A 94-Year-Old 'Sexpert' Gives India Advice On You Know What
Note to readers: As you would expect in a story about a sex advice columnist, this post contains some frank language about sex.
Growing up in India, I had no sex ed in school. Sex was a taboo. Indian parents largely avoid the whole birds-and-bees talk.
I'd never heard words like condom, intercourse, ejaculation or penetration spoken aloud.
But I had read them in my local tabloid newspaper, the Mumbai Mirror, in a column called "Ask the Sexpert" — a source of guilty fascination for youngsters like me. There are stories of parents across the city clipping out the column before putting the newspaper on the breakfast table.
It's India's R-rated version of Dear Abby, and it's written by an OB-GYN and sexologist, Dr. Mahinder Watsa. He introduced a generation of Indians to sexual topics many in this conservative society would rather not discuss.
At age 94, Watsa is still answering sex queries.
He lives with his granddaughter in a central Mumbai villa overlooking the Arabian Sea. His father bought the house around 1940. Coincidentally, his cul-de-sac has become one of Mumbai's lovers lanes, where couples discreetly make out in the shade of coconut palms.
Watsa welcomed me into his study, which is filled with yellowing manila folders of queries sent to him over the years, first written in longhand, then sent by fax, and now by email. Prescription pads are piled on a side table. A stethoscope hangs on a hook behind the door. He still practices medicine.
For the past 60 years, Watsa has penned sex and health columns, first in women's magazines and then in mainstream newspapers. The latest one is in the Mumbai Mirror, which he started writing in 2004 — when he was 80, and I was a curious preteen.
Being India's resident "sexpert" was actually his second career.
Born Feb. 11, 1924 in what was then called Calcutta, under British rule, Watsa went to medical school, lived in the U.K. for a few years and worked as a sales manager for a big pharmaceutical company.
In the late 1950s, a journalist who was friends with Watsa's sister-in-law was looking for someone with medical expertise to answer readers' letters at a now-defunct Indian magazine. Some of the letters were from brides-to-be who had been sexually abused in their youth and worried that their husbands might be able to tell.
"I tried to find somebody who was already experienced in dealing with problems of this sort," Watsa recalls.
But he couldn't find anyone. He realized it would have to be him.
In his responses, he would explain that it's difficult to discern physically whether someone has had sex before.
When the magazine published Watsa's responses, he says he realized his calling – to increase awareness about sexual health.
Before long, people from all over India were sending Watsa their sexual conundrums. Over time, he became India's most beloved advice columnist – the "sexpert." There's even a Netflix documentary about him.
Not everyone finds his work endearing. Several years ago, an angry reader filed an obscenity complaint against his sex column in a women's magazine, accusing him and the magazine of fabricating the queries, they seemed so far-fetched. The case was dismissed after the magazine's editor delivered a stack of racy letters to the judge.
Another lawsuit against Watsa and his Mumbai Mirror editors remains open. It stems from a response to a query about incest.
He receives hate mail too. "They say, 'I have children. I don't want them to see what you've written. It's horrible,'" he told us.
These days, the "sexpert" receives between 80 and 100 letters a day, mostly by email. The writers range from teenage girls to men in their 70s. An assistant, Trishla Jain, monitors his email and occasionally hands him a large magnifying glass, which he uses to read fine print.
A lot has changed since Watsa first began doling out advice about sex: It used to be men who wrote most, worried about being unable to perform in the bedroom. Now more women are writing in than ever before, Watsa says.
Some themes are perennial: Penis size, masturbation, complaints about partners who are not interested in sex.
And in the years since I was in school, not much has changed on the sexual education front. Many schools still offer no sex ed. In 2007, the central government tried to introduce a nationwide sex ed curriculum in schools. But there was fierce opposition from conservative politicians, parents, teachers and even some women's groups. The curriculum was subsequently banned by 12 of India's 29 states, including Maharashtra and its capital Mumbai — where I grew up.
Without sex ed, many Indians remain uninformed about reproduction and sexual health. In a 2010 government study, only 37 percent of young men and 45 percent of young women in India said they were aware a woman can get pregnant the first time she has sex. It also found that only 19 percent of young men and 15 percent of young women knew there were sexually-transmitted infections other than HIV.
Watsa acknowledges some of his readers' naiveté but doesn't judge them. Someone once asked him if they could get pregnant by holding hands.
"[They] may write something that sounds really simple to you, but to [them], it's a problem," Watsa says.
One fan has compiled an online database of Watsa's columns, easily searchable by anyone in need.
"Indians have urgent questions about sex, and Dr. Watsa is doing a yeoman's service answering them," the self-appointed webmaster explains on the page.
And Watsa has a lot of fans. "This column is a lifesaver," an 18-year-old woman wrote in an email to Watsa. "Like me, there are many people out there who are either guilty or are shy to visit a gynecologist. For people like us, you rock! You are our gynec-angel in disguise."
He doesn't just inform — he's willing to crack jokes as well. Once, a man wrote to Watsa saying that he mistakenly swallowed the "morning after pill" instead of giving it to his girlfriend. The doctor wrote back, telling him to use a condom next time – but make sure he doesn't swallow it.
When a man wrote to him about masturbating seven times a day, Watsa suggested he enter the Olympics.
These are the kinds of salacious tidbits that stuck in my mind as I grew up with his column. I told Watsa during our interview. "Good lord!" he replied with a chuckle.
After nearly 60 years of sifting through letters about all kinds of fetishes and coital quandaries, Watsa says he has one piece of fail-proof sex advice: "Enjoy it."
Sushmita Pathak is NPR's producer in Mumbai.
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