MUMBAI, India — EVERY morning, a 90-year-old newspaper columnist named Mahinder Watsa takes a seat in the study of his apartment, where, on a good day, a breeze lofts in from the direction of the Arabian Sea.
Before him is a fresh delivery of anonymous correspondence from all over India, some of it handwritten and dropped into a village mailbox, some typed and sent by email. Inside is a crescendo of sexual anxiety.
“My friend saw me while bathing. According to him, the size of my penis is not more than that of a cashew nut. What should I do to increase the size?” “If a man and a woman masturbate at the same time, thinking about sex, can it lead to pregnancy?” “Also, I was wondering whether there is any possibility of a guy getting pregnant if he has anal sex with another man?”
Dr. Watsa does not laugh when he reads these letters, nor does he weep; he has been at this too long. He admits to being irritated from time to time, and this is sometimes evident in his responses, which manage to be both grandfatherly and withering. To wit:
“Take a foot rule and measure from the pubic bone to the tip of your organ. If it’s longer than two and a half inches, it is enough to satisfy a partner.” “There are no angels to carry your sperms to the person you are dreaming about.” “Mr. Ignoramus, for the rest of your query, visit Google and educate yourself on the basics.”
In a culture that is both obsessed and bewildered by sex, Dr. Watsa has carved out an essential spot for himself as a crotchety, unshockable truth-teller. As the Ask the Sexpert columnist in The Mumbai Mirror, he has — gently, gently — pushed the limits in Indian popular culture, among other things by introducing the words penis and vagina instead of the squeamish euphemisms that are commonly taught to children.
Over the nine years he has been writing the daily column, by his editor’s estimate, he has received upward of 40,000 letters seeking advice on sexual problems, the vast majority seeking basic information. Answering them, he steps into a vacuum in a country where, according to a government study conducted several years ago, only about a fifth of young men and women reported receiving any type of sex education.
Plain-spoken enough to inspire occasional police reports on the grounds of obscenity, Dr. Watsa is also so courtly and gentle that it is impossible to imagine anyone’s doing anything about it. And this, it seems, is at the heart of his form of insurrection.
“When you are trying to do something new, you always find some obstruction,” he said. “Better get the thing done. You can say sorry later.”
Then he gave an impish smile. “I’ll meet you in jail,” he said.
The peculiar overlays of Indian history — with its prudish Victorian viceroys, Mughal harems, Hindu reverence for celibacy and soft-focus Bollywood fade-outs — have left behind a complex set of prohibitions about sex.
IF popular surveys are to be believed, Indians on average lose their virginity late, at the age of almost 23. Most marriages in India are still arranged by parents. Three-quarters of men in Indian cities say they expect their brides to be virgins, and newlyweds often share tiny dwellings with their in-laws and other relatives, and are under intense family pressure to reproduce.
Though experts in India acknowledge that plenty of recreational sex takes place below the radar — “we’re hypocrites, there’s no doubt about it,” one remarked — these social structures set the stage for frustration.
Dr. Watsa has gathered a different type of data. In his Mumbai practice, he has seen couples who have been married three years — or even as many as 10 — without managing to consummate, unable to confront physiological problems or paralyzing tension. He has consulted young men adopted by the Mumbai matrons he calls “aunties,” who invite 14- or 15-year-old boys into their beds while their husbands work abroad.
He has referred so many brides-to-be for hymen reconstruction, allowing them to fake virginity on their wedding night, that mere mention of the subject causes his eyes to roll upward wearily. Whatever impulse he may have to challenge India’s social mores, it is outweighed by the desire to address the practical problems of the young women who write to him.