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Sex in the city: Meeting India's No. 2 sexologist

by Bishwanath Ghosh

Editor's Note: Chennai has the reputation of being conservative and orthodox. But as Bishwanath Ghosh writes in his new book Tamarind City, many of India's most modern institutions from the army to the judiciary traces its roots to Madras' Fort St. George. The city might be home to a very traditional classical vocalist and the ghosts of MGR and Wellesley but you can also meet a hip transsexual and the No. 2 sexologist in India. This is an excerpt from the new book Tamarind City -Where Modern India Began (Tranquebar Press).

Dr. Reddy tells the story about what it's like to be a sexologist in Chennai and how globalisation is screwing up our sex lives.

I first met Dr Narayana Reddy about seven or eight years ago at the Gymkhana Club, where a writer friend of mine had invited me for drinks one evening.

‘Do you see that man in specs?’ my friend asked me.

‘Yes, who is he?’ I asked.

‘Have you heard of Dr Prakash Kothari, the sexologist?’

‘Of course, who hasn’t? But that’s not Prakash Kothari!’

‘Prakash Kothari is the no. 1 sexologist in India. And the man in specs you see there, he is the no. 2 in the country. He is Dr Narayana Reddy,’ my friend said softly.

‘Of course I have heard of him too.’ I remembered reading in a magazine, many years ago, about a survey he had conducted on changing sexual mores in India—one doesn’t forget articles on sex easily. And at the time—I must have been barely fifteen then—I thought of Dr. Reddy as one lucky man to be privy to such juicy statistics.

‘Great,’ my friend said, ‘if he happens to pass by, I will introduce you to him.’

So that evening, I finally got to shake hands with Dr Reddy, the man I once envied and perhaps envy even now…

The make or break case

Being a sexologist has not been easy for him.

‘When I started my clinic in 1982, everybody discouraged me. My family and friends were worried that sexology was not a respectable specialty, unlike cardiology or ophthalmology, which would have given me a better status. My medical colleagues and seniors, too, felt there was no need for this specialty and I wouldn’t be able to earn anything.

‘Probably it was the desire to be different. At the time I was thirty-two and had the guts to do something new…My doctor-friends had advised me that if I had a standalone clinic to treat sexual problems, people may hesitate to visit, so I should simultaneously join a multi-specialty hospital to have an income. So I joined a hospital. But the owners, who were known to my family, said I could not call myself a sexologist. I asked them what I should call myself. After much deliberation, they said I could call myself a reproductive biologist. I didn’t even know what that meant, but beggars can’t be choosers.

‘I was allotted a room in the maternity section. I was sharing it with a senior gynaecologist, who was my teacher in college and who had delivered my two children. For six months I hardly had any patient. Every doctor used to make fun of me. When passing by they would peep in and wink, “If you have any interesting case, do let us know. We will come and watch.” I would read magazines, drink tea and then go back to my clinic.

‘One day a man knocked and walked in. I was so happy I could have garlanded him. But he said, “I don’t have a problem, it is my wife who is admitted here for surgery. I was just walking around when I happened to notice your board. I am curious to know what ‘reproductive biologist’ means.” I was crushed. But this man became the turning point of my career.

‘He was a Muslim, orthodox, well-to-do man who had been married for a number of years but did not have any children. He had taken his wife for treatment to Bombay, to Singapore, but nothing happened. Finally, he came to this hospital because he had heard that the gynaecologist, my teacher, had a good hand. The surgery was to be done to see if internal organs were fine. He was hoping that his wife would become pregnant after the surgery.

‘I asked him about the reports. He said the reports were all fine, both his and his wife’s. Then I asked him if he was regularly having sex. He said he was. I found it strange that the wife should not be conceiving. Something was amiss. I wanted to speak to the wife, but she was a purdah-clad woman who would not speak to me. So I got hold of a staff nurse and made her sit with the woman in a room while I spoke to them over intercom. The nurse conveyed my questions to her. I asked her if they were having proper intercourse, to which she said yes. But my hunch was that vaginal intercourse was not taking place.

‘I realised this was a make-or-break case for me. I hadn’t had a single patient in six months. I requested the gynaecologist to ask certain questions of that man’s wife. But she refused, saying, “At my age how can I ask such questions?” I did not know what to do. Those days there was no internet or ISD. So I booked a call to America to speak to my teacher. My teacher said a vaginal swab test would establish whether vaginal intercourse had taken place and maybe the couple should be asked to have sex in the hospital.

‘I pleaded with the gynaecologist to postpone the surgery. She said she could postpone it only by forty-five minutes because after that it would be rahu kaalam. So I asked the couple to have sex in the hospital and straightaway went to the chief pathologist, who was a highly respected doctor, and begged him to personally conduct the vaginal swab test. His word carried a lot of weight.

‘True to my hunch, there were no sperms found in the vagina, which meant vaginal intercourse had not taken place at all. The surgery was cancelled once the pathologist wrote his report. The gynaecologist could not overrule him. I found out that the man did not even know where the vaginal opening was. He would simply lie on top of his wife and ejaculate between her thighs. They believed that was intercourse and were hoping to get a child. I had to tell him how to have sex.

‘Three months later he barged into my room. He was ecstatic. He said his wife was finally pregnant. I got ecstatic too and went to the next cubicle to break the news to the gynaecologist, my teacher. And guess who I found there? The man’s wife, the purdah-clad woman, who was presenting the gynaecologist a basket of fruit and a silk saree. Whereas I was the one who done all the work! From then on, the gynaecologist began to refer such cases to me.

My life changed…

Pain in the urinal

…‘Many patients, even the educated ones, since they are not taught the right vocabulary in school or college, use all sorts of colloquial, or wrong words, or slang to explain their problem. One woman, who was the head of the department of economics in a college, came to me because she had pain in the vagina during intercourse. She kept on referring to the vagina as “urinals”. For a long time I did not understand what she was saying.

‘At times, the words they use to describe a condition happen to be related to their profession. For example, one patient who was suffering from premature ejaculation kept on saying “Dispatch, dispatch.” When I asked him about his job, I found out that he was a postal dispatch clerk in a small railway station in Andhra Pradesh…

‘Age is no bar for sex. Several elderly men come to me after they have been dismissed by other doctors. One sixty-plus man who came to me for erectile dysfunction had already visited a senior doctor, who was my professor in medical college. I asked the man, “Why did you come to me? This doctor would have treated you better, he was my professor.” The man replied, “Sir, he shouted at me. He said at this age you should be taking care of your heart and prostrate and not thinking about sex.” So the medical fraternity is also responsible for making people believe that sex is taboo after a certain age.

‘While on the one hand, it is heartening to see older people wanting to lead a full life, on the other, I feel sad for the younger generation. Many couples are drifting apart because there is no sex in their marriage. They may not be legally separated, but there is no intimacy. The reason being, people don’t have the time for anything, leave alone time for sex.

Going backward?

‘We may talk of globalisation and liberalisation, but I think we are going backward. A young professional today draws one lakh a month and his family is very happy. But he works thirty kilometres away from the city, which means he has to be up by five or six, and by the time he is back it is about nine in the evening. Where does he have the time?

‘Nowhere in the Western world do airports function between eleven in the night and five in the morning. Nowhere in the West do they work beyond five in the evening or during Christmas holidays, come what may. That is because they respect the body clock, they understand the value of quality in life. But our boys are working according to their timings, working even on holidays like Diwali and Pongal, because they want to earn those dollars. At what cost?

‘A husband and wife hardly spend time together these days. They spend more time with their colleagues. Whatever little time they get at home, they catch up on sleep. Their sex life is bound to be affected. Just the other day, I was visited by a high-profile couple. The man was a vice-president in a multinational company and the wife was the head of HR in another multinational. They had not had sex for almost a year. When I asked them why, they said they rarely met. When one of them was at home, the other would be travelling. In fact, they had met each other only once in the past six months, that too at the Changi Airport in Singapore.

‘Now, do you call this marriage? Are we going forward or backward?’