A 93-year-old man is an unlikely choice for the keeper of Indians' most intimate sex secrets, but it's the only accurate way to describe Dr Mahinder Watsa's life and career. Intimate, of course, is a loose term, because astonishing, depraved, tragic, comical and sometimes, just plain disturbing, is too much of a mouthful. Most of us know Dr Mahinder Watsa for the wit and, sometimes, biting sarcasm, with which he answers questions for his hugely popular Ask The Sexpert column in Mumbai Mirror; but in reality, the Mirror gig is just the tip of the iceberg — Dr Watsa has been satisfying India's curiosity about sex since 1956, in the form of a Dear Doctor column in a women's magazine called Trend. At first, it was all about housewives fretting about chicken pox and the common cold. But slowly, as trust in his advice built, women started opening up to him with stories about child sexual abuse, being swept away by amorous lovers before marriage and being terrified of being discovered as experienced women instead of the virgins their soon-to-be husbands expected. This was a time when newspapers and magazines weren't willing to touch the topic of sex with a bargepole. And so he started hiding his little nuggets of information between the harmless chicken and small pox questions, with a silent prayer heavenward that the editing gods wouldn't notice. Sometimes it worked, often it didn't. "I think the editor, Frene Talyarkhan, knew what I was trying to do. She sometimes looked the other way because she understood the importance of sex education and counselling," he says.
There is no such thing as small-town India and metros, when it comes to sex. Everyone is equally ignorant and preoccupied with the size of their penis.
Access to Dr Watsa's advice wasn't restricted to readers of respectable publications with cosmopolitan presence. Much like his approach to sex—try everything and then decide what works for you—he's tried his hand at everything, even porn. In the 70s, he was approached by the editor of a local pornographic magazine in Lucknow to write a column much like the current Ask The Expert and obviously, he said no. And then he changed his mind. "I looked at all the photos of naked women and said to myself, "What nonsense is this!" But the editor seemed like a sensible fellow. So I thought, why not, let's try." At 93, with six decades worth of questions, frustration and reproaches behind him, the details become hazy. He doesn't remember the name of the magazine or the exact duration for which he wrote, but the experience did teach him one very important lesson. "It made me realise that there is no such thing as small-town India and metros, when it comes to sex. Everyone is equally ignorant and preoccupied with the size of their penis," he says wryly.
When you spend half your working life reassuring men that they're not woefully inadequate unless they're hung like porn stars, you quickly understand the importance of humour. "I keep telling myself that if they've written to a stranger for help, the worry must genuinely haunt them and I must do my best to help them; but yes, I'm pretty fed up of discussing penis size," he admits. If it's not about penis size, it's something to do with masturbation or erectile dysfunction. "I get 50 to 60 questions a day. These three topics cover more than half the questions. If they spent half this much time learning how to satisfy their women, they'd be perfectly happy with their penises, wouldn't need to masturbate so much and would certainly not be suffering from erectile dysfunction."
They want to know why their partners can't get it up or keep it up, they want to learn new techniques, teach them...
Dr Watsa takes women's satisfaction very seriously. "I tell all my clients, an orgasming woman is a happy woman. Unless you want her to wake up in a foul mood, make sure she comes before you do."
While the men may still be asking "dull and repetitive" questions, Indian women, or at least a noticeable number of them, seem to be in the midst of a sexual revolution. While, at one time, their biggest concern was finding ways to fake virginity and lamentations about philandering husbands, increasingly, Indian women are taking charge of their sex lives. "They are very articulate about not being sexually satisfied. They want to know why their partners can't get it up or keep it up, they want to learn new techniques, experiment with toys, teach them..."
The language of sex has changed too. While earlier women tried to add the tint of romance to premarital sex, offering long, earnest explanations about how they were in love, one thing led to another and they were powerless to resist; it's all factual and to-the-point. "They're not afraid to say they had premarital or casual sex."
I don't understand how so many educated young people are so careless about protection.
Interestingly, Dr Watsa credits the government for opening up the doors for conversations about sex. In 1992, the Indian government launched the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), making sex a nationally discussed topic. "When the government was talking about sex, how could you not? Suddenly, there was an explosion of interest. The media was flooded."
It is ironic that even though an AIDS awareness programme played such an important role in changing India's conversation about sex, actual knowledge in the country remains abysmally poor. "I don't have an explanation for it," Dr Watsa says, disgusted. "Either they're dumb or I'm dumb. I don't understand how so many educated young people are so careless about protection. I don't know why the thought of unplanned pregnancies or STDs never crosses their mind. Why are they not scared?"
On the other end of the ignorance spectrum are married couples struggling to figure out what goes where. "So many times, frustrated couples will come to me four or five years after marriage and their marriage will not have been consummated because they don't know how to do it!"
It's hard to make up the kind of stories Dr Watsa encounters every day. From husbands and wives who suddenly realise they're gay to mothers being blackmailed into incest by their sons, to cheating with your own spouse's partners to conflicting feelings about anal sex, he's heard and counselled them all. It's a tough balancing act: being people's moral sounding board, keeping your own feelings aside and trying to help people who truly disgust you. And sometimes, even Dr Watsa slips up. "A little while ago, someone wrote to me asking about S&M. I was crabby and didn't want to hear fantasies of sadism so I brushed him off a little rudely. Turns out, the person asking me about it was a 72-year-old man. I felt bad."
Imagine that, a 93-year-old man being asked for advice on sadism by 72-year-old one.
There will always be moral busybodies who will make it their business to preserve India's cultural and moral fibre. Fortunately, I'm too old for anyone to do more than file an FIR.
"In cases like these, people don't want information or help, the Internet has that covered. They just need someone to tell them it is okay to do it." Which explains why religion and the idea of sin is a recurring theme. "If the choice is between religion and sex, pick sex," he twinkles.
Naturally, his sass and often morally ambiguous advice has landed him into legal trouble. It's something Dr Watsa is wholly unimpressed by. "There will always be moral busybodies who will make it their business to preserve India's cultural and moral fibre. Fortunately, I'm too old for anyone to do more than file an FIR. I'm not on the Internet and even if I was, it makes you look pathetic to harass such an old man," he says dismissively.