*Facts of Life*
When we were kids, the boys made fun of one of Appu’s friends, a bookish genius; he had a photographic memory and knew the entire logarithmic table from start to finish by heart. The mockery went something like this: “Hey, S., what are the Facts of Life?” the boys would ask S. The story goes that S. would then say. “Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen, Chlorine . .” Ha ha ha.
S. went to Organic Chemistry for the Facts of Life. The rest of us thought we were all very smart, but really, we weren’t. All of us kids comprehended the Facts of Life with varying degrees of gaps, misinformation, and plain absurdity. As in other parts of the world, we kids picked up our sexual lore mostly from films and books, and to a lesser extent through prurient observation of backyard animals and their mating behavior.
Indian films and television have changed radically now, but when we were growing up, in the seventies, eighties and even into the early nineties, there was no kissing, no bodily nudity, or images of sexual consummation on screen. There was plenty of salacious and titillating content, but the censors drew the line at any type of sexual bodily contact, including kissing.
Thus after the hero and the heroine slide and slither around each other in barely concealed estrus, and the titillation potential borders the pornographic, suddenly we will see on screen two flowers coming closer and closer and closer to each other, falling into each other, smashing into each other: flowers “kissing” for lack of a better word. The more creative directors represented human sexual union on screen coyly with birds touching their beaks together, bees drinking nectar from a flower, deer nuzzling their noses against each other, and in the really daring instances, huge waves breaking roaringly on the shore, firecrackers bursting up in the sky, and milk boiling over. There was one particular film, where the hero breaks open an egg on the heroine’s exposed belly between the blouse and the sari; the egg sizzles and curls and turns into a Spanish omelet. She was that hot.
Thus, the Indian cinema filled our heads with a semiotic system for human sexuality, which included birds, bees, flowers, seashore, the sky, firecrackers, kitchen utensils, milk and eggs. It is a fact of life that human beings have a seemingly uncontrollable need to see sex represented. They want to see it, they want to write about it, they want to film it, they want to sing it, they want to hear it. It is sort of like how Tom Cruise always wants to have sex with his real wife on screen as well. Representation adds to the Reality. While couples in coitus have graced the walls of Indian temples for thousands of years, that was not sufficient for the movie-going Indian public who wanted to see “real” (real on screen?) sex on screen leading to all kinds of creative and not-so-creative short cuts to sex scenes of the afore-mentioned kind by directors and actors.
I remember one particular event of mass frustration by the movie-going Indian public over their lack of access to some flesh scenes. It was the 1987 International Film Festival in Trivandrum. John Huston had just made a film adaptation of Joyce’s short story *The Dead.* Great short story, but the movie adaptation does not work at all. That insight is in retrospect, but in 1987 we all wanted to see it. So, a bunch of us from the Institute of English—three girls and nine boys – we went to the theater that was screening the movie. International Film Festivals are big crowd-pullers in India, particularly Kerala, which has a very evolved film culture. Two types of film-lovers attend these foreign film festivals; one, those who really want to see the retrospectives of a Kurasawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky et al because they know the cinema of these directors; and two, those who want to see foreign films, because foreign films contain uncensored nudity. The foreign film festivals also brought movies with such titles as *The Big Blonde.*
So anyway, *The Dead* was playing in a duplex theater in Trivandrum; one screen showed *The Dead,* and the other theater screened a Swedish film called, let us say, *The Big Blonde.* It was a matinee. I and my friends, boys and girls from the Institute of English stood in a long meandering line to buy tickets for *The Dead.* Wow, such a big crowd to see *The Dead,* we remarked to ourselves. The crowd was all men; street-vendors, head-load workers, auto-rickshaw drivers, men with a beedi in one hand, in disheveled clothes, with blood-shot eyes, and mesh t-shirts with the arms cut off. Imagine, they want to see Joyce’s *The Dead*; we smiled in utter incomprehension.
The men eyed our group, a group with more boys than girls. The boys were all our good friends. Several creepy men eyed us girls lewdly and started making obscene comments. Our male friends turned red in the face and looked at us apologetically. “Do you want to go back?” Our friends asked us in a low voice. “No, that is okay,” I and my girlfriends replied, “We would really like to see *The Dead.* This filth does not bother us,” we said. The creepy men kept ogling us.
We bought our tickets and walked into the theater. Inside the dark theater, there was yelling and shouting; several men in the audience loudly anticipated the fleshly delights they were about to witness. We sat down and the film started.
Two very old women came on the screen; Gabriel’s aunts. Old, wrinkled, and with a twinkle in their eyes, they started talking about the Christmas party. They talked and they talked. A low rumbling started inside the theater. So far, no flesh. Then the guests started arriving at the party. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter was literally run off her feet. More talking. Lots of old people talking, talking, talking. The rumbling inside the theater intensified. The men were getting really antsy; they needed to see some flesh and they needed to see it right now or they were going to get their ticket fare back!!
Finally, Gabriel and Greta arrived on scene; a reasonably young couple. There was a temporary cessation to the hum inside the theater. Maybe this man and woman will have sex? But Gabriel walked off into the library and started to rehearse his speech. Greta mingled. Alcoholics waxed poetically; old aunts propped up the alcoholics. Every time a man and a woman came towards each other on screen, we heard a loud roar of anticipation from the men in the theater. This is it; now we will see some flesh.
Alas, there is no breeding in *The Dead.* How disappointing. We tasted the sweetness of revenge on our tongues. Twenty minutes into the movie, the men in the audience began to hoot and holler and shout. Several of them got up and left, loudly swearing how the theater ripped them off. Needless to say, we watched two movies that day.
But the politics of sexual representation came much later. In our adolescent years, our understanding of human sexuality was an absurd schtick. For instance, I believed, and I later found out, many of my friends and cousins did as well, if a woman in a wet, white sari hugged a man, she became pregnant. This was directly from the films. In one scene, Prem Nazir is chasing Sarada around a coconut tree. It rains and they hug. In the next scene, Sarada is clutching her stomach and throwing up. Pregnancy.
My cousin Kunji had another explanation for pregnancy. She was an exemplary student and got her information from the biology textbook. The male gamete is called sperm, Kunji began. It has a head, which is 5 microns and a tale that is 50 microns long. It propels itself by moving its tail in a motion called flagellation in a liquid medium towards the ovum, which is the female gamete.
Yeah, really? We would say. We were taunting her then; we were slightly older. What liquid medium?
The textbook does not say what liquid medium it is, Kunji admitted.
How far is it traveling then? How does it make a woman pregnant? We asked.
Kunji drew a blank.
We stared at my aunt, Kunji’s mother, one of the most respected OB/ GYNs in Ernakulam sitting there listening to us discuss the mechanics of human reproduction. What is this, ammayi, we would ask her. Your daughter says that the 5-micron sperm is swimming in a liquid medium flagellating its tail towards an ovum! Very bad parental instruction!
This was true; in our childhood, our parents did not spend a lot of time educating us about human sexuality. Our mothers told us girls that there was no reason for any boy or any man, other than our fathers or brothers, to touch us; so, there was no touching between boys and girls. We were unsure of the actual steps, but we naturally believed that touching mystically led to pregnancy. When he was in his teenage years, my mother told Appu that he should never feel tempted to give in to the prostitutes and pimps that hang around the train stations, bus stations and airports looking for young men. That was the extent of our parents discussing human sexuality with us.
For the longest time, I believed that for chicken’s eggs to hatch into baby chicks, a rooster has to approach and gingerly “step” on the said eggs. I don’t know where I got that idea, but in my mind I saw a rooster approaching an egg and stepping on it, balancing itself precariously on top of the egg. Then the egg was fertilized and baby chicks were born. It was a standing joke in my family and my cousins torture me to this day recounting this story whenever the occasion presents itself. I was reminded of my chick story, and relieved at the same time, when Dayani once brought home some chicks to foster while in fourth grade.
I will never forgive Sierra for saying this, Dayani told me when I picked her up at school. What, honey? I asked her.
Sierra told everyone in class today that my chicks are “dating” her chicks, Dayani said.
That is okay, honey, I told Daya, chicks can date chicks.
You know what mama, Dayani said, we know now for sure that Fudge is a boy and Sunshine is a girl. Fudge and Sunshine are the two chicks that Dayani was fostering.
Oh, yeah? I said. How did you figure that out, honey?
Mr. Miller in class today, Dayani said, showed us Fudge’s reproductive parts.
Really? I said.
Yes, see I had to do the dirty work because Fudge is my chicken and I am going to be a veterinarian, Dayani said. Mr. Miller showed me how to hold Fudge’s feathers up, and right near the “vent” – you know it is called “the vent” and not the bad nick name, mama – there is a small pimple. That is what makes Fudge a boy.
Oh, wow, honey, I said. I had no idea, I said.
It is true; I did not know what the reproductive organs of a rooster were like. Apparently, it is a pimple, near a vent.
Well, that explains why Fudge was constantly trying to jump out of the box, I said.
We couldn’t really understand it. We had kept both Fudge and Sunshine in a box in my office (where else?) and every time we opened the box to clean the paper or put food and water, Fudge would try to jump up over my hands and out of the box. He preferred to perch on the box lid or on top of the lamp we were using to keep them warm.
Sunshine just sat in one corner. Rooster behavior, I said; you know, “roosting” means to sit on top of something. Being caged in that box must be stifling for poor Fudge. Dayani had to take the chicks back to school, but if we ever get them back for fostering, I am getting Fudge a nice big box with plenty of flying room and a perch.