No one can accuse me of not being a conscientious mother. And I had determined right when my pregnancy test was confirmed that my child – my daughter, as I then thought – would not lack about knowledge of sex and all its implications, for shyness on my part.
Seven months later, the daughter was a son, but my determination had not waned the slightest. My big moment came when he was four years old, or so I thought. ‘Mamma,’ came the childish treble, ‘where did you get me?’
I took a deep breath and launched into what I truly believed was a simple version of the bag in the tummy, the umbilical cord as a fast food take-out, and a sanitised version of labour. The little face before me considered my tale carefully, then crumpled into tears. ‘Mamma, you pottied me out?’
It took me an hour to pacify the son – and days to pacify the husband. It was weeks before the household returned to normal and, at the end of it, I tended to agree with the psychologists: men cannot take the reality of labour.
Needless to say, my determination to do the right thing by the son took a vicious downswing after that. I dared not volunteer any more information and, thankfully, there was no provocation either. Well, not for the next four years or so. I restricted myself to vetting all TV material, so much so that when a PG scene was impending, the son would hand me the remote and say, ‘Here, you can change the channel.’
By the time he was eight, I had resigned myself to the role of enemy of state by daytime and mother confessor by night, when the little soul was too tired for hostilities and the events of the day weighed heavily on his conscience.
During one such confession, I was suddenly jerked out of my habitual stupor. ‘And then Mom, we played rape-rape.’
‘What do you mean, beta, rape-rape?’ I eased myself into the question as cautiously as I would have approached a flaring stick of dynamite.
‘Well, you know, how they do it in the movies. First we do pyjama-pulling. Then we try to tear each other’s clothes off and then fight to be on top. It’s great fun.’
‘And where, sweetheart, did you get to know about this game?’
‘At Nishant’s house, on the TV. His maid lets us watch whatever we want.’
I steeled myself to wait till he had fallen asleep before I went rushing to the husband. ‘I can’t handle this. You’ve got to tell him all about sex!’ I shrieked as I wound up my tale. The husband was not impressed. ‘Of course,’ he answered from the depths of STAR Movies, ‘we’ll do that. Meanwhile, why don’t you find a book on the subject for him?’
It took the husband weeks to get around to telling the son the facts of life, and then too because I seized the moment when we were waiting at the McDonald’s drive-in, and neither son nor husband could escape. (I am convinced now that whatever else he does, the son will never think of homosexuality – it will remind him too much of a Maharaja Mac with fries.) However, back to the moment.
The son digested the information that was provided him, but did not ask any questions. So the husband, at a loss for words, launched into issues of respect for women and the dangers of irresponsible sex (and games that impersonated the act), and AIDS.
The clincher came when the son asked woefully, ‘The game I played with Nishant? Am I going to die of AIDS now?’ We had reached the counter by then, and the husband missed the very triumphant look I shot at him. Who had overextended now?
The flood of questions hit us a couple of days later. That is to say, it hit me, the husband being away in the editing studio all day and most of the night. What was left of my enthusiasm for the truth faded as I slowly realized that I knew very little about the working of the adolescent male, oh okay, soon-to-be adolescent male body, myself. Desperately, I began to scour the book shops for a book that would redress all the questions I had no answer to.
Two years later, I was disheartened and not a little dusty. There were all kinds of books on how to make a marriage work, sex for the teenager, responsible sex, and as much more on the mysteries of the wedding night itself. But a simple explanation, preferably with pictures, on how it works for an eight-year-old? No sir!
The shopkeepers eyed me warily as if I were some weird creature from outer space. I could almost see their brains ticking away: ‘Nine years old, and she wants to tell him the facts of life? No wonder the country is in the mess it is in now!’
By the time the son was ten years old, I was sufficiently disillusioned with the state of affairs within the country to resolve to look Westwards. After all, they were much more advanced about such matters there. During a trip to London, I set aside an entire day for the single-minded pursuit of a book that would explain the facts of life to the not-yet-teenager. The first thing that struck me at Borders was the number of books there on the subject written by, guess what?, Indian authors!! Aha! I thought, this was where they all went!
I browsed through the entire shelf of books they had there, while the son hung around sheepishly at the next counter, which, luckily for him, was comics. An hour and thirty sterling pounds later, I emerged triumphant, clutching at my hardily won prize. I had it at last – the answers to all those questions that were leaving me sleepless at night. The husband was less enthusiastic. ‘Thirty pounds?’ he asked incredulously. ‘Twenty-five hundred bucks for teaching him what will come naturally to him anyway? If you’d waited another couple of years, he would have learnt it all himself.’ Well, it wasn’t him that was getting hit by question rapidfire each night!
One day, I took out my precious packet and brandished it at the son: ‘Here, you can do a bit more holiday homework – for me this time. All those things you were asking me, remember? Well, you can read this before the holidays finish. They are very good books and should tell you all you wish to know.’
A week later, I enquired brightly, ‘Well, have you finished the first one yet? Shall we go through it together?’ A blank look from behind a lurid covered Goosebumps met my query.
The summer holidays passed and soon the Dussehra break came around. On the son’s book-shelf one day, I found the two sex education books, new as the day they were printed under the two inches of dust that shrouded them. The son had obviously not even touched them. But the questions had stopped and I had been sleeping tranquilly for months now.
I was puzzled, but also a lot wiser. Let sleeping children be. After all, look at it this way – that dust is the best return I’ve had on any similar investment I’ve made in my life!
First published in The Financial Express in October 1999.