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November 20, 2008

Birds and bees don't have a penis


"Don't they think about the children?" fumed my friend in the subject line of her email that contained these images. She has a 5-year-old daughter and lives in the US.

Despite my friend's obvious disapproval of the condom ads, I couldn't help but notice the detailing on the penises. Some art director somewhere either has a dubious clip art collection or must have spent his client's money scouting for models. Whatever be the case, other than some obvious ribaldry, I don't think the ads make the point strongly enough. If the purpose of a condom ad is to talk about safe sex, why mask it in stupidity? As for my friend's displeasure at the ads, I am not too sure I agree about keeping children in the dark about the facts of life.

While I wholeheartedly endorse promoting safe sex, letting kids know too much, too soon makes me a wee bit uncomfortable and a whole lot unsure. When is it too soon? Is it okay to mouth birds-and-bees till a certain age or is it better to tell them exactly what happens -- what sex is -- right from the start?

As a child I don't think I was ever overtly curious about how-babies-are-made. When I discovered, at age 11, what really happens between a man and a woman, it was by accident. I don't remember how the conversation came about between a bunch of 9-12 year kids, but I clearly remember this 8-year-old Sardarji who told us. "A man puts his thing in a woman's thing," he said and guffawed at the expression on our faces. Most of us had reacted with a "chhee". Much before I learnt the words 'penis' and 'vagina', a man and woman's private parts were just that, private.

While I've spoken three languages from the time I was eight-months-old -- English, Hindi and Bangla -- for a long time I didn't know a 'word' for a penis or a vagina. From shame-shame, to no-no, to chhee-chhee, to nangu; the terms I've heard were always about shame, guilt, taboo... always to be kept private and definitely not to be discussed or shown. The whole idea of showing 'it' to someone else and then things being put here and there was confusing, shocking.

The next shock came soon after. The realisation that love between a man and a woman was physical and had a lot to do with my body. It was my paternal grandmother who delivered it... She lived with us for three months in a year, had magic hands, knew Ramayana and Mahabharata both by heart and was an ace story-teller. Perhaps it was she and her stories of Krishna and rakshasas (demons) that make me so devour science-fiction-fantasy books now. She would have loved Harry Potter... Thamma would gently stroke my forehead and tell me bed-time stories. It was also at bedtime that she told me other stuff...

While my mother never discussed boys with me (hell I didn't even know I was supposed to have pubic hair and was initially quite distraught), Thamma took it upon herself to 'prepare' me for my future-husband-to-be. She told me four things. "A woman has to look good to keep her husband's love," was the first mantra. Coconut oil was the next. "A woman's hair is her true beauty," she would say, "...and regular oil in your hair will keep it soft for your husband to play with." The third was 'snowcream'. It was Lakme's vitamin-E rich cream that smelled divine, came in a white bottle with a blue lid and was white in colour. Thamma would laboriously apply 'snowcream' on my limbs with particular care to my ankles, knuckles and elbows. "Always keep your skin soft, no husband likes rough skin," she admonished. The final trick was the Importance of the Neck. "When you bathe, always scrub yourself properly and always, always keep your neck clean. That's where your husband will love you first," she said.

I have seen umpteen Hollywood movies where parents have The Talk with their children. I haven't spoken to current-generation parents but I know for a fact the topic is not something most Indian parents (my parents' generation) willingly discuss. Till date my mother has never spoken to me about sex (Pa is out of the question!).I don't know if Thamma had ever participated in debates on sex education, but I am grateful for what she told me... As shocked as I was with the idea of things being put in me, she at least let me know there was a physical side to love and that I should not be scared of it. Even if she just meant necking!

When Thamma 'prepared' me (1988), living-in, 'dating' and pre-marital sex were out of the question (particularly in India). Today, notwithstanding the Shiv Sena, open secrets and vociferous denials, they are a reality. So are HIV, teenage pregnancies and growing child abuse. Would I rather have my child not know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch or would I tell her what could happen? Do I want my teenage child confused about his/her attraction to the opposite sex -- and thereby either do something silly or feel guilty -- or do I want to be able to guide him/her to make a better, safer choice?

While I might not thrust a tumescent penis in my child's face -- like the ads, which are in stupid taste -- I could perhaps employ some of my Thamma's style and break the news gently. It doesn't have to be shock. Or guilt.

PS: I never replied to you when you sent me that email, so here is the answer. If your daughter sees that condom ad... don't hide the magazine or shut her eyes or tell her to be scared. Just explain and please give her the right terminology.

PS2: Just in case you all noted the headline and are wondering 'do birds have a penis', check the link for an accurate answer.

November 19, 2008

Cluck, cluck, cluck...

I don't clearly remember the first time I had that dream. I have not had it for a while now, but the details are clear.

A red jeep, open top, me driving it, thumping music playing but it's not too loud. I am driving down familiar mountain roads and I'm very happy. I am wearing denim dungarees, a red shirt and have a cap on my head. My hair, open and uncombed, is streaming behind me and I am smiling easily. On the passenger seat is a girl, about 4-years-old, wavy hair, open, hearty laughter and dressed exactly like me. Both of us love whatever music is playing and she keeps insisting on replaying her favourite song. I don't mind, I love her. She is my daughter. Most mischievous, most adorable, most treasured.

I have not had that dream in a while. Perhaps it's because I realise that reality and wishful thinking are two very different things. I am growing older; 30 in May.

I yearn. I know it does not scare me anymore, the idea that anything new or extra in my life, any added responsibilities will take me away from other cherished dreams. Or will hinder the way I have operated so far: decide on something and then bend whoever, whatever to my will. Get my way with a single-minded focus that is flexible enough to incorporate distractions. I won't say I don't care about my former dreams; just that now I know that the older me can fit those dreams in or around a child. I can wait for other dreams but I want my earlier dream in flesh.

I've always wondered about my parents and other parents like them. How can you just give up everything you are, were, wanted, for children? I have always doubted if I am going to be up to it. To change, modify, perhaps even let rest, all that I want to do, want to explore....when I have a child of my own. What if I would regret it later? What if I blame my child later? What if I am a bad mother? What if I cannot change and thereby harm my child?

I don't know what has changed; but I know it has changed. I don't even know when it started. I've always enjoyed cuddling other peoples' kids, have always managed a friendly rapport with toddlers and teenagers alike... Now when I see kids though, it's almost a violent reaction. I don't like holding other peoples' kids because it hurts. Because when I give the child back, I feel bereft. But how can I feel bereft when I have never had it? And what do I miss?

The nine months of pregnancy hurt, morning sickness hurts, the back hurts. Labour nearly kills. My mother had both my brother and me as caesarians. It has scarred her abdomen for life. Her stitches still hurt. After my brother she developed varicose veins. But she loves us! Why?

I've heard stories, first-hand, of how infants bite nipples and make them bleed. Of how breast-feeding is not as magical an experience as books make them out to be. Of how parents don't get sleep because babies wake up whenever they want to. How you have to constantly change smelly nappies, watch out for them, look after them. Oh hell. My parents still worry about me, which only means that once you have children, it never really ends.

I know all that. I yearn. And I get jealous, horrendously, inexplicicably envious of mothers as they happily, peacefully take their babies for walks in prams. It hurts somewhere inside - I don't understand where -- when I see babies snuggle into the necks of their mothers. Or when mothers on trains seem to have perfect conversations with a two-year-old. Nothing else seems to matter to them. And oh it hurts.

It doesn't matter... journalism, books, seeing the world, being independent.

And I fear. Desperately. I've always been a perfectionist. I hate not knowing, not being able to do something as best as I think it should be done. As long as it is possible to do it better, I will do it. And yet I am learning that not everything is in my hands. Two couples I know are trying hard, very hard, to have a baby. Endometriosis, in vitro, syringes, steroids, pain. But no child...

What if I don't have a child? What if I can't? I dread.

PS: Will it make me a lesser woman if I can't... It is no one else who will judge; but knowing myself, knowing my perfectionist nature... I don't know.

PS2: Poor Partner! He shudders. (lol)