It’s a beautiful afternoon in Mumbai. A carelessly shut door fills the living room with the sound of waves. The doctor’s house, near Shivaji Park, is by the sea. Through the glass door to the terrace, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link stretches across the bay and glistens in the sun. Above the crests and swishes of breaking waves, one hears the avuncular voice of an 88-year-old: “Use a condom for some time. Your foreskin has ruptured.”
Dr Mahinder Watsa is on the phone, speaking with a patient in Hyderabad. After he disconnects the line, he turns to me, and uses the wrinkled forefinger of his left hand as the model of a penis with ruptured foreskin. He wiggles the raised finger and explains why one need not be unduly alarmed. “This is common for those who have tight foreskins.”
The doctor is one of Mumbai’s best known sexologists, known across town as ‘the sexpert’, thanks chiefly to his daily Q&A column ‘Ask The Sexpert’ in the tabloid Mumbai Mirror. So widely read is the column that it has spawned a number of fan pages on Facebook. One of India’s leading publishers has also approached him to convert some of his advice into a book on sexual health. While the tabloid gets some 20 emails every day for his column, though it features only three queries or so, the doctor himself receives at least 60 emails a day.
It is not for prurient purposes that many readers choose to start their day with this column, before even the front and sports page. As it turns out, it’s for a good laugh. The questions are often laughable and the doctor’s now-famous wit is razor sharp.
Sample this. Some time ago, an anonymous writer asked, ‘I have heard that any kind of acidic substance can prevent pregnancy. Can I pour some drops of lemon or orange juice in my girlfriend’s vagina after intercourse?’ Dr Watsa replied, ‘Are you a bhel puri vendor? Where did you get this weird idea from? There are many other safe and easy methods of birth control. You can consider using a condom.’ Or the time that a 27-year-old man wrote about his fetish for women’s clothing: ‘I like to steal women’s clothes, masturbate into them and return them. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old. What is wrong with me?’ Dr Watsa wrote, ‘It’s very noble of you to return them but if you’re caught, you will disgrace your family and yourself. Why don’t you buy some women’s clothing? It’s a harmless fetish if you don’t complicate matters.’
Even after all these years, Dr Watsa sighs, sex is discussed rather too rarely, so people’s queries tend to range from the utterly clueless to the downright hilarious. “But when I answer them, I can’t write a tome,” he says, “Who will read a 300-word-long answer? I want to educate, but in the most interesting fashion, so more people read and understand.” Readers, as can be expected, do not always agree with his views. His inbox sometimes has hate mail.
The doctor lives alone with a maid and personal assistant who come by to help him. His wife Promila passed away a few years ago, and his son and daughter-in-law live in another part of the city. “I have a granddaughter too, who is studying to become a dentist. She called upon me recently to tell me about a professor who asked her, ‘Are you Dr Watsa’s granddaughter?’ He apparently reads my column,” says Dr Watsa, laughing.
The doctor also sees patients at home. A room has been converted into a consultancy chamber for just that purpose, though he rarely sees more than a single patient in a day.
Dr Watsa did not start off as a sexologist. He was an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and gave up this practice in the mid-80s to focus exclusively on sexual health. Back then, he says, there were very few sex therapists and counsellors in India, and the subject was more or less taboo even in medical quarters. Since then, he has been holding conferences and workshops on sex with lay folk and medical professionals. He also runs a correspondence course on sex counselling and therapy for medical practitioners.
Dr Watsa’s current column is not his first. He started answering health-related queries for publications in the 1970s. At the time, he wrote columns for magazines like Trend, Femina and Flare. However, he says he felt restricted in those publications, because despite most of the queries being related to sexual health, he was rarely allowed to touch these topics. “Sex was a no-go area then. The use of words like ‘condom’ and ‘vagina’ was considered sacrilege,” he says, “We only replied to queries regarding general health. So after a point, I stopped these columns and would answer queries for websites instead. I even wrote for a few erotic magazines. And then the Mirror happened.”
‘Ask The Sexpert’ has been a regular fixture since the tabloid’s inception in 2005. As the paper has expanded to other cities—Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Pune—so has the column.
According to Meenal Baghel, editor of Mumbai Mirror, it is popular not just because such a column exists, but also because of Dr Watsa. ‘His advice is remarkably free of moralising, it’s to-the-point and leavened with terrific humour. In a country where we either don’t talk about sex or if we do it’s usually in a furtive, embarrassed manner or as a prurient reference, his trenchant humour coupled with good advice works brilliantly,’ she says over email.
In the initial days, most of the queries were from male readers, with their usual anxieties about masturbation and penis enhancement. But now, a large number of questioners identify themselves as female. “Now at least 25 per cent of them are women,” Dr Watsa says. This, however, does not mean that he watches his wit. Just a few weeks ago, a reader who identified herself as a 19-year-old girl wrote in to say how her labia turned red and itchy after using a banana for auto-stimulation. ‘I’m really worried. Please suggest a cream…’ was her request. Dr Watsa suggested the appropriate medication, but also put forth a query of his own: ‘By the way, I am curious to know if anyone in the family asked, ‘Where is that banana?’’
According to Baghel, the questions featured in the column are carefully selected. Those from minors are not entertained, although there’s a steadily increasing number of them. “We try and pick the most interesting ones, not just for the readers but also to give the poor doc a break from queries about masturbation and penis length,” she says.
Yet, it’s inevitable that such questions slip in. A few years ago, a 25-year-old man, worried about the length of his penis, ingeniously compared his organ to a PVC pipe. He asked, ‘My penis is short and small in diameter. When aroused, its size increases to resemble a 3/4 inch PVC pipe. I have heard that there are capsules available that help increase the size. Please advise.’ Trust the good doctor not to give an analogy the go-by. ‘As plenty of water can pass through a PVC pipe,’ he replied, ‘similarly, more than enough semen can pass out of your penis.’