In America, the land of the free and home of the brave, it was possible, figuratively speaking, to examine genitalia in public*. I discovered this when I turned on the radio one day and heard a woman’s voice. A foreign accent, except the surprise was that she was talking about sex. She sounded like Henry Kissinger. Her name was Dr Ruth. Unlike Kissinger, she wanted us to make love, not war.
In India, the only public mentions of sex were the advertisements painted on the walls that ran beside the railway tracks. I read the ads when I travelled from Patna to Delhi for college, and was filled with anxiety about what awaited me when, at last, I would experience sex. On the brick walls near the tracks, large white letters in Hindi urging you to call a phone number if you suffered from premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction or nightly emissions. A nation of silent sufferers! Men with worried brows holding their heads in their offices during the day, and, back at home, lying miserably awake beside quiet and disappointed wives in the dark.
But not in America where Dr Ruth was talking to you cheerfully on the air. I had no accurate idea of what epiglottis and guttural really meant, but those words vibrated in my mind when I listened to Dr Ruth. Her voice on the small, black radio-cum-cassette-player in the privacy of my room offering advice to the males among her audience. Even if they themselves had already climaxed, they could help their female partners achieve orgasm.
— You can just pleasure her.
I hadn’t heard that word used as a verb before. I also spoke in an accented English; I wondered if Dr Ruth’s usage was correct.
— And for women out there, a man wants an orgasm. Big deal! Give him an orgasm, it takes two minutes!
Such relief. For more than one reason.
There were details about her that I discovered later. Dr Ruth grew up in an orphanage. Her parents perished at Auschwitz. She was very short but had fought in a war. She was once a guerrilla in the Haganah and now, in this country, she was famous for talking about masturbation and penises and vaginas on the radio. An extraordinary and busy life. She was on her third marriage.
You will understand when I say that listening to Dr Ruth that night in my room on Morningside Drive I was back in Delhi where it was morning and we were enjoying three days of spring. The year I left, 1990. My friends were in my room in the college dorm. The daughter of the warden walked past the window on her way to work, her hair still hanging damp on her yellow dupatta. She was a post-doc in history and would become a lecturer soon. And then we were running to the end of the corridor to watch the warden’s daughter open the little wooden gate on her way to the bus stop. Her prepossessing calm, her very indifference to the existence of gawking others, was an incitement to collective lust. She was soon gone and, still excited but also somewhat let down, the group returned to my small room with its dirty, whitewashed walls.
— There is nothing purer than the love for your landlord’s daughter, said Bheem.
—No, said Santosh, after an appropriate pause. If you are looking for innocence, the purest gangajal, you have to be in love with your teacher’s wife.
As if to sort out the matter, we looked at Noni, a Sikh from Patiala. He was the only one amongst us who wasn’t a virgin.
Noni took off his turban and his long hair fell over his shoulders.
—You bastards should stop pretending. The only true love, true first love, is the love for your maidservant.
This was duly appreciated. But Noni was not done yet.
—She has to be older than you, though not by too much, and while it’s not necessary for you to have fucked her, it is important that she take your hand in hers and put it on her breast.
There was the usual silence that greets the utterance of grand truth. Three bodies were sprawled next to each other on the bed, their heads pillowed against the wall behind them. Aureoles of dark, oily smudges indicated where other heads had pressed against that wall. Then, someone started laughing.
—You are a bunch of pussies, Noni said, to dismiss the laughing. When you went back home during the winter, did any one of you get laid?
He smiled and announced his own success with another question.
—Has anyone slept with a friend’s mother?
—I have, Bheem said. He had light-coloured eyes. He was smiling a soft, secret smile.
—Whose mother, Noni asked.
Noni was my Dr Ruth before Dr Ruth. My naiveté was the price of admission I paid for his tutorials. Noni had discovered that the medical definition of a kiss was ‘the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction’. This made the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. He told me that the word ‘fuck’ was an acronym derived from ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge’; this terminology was itself a rewriting, Noni said, of the medieval rule to which ‘fuck’ owed its origins, ‘fornication under consent of the King.’ Noni was completely wrong; at that time, however, I marvelled at his knowledge of sex.
Until I met Noni in Delhi, my familiarity with sex was limited to what I had learned from the censored movies screened on Saturdays in Patna. I’d be sitting with others in the dark, the air warm, the smell of sweat around me, and somewhere a cigarette being smoked. There were probably two hundred others in the theatre, almost all men and most of them older than me. In the local paper the theatre advertised itself as ‘air-cooled’ but what you breathed was the effluvia of restless groins shifting in fixed seats that had coir-stuffing poking out of torn rexine covers. It was no doubt cooler in the apartment in Prague where the on-screen action was taking place. A middle-aged man had unclasped the hook of the bra that an impossibly young woman was wearing. She turned to face him, her breasts milk-white, with pale pink drowsy nipples. There was a cut and a jump in the film there. The duo was now in an open car on an empty road, driving under leafy trees, in bright sunlight.
But a child had started crying in the audience near me.
—Scene dikha, baccharorahahai, a man shouted from a further seat, wanting us to return to the bedroom. ‘Show a breast. Because if you don’t [offer the nipple], the baby will cry.’ The rough remark, bewildering at that time, soon lost its confusing aspect: glinting like mica in a piece of granite, it sat for a while in the nostalgic narrative about my late teenage years.
* Bill Clinton on President Obama’s re-election: ‘He’s luckier than a dog with two dicks.’
Of course, Bill Clinton deserves a footnote in any book on love. My writing notebook also has this quote in it: ‘I — but you know, love can mean different things, too, Mr. Bittman. I have — there are a lot of women with whom I have never had any inappropriate conduct, who were friends of mine, who will say from time to time, “I love you”. And I know that they don’t mean anything wrong by that.’ —Bill Clinton, Testimony Before Grand Jury.
(Excerpted from The Lovers: A Novel with permission from Aleph Books)
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