So what was your first acknowledgement of the difference between the sexes? You know the whole boys have a penis, girls have a vagina shindig. For some it was when their parents told them, for some it was when they walked in on sibling/cousin/uncle/aunt/parent changing and looked down and wondered wtf? For some it was as late as 8th standard biology when they saw the diagram of the penis/vagina and said WTF! (true story!) and then for some it might have been pure instinct (also apparently true story)
For me I’ve had two such occasions. One that raised the question and one that answered it.
The first is a rather hazy memory and the second I recollected only at the brink of adulthood because I hadn’t even realized I had actually experienced it. The first epiphany if one might call it, wasn’t really one because it was mostly wrought with great confusion. Now, in fashion speak I actually have a rather apt word for the visual experience of seeing a real live penis – it looked rather ‘busy’ down there. Busy and hazy. Especially when you’re in first standard and your teacher makes you sit next to a boy who still hasn’t grown out of the oral/anal stage and cannot stop touching himself. So he had his pants open almost all the time, with his hand permanently down there, just making sure little willy didn’t leave the building. Mostly I had thought that his penis was just one of his fingers, and comforted myself thinking that he had exactly what I had.
But the second encounter was clear. Oh so clear. And um, yes tactile may I add.
There are some memories that you repress for many years till they cease to exist, till you have a faint, very faint almost déjà vu ish recollection of it and aren’t really sure if you dreamt it up or if it really did happen.
So one day when I was all of 18 years, I was sitting in my English honours class and reading along to the drony voice of the lecturer as he read this particular poem out loud. It was titled ‘the connoisseuse of slugs’ by Sharon Olds. The poem was literally about a little girl having a happy jaunt around her garden until she comes across a most perplexing looking creature as she prys apart the ivy covered façade of the compound wall – a slug. Metaphorically of course, the slug is indeed a phallic symbol, flaccid if you please (before the boys get all upset), and the disgust yet wonderment, two shockingly oxymoronic reactions the little girl feels at once for this peculiar creature is explained in great detail by the poet as is the juxtaposition with when she actually has her first sexual encounter.
So sitting in the evening light of my classroom I suddenly recollected a similar incident from my childhood. It was like an unpleasant epiphany. The look on my face must have been priceless, at once scared and at once like I’d smelt hydrogen sulphide.
So here’s the story, it may sound in bits like child molestation (er where I was the molestor, you know child who is a molestor = child molestor, ok yes you get the drift) but mostly like Florence Nightingale.
I must have been 6 or 7 years old. During the summer we always went to Chennai and we inevitably stayed in the Defence colony where all my fathers’ cousins lived. The houses in the Defence colony all looked alike, but its occupants seemed to change every summer. Some summers there would be kids my sisters age and she would be happy, the social number that she was, and sometimes they would be just my age and I would be glum because that would mean I would be expected to socialise.
But this particular summer, there was a new boy next door, he wasn’t exactly my age though, he was probably 8-9 years old, but it didn’t matter to me because he was nothing like the older boys that age at school who pulled my plaits and flicked my glasses off my nose. He was a mild, subdued, always smiling little chappy who sat on the steps of his house pretty much all day because he had Polio. Yes, Polio. Remember that, it existed in 1989.
So antisocial me and invalid him (yes yes politically incorrect but fuck it, it’s a blog), used to chill on the steps of his house pretty much every afternoon. He didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Tamil so it’s hard to imagine what we talked about, but talk we did. Then one particularly warm day, his parents were out and he didn’t know how to get his braces (Leg braces) on alone and yes, he felt the call of nature. I of course jumped to the occasion of helping him to the loo, I mean in school, all us girls went together, it couldn’t be much different. He didn’t seem too averse to the idea either. I got him his crutches and we hobbled towards the loo. But a boy who needs to hold onto both his crutches and a 7 year old girl who can’t really take his weight, needs a third hand to hold you know what yes? When I first saw it, I must admit I must have been perplexed, I didn’t really remember the finger = penis episode that had incidentally happened earlier that year. But I clearly remember asking him in broken Tamil wtf it was. I don’t recall a clear answer from him, but at some point instinct took over, a sense of sex and finally, acceptance. It made sense, his penis, to me. Infact I thought it quite ingenious as he never had to sit to pee (and I was petrified of the potty till er..pretty late in life). It was also an intriguing organ, at once alien and yet endearing.
Yesterday I probably heard the funniest and most peculiar description from a 6 year old who answered that yes, girls and boys are different and very proudly added that girls are better because at least they don’t have kaka coming out of the front like the boys. (!!!!) And while the rest of us, her parents included digested this completely bizarre imagery that simply refused to go away for several minutes, she giggled helplessly and continued to play rather happily with her Barbie and a much castrated Ken.