We moved to our hometown, a not-so-small place in Uttar Pradesh, when I was just a little girl. My father thought this was the right decision after his early retirement from a government job with the Defence Services in Mumbai. Moving from that buzzing metropolis to this conservative town in Uttar Pradesh was a huge cultural shock for me and the other kids. It was like we went straight from the freedom and confidence of Mumbai to a place that suffocated us with its supremely judgemental atmosphere. I felt like a fish out of water there.
I did not know that wearing a skirt on Holi would turn out to be a deadly invitation for sexual assault in that town. A bunch of 8-10 boys attacked me from behind. I walked home with silver handprints on my shirt and my skirt. Those stains clearly screamed ‘assault’ louder than my suppressed sobs. It was all painful and ghastly, and not only have I hated Holi since then, but also hated those who enjoy it!
And yet, amidst all this, somehow my sexual awareness began. All that I encountered outside was at odds with what surged inside me.
I remember stealthily reading erotic literature that elders in my family had. Especially my Mom’s ‘Manohar Kahaniyan’ and her Bengali magazines with arousing pictures and graphic advertisements of I-still-don’t-know-what! I also graduated to Uncle’s novels like ‘The Day of the Jackal’ and the ones by Harold Robbins. It took me many years to unearth my Dad’s ‘The Sensuous Woman,’ though. Finding Mills and Boon novels made things even better – those sensuous, sentimental novels supplied by a tiny second-hand bookstore in our town became my staple diet.
These books gave me many ‘unholy desires’ which I continued to satisfy locked up in the smouldering heat of our tiny washroom, lost in the imaginary world of romance and sensual self-stimulation. I would also daydream about my then teenage crush tenderly merging into my being, of course, in typical Mills and Boon style.
Meanwhile, my mother told my father that she was concerned about my new voracious reading appetite. My father dutifully tried to give me a sermon about how different the real world was from the rosy romances glorified by Mills and Boon and immortalised by Barbara Cartland. He also subtly advised me to preserve the jewel between my thighs for the one-deserving-man who would be my husband. Little did he know that the jewel between my thighs had been giving me plenty of pleasure already. I mean, my mother must have wondered why my poor teddy stank of pee when I was just in grade 1! Umm!
All this self-exploration did not come easy to me though. There was always a whirlpool of guilt because of the many incidents of sexual abuse. In fact, a certain sense of suffocating in shame and guilt remained with me whenever I felt the normal stirrings of sexual longing.
I was sexually abused multiple times in that town, and also in Mumbai, as a kid, barely in primary school. This one time, I was singing and running down the stairs to go to the grocery store for toffees when I bumped into our Driver Uncle. He often used to bundle all the kids into a jeep for a ride around the housing complex before starting his official duties for my father’s colleague.
But that day, he hurt me both physically and emotionally. There was another incident when I was travelling with my family on a train. I was assaulted by a moustachioed man when I stepped out of the lavatory into the cramped space of the compartment corridor. I was only in Grade 7 then and have been extremely suspicious of day-time travellers boarding and travelling in reserved compartments ever since. Pleasurable sex seemed like a distant dream, a possibility so remote, I couldn’t even envision it.
But, after a point even a darpok like me decided to take control and fight back. When an insolent fellow groped me in a crowded marketplace, I chased him and delivered a solid whack to his butt. But, he was dressed as such a decent gentleman that outraged bystanders tried to hide him from my ‘unjustified-wild-attacks’!
Over time, I grew to be cautious. I wore baggy clothes and glasses firmly perched on my nose - like a dowdy schoolmarm. I judged people who could casually flirt and maintain friendships with boys. I couldn’t trust boys. So, I convinced myself that I was too ugly, unsmart, uninteresting and unexciting to ever get any attention from them.
That was a rather confusing phase of life. On one hand, I felt inadequate and conscious of my body image because I was tall and broad-shouldered with hardly enough breasts to be considered feminine. On the other hand, I was getting molested almost every time I stepped outside. Was I pretty and attractive or not? Or, did I have some evil X-factor marking me as easily ‘molestable’?
And yet, somehow, I was still a stupid romantic fool at heart. I believed that someday I too would get married and fall in love or learn to love.
When I think of my earliest imaginations of marriage, I remember how my dear father suggested that I preserve the jewel between my thighs for my future husband. When I showed that ‘loving letter’ to my closest friend, she was aghast by this bold and candid advice. I think my father might have tried to sensitise me about marriage and real-life, later in life, but he died in a dreadful accident at sea. And, I was left with this jewel-saving advice, the memories of harassment, and the secret thrills of erotica I had read.
None of this prepared me for the physical reality of marriage. No amount of research on stealthily stolen books or magazines, biology classes on the reproductive system, curious surreptitious study of my fully aroused Doberman’s anatomy, nothing was actually real enough. It was only during my honeymoon that I realised that sex could be painful.
I was upset and angry about not being warned about this pain. But, well-meaning relatives and even medical professionals in those days were usually so tight-lipped about so many important concepts like vaginismus and dyspareunia anyway.
Thankfully, my honeymoon was not a total disaster. My equally virgin husband acted on good advice and served me a gin-spiked-Coke. That actually helped me relax at least a little though it didn’t stop me from gabbling nonsense all night. But while I talked easily enough, my tense muscles refused to cooperate.
It was much later that I discovered my own reasons for freezing up. My experiences with sexual assault, humiliation, and more, were weighing down on me and had brought me to this point. I have tears in my eyes even as I write this, thinking about the sensitive heart of my hubby, who never has ever forced himself on me, and bears all my sexual eccentricities with gentle compassion. My tangled journey has been decades in the making, and this writing is my attempt to unravel it now.
As if the honeymoon experience was not enough, I had yet another rocky start to my married life. My well meaning Mom had thought it was necessary to find a way for me to avoid the trouble of periods during the wedding rituals, and thus I was dutifully prescribed some pills to shift the dates of my chums. That threw my regular monthly schedule into total disarray, combined with the nausea and side effects of the pills. Meanwhile some friends from our progressive girls’ college had given me an advertisement for a new product that promised a hassle-free, liberating experience - the ‘Today’ pessary.
This was supposed to act as a shield against unwanted ‘accidents’ in case other forms of protection failed or weren’t used.
‘Today’ had just been launched in the Indian market and was available only through mail order. I must have been one of their pioneering customers, I think.
The consequence of using that pessary was dreadful. By the time I moved to my husband’s place of posting in a remote town in Himachal, I had already started feeling discomfort in my private parts. I kept quiet about it, believing it to be a usual occurrence due to all of the disturbances in routine and the travel. I also thought maybe I was just sensitive to synthetics - in this case, rubber from the condoms we used.
My hubby dearest had to go on field duty two days after he got me home. For the next fortnight, I was all alone in an alien environment where I knew only my landlady and the neighbour on the ground floor. I still remember the agony of my first UTI - I thought I was dying and had no clue how or whom to describe my plight. When my hubby returned, we travelled on a rickety, borrowed scooter for two, long, agonising hours, up and down the bumpy hill roads, to consult the only lady doctor in that district. We found she was on unofficial leave for some puja at her house.
We still waited for a couple of hours before we headed back to consult the only (male) doctor in that remote hill hamlet. He sat in a tin-shed near the bus stand, and had at least twenty patients waiting to consult him at any hour. But, oh my god, the effect of the medicines he prescribed was immediate and just magical. That humble unassuming doctor was my saviour.
A few months later when I went to my hometown for my brother’s wedding, I heard many of my friends had used the ‘Today’ pessary and had similar painful experiences. Since then, I made it a mission to caution women on the threshold of marriage about the basics of hygiene before intercourse, and also about using pessaries and recognising and addressing symptoms of urinary tract infections.
Honestly, when it came to my marriage, I just wanted to live by my mother’s well-meaning advice: Be an ideal daughter-in-law, a truly sanskari bahu so that no one could blame my widowed mother for not “bringing me up with the appropriate family values.” Besides, in a stereotypical Indian marriage, you are supposedly blessed to be married to a compatible and suitably-earning man from a respectable family where they can provide you with all the basic necessities of life. The woman should just learn to adjust to the expectations and demands of her man after that. I truly never expected or believed I deserved much more that that.
Sex or satisfaction simply don’t count, at least not for the woman in a marriage. While my husband did try his best to be an enlightened partner, studiously trying out all that the forbidden XXX journals prescribed, I don’t really remember ever experiencing a high during the act with him.
One day, while I was dutifully trying to ‘make myself learn to love’ my hubby, he was staring at the wall-calendar like a zombie. He was in the throes of peak excitement when I realised he was actually fantasising about a rather silly-looking girl on that wall-calendar. I was devastated, scandalised, outraged, but most of all, vulnerable in my bitter hurt. I thought I was definitely prettier than that cheaply-dressed twig wearing a mini skirt. Besides, she just happened to be on the calendar of a local bartan-wala’s shop. It was I who was partnering him in that intimate act, and yet I was far from his mind.
It hit me hard. I thought to myself: Men don’t need a loving woman to turn them on. Their turn-ons can be anyone in any form at any goddamn time. Friends, relatives, neighbours, strangers, film stars or porn stars. So, ironically, I finally learnt the meaning of ‘a pole in the hole’ being the ideal description of the sexual act! (Had giggled over it in school!) There was no place for love in sex, I felt.
All this time I had never once experienced an orgasm with him.
I remember one time when I did experience an ‘O’, though . I was a mother of two by then. I was travelling in a rattling ambassador cab to a hill station and feeling extremely exhausted and angry at my in-laws. They had arrived at our tiny flat in a group of five, and expected the royal treatment from their bahu who was already drained by an excessively breastfeeding infant. While fuming at the brutal injustice of this, I actually fantasized about the uncouth cab driver. And, I experienced a mind blowing O! No one detected my ‘crime.’ but I felt repulsed by that incident. ’ Love and sex are not always the same indeed.
Over the years, I began to use sex as a privilege to exercise some control in my marriage. I cannot pinpoint exactly how this started. But, perhaps it was when I grew far too overwhelmed with domestic chores and the physically exhausting demands of mothering my two little darling daughters. I felt relentlessly judged by a patriarchal family and society. I discovered that the only weapon I had was to hold out or refuse some forms of sex. It was a painfully slow growth of self-confidence but I did begin to learn to assert myself in my relationship!
I was a fiercely protective mother to my daughters. I wanted to make my daughters understand the difference between good touch and bad touch. I could not let them have horrid experiences like me. But, I also worry that I may have soured my kids on pleasure and trust permanently? I often wonder to myself, ‘Is it because of me that neither of them have any long-lasting relationships?’
Life may be an endless discovery of disillusionment but companionship is what matters the most. Physical intimacy might be far from entirely satisfying but it does provide some sustaining moments of pleasure. Fat bellies, incongruent sleep patterns, physical exhaustion and poor libido notwithstanding, one does derive some sexual pleasure at regular intervals to remain sane. Of course you need to add on a couple of absolutely essential body massage experiences too! You finally discover that in all probability, the Prince didn’t go riding into the sunset with his beloved Princess, but rather realistically, they both fell asleep under a shady tree, with the gentle sound of a rippling stream amidst the intoxicating fragrance of water lilies! That would be a truly satisfying fairy tale ending!
I hope my daughters have a different life, perhaps not a fairy tale, but one that involves a more fulfilling idea of companionship and trust in their romantic and sexual lives.
Midas spent a lot of time in a cocoon, before metamorphosing into a not-too-flamboyant but certainly more confident, bad-ass butterfly, touching lives, hoping to sprinkle some gold, just like her namesake!