifully. It was a way of saying, yes, I'm in on the joke; I've grown up.
Over the next year or two, sex quickly went beyond the 'hand' stage. It was no longer about manipulating and contorting one's fingers into funny shapes. In eastern UP, sexual lingo has violence built into it and we picked this up right away. It was in the air. So all girls were 'chinars' (prostitutes) and the sexual act was about 'seal todna' (robbing a girl's virginity). Colloquial Hindi has no equivalents for 'making love' or 'dating'; if you want to talk about sex, you have to employ cuss words. We were encouraged by our peers to say 'mu mein lebo' (a reference to fellatio) to any girl we passed in the street. If on a bicycle, we were encouraged to hit and run: Go boy, slap her breasts while whizzing past. If you were brave enough to go on a date, or shared a Campa with a girl at a downtown soft drink booth, you'd be surrounded by gangs of boys on motorbikes and threatened. She's ours. Don't you dare, or else. Enough boys had their faces smashed for having dared to.
So my introduction to sexuality began with violence. Violence was built into the linguistic structure; it underlined the terms of engagement with the opposite sex. When we talk about waking India up, we're talking about waking up language from its slumber - a language like Hindi, which cannot talk about sex in a normal way.
At some point, feeling a little uncomfortable with all this talk of sex and violence, I went up to my mother and told her everything I'd learnt from my school friends. This set her alarm bells ringing. Worried that I might be getting it all wrong, she set about doing some course-correction. She showed me pictures in Derek Llewellyn Jones classic Everywoman and explained the nitty-gritty. She also decided that the best way to counter sex education East-UP style was to inject some French feminism into my schoolboy imagination - she lent me her copy of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. My parents still argue about this, my father being of the opinion that at 14, I was a tad too young to grasp Simone's theorising.
The book had an astonishing effect. The pendulum swung the other way. I'd been conditioned to look at girls as 'chinars'. Now I stopped looking at them at all. Staring at pubescent girls was an act of violation. I didn't want to be part of it. In fact, it wasn't until I went to college that I figured that there was also a way of looking at girls that was okay. No wonder I didn't have a girlfriend until then. I mean, to catch a girl's attention, one's got to make eye contact!
I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that when it comes to the bedroom, I've always been stuck between Allahabad and Paris. An old friend, whom I knew growing up, turned up at my doorstep the other day. She's settled abroad and is happily married with kids. I made her a cup of lemon tea. We spoke. I sensed sexual tension but ignored it. She left. Later she accosted me on Facebook and accused me of being a wimp. "Why are Allahabad boys so phattu?" According to her, I should have grabbed hold of her butt, surprised her. I said, "But then you would have said 'Typical Allahabad lad. Can't have a conversation with a girl without thinking of sex.' You should have given clearer signals." "Like what?" she replied, "Waved a green flag in your face?"
Another time, I'm in bed with this girl who wants me to talk dirty - Hindi, English, sab chalega, but please be foul-mouthed. It turned her on. When I uttered the Hindi ones, it reminded me of the pimply boys in school. I almost choked on the smutty syllables. The English ones reminded me of lousy porn movies. I steeled myself and followed through. I surprised myself. She awarded me a medal. "Well done. You can take a bronze."
When I woke up in the morning, I had a bad taste in the mouth. To be honest, I felt violated.
Could it be that the Indian middle-class male - perpetually tottering between the unreal poles of chaste sophistication and cloddish lewdness - has lost the art of being naturally naughty in the bedroom?
(The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation)