"AMDAVAD SEXY CHHE?” This was 70-year-old Kantaben’s response to an India Today reporter who told her the magazine’s 2004 sex survey had declared her city India’s “most erotic”. But it was an expression of pride, not surprise: she told the reporter with a chuckle that when she, at 20, had married into a large joint family, she had “an insatiable appetite for sex”.
Meant to assess the sexual decadence of India’s biggest cities, the magazine’sannual survey—whose first edition in 2003 shook up the Indian English media and its readership—found in its first year that women in Ahmedabad, among the five Tier 1 cities on the list, rated the importance of sex at 4 on a scale of 5, against a national average of 3.5. In its second outing, it determined that 69 percent of men in the city were very happy with their sex lives—and 72 percent of those men believed women were as enthusiastic about sex as they were.
The magazine presented this and similar data as radical discoveries. This claim of novelty was based on what appeared to be two correlated assumptions that are common across high-profile sex surveys: first, traditional societies aren’t big on sex, and second, the trappings of modernity lead directly to individual sexual freedoms. (The survey of single Indian women the next year asked participants if working women were more likely to be sexually promiscuous.)
The fact that both Kantaben and her granddaughter (who told the magazine that “sex sustains everything else in life”)—women as different in age as in milieu—were equally concerned with sex, thus challenging both assumptions, prompted no rethink on the part of the magazine, or the writer in question, who kept on expressing pre-packaged awe: “Curiously, the Gujaratis, one of the most orthodox communities, known more for their bandhini saris, dhoklas, dandiya raas and bustling joint families, seem peculiarly vulnerable to the power of Eros.” It may be unclear to many of us why bandhini sarees, dhoklas or joint families are incompatible with sexual desire.
What Tier 1 cities were to Indian advertising in 2003, Tier 2 cities are now. So after an eventful decade of exploring and re-exploring urban sex, the India Today–Nielsen survey decided to go “Between the sheets of small-town India”, as the cover of the magazine’s 10 December issue proclaims. “Bharat surprises India with its sexy secrets” was the headline for the lead feature, which touted “the hinterland” as a place where “true connoisseurs of pleasure thrive”. It might as well have been called “What India thinks of Bharat”: an exercise in upgrading from one set of inaccurate cliches to another. “Govindpur is changing,” one article declares. “It is evident in the Bajaj Chetak scooters and Maruti Alto cars that have started appearing on the roads.” This is a strange definition of “changing”: a relic of the 1980s, the last Chetak rolled off the assembly line in 2009.
Before the nation was falsely partitioned into “Bharat” and “India” by insecure metro-dwelling writers, no one judged a place’s sexual potential using developmental parameters. In fact, racy Hindi magazines are packed, cover to cover, with juicy half-true narratives of illicit sex from small towns—in which social restrictions inspire mad passion, and women often take the lead. This was true well before anyone in India tried to make sex surveys fashionable, and it’s still true today.
Sex is a big part of life and public discourse in small towns. Anyone who has read a regional newspaper knows that they are incomplete without reports of sexual escapades from obscure blocks and subdivisions. And public sex scandals of the magnitude that can cost a politician his job in Delhi only elicit tired sighs in Patna.
So why, precisely, are sex surveys being unleashed on small-town India? Consider the history of such surveys. They were launched in 2003 by Kamasutra condoms, and then lapped up by India Today and Outlook in partnership with condom brands like Durex. Durex, of course, conducts sex surveys in potential markets across the world. It’s awfully important for brands to repackage mundane things—eating, having sex—as having great, historical importance when they are done after paying a little more money first. And thus small towns have to become proper centres of consumption, proper sites for a society aspiring to the promised Utopia of consumer modernity, before they are allowed to have real sex, the sort that needs surveying.
India’s small towns, buying Mercedes cars and Louis Vuitton bags, are being hailed as its new concentrations of super consumers—and should surely aspire to global norms in intimacy, too. The ultimate aim is the creation of a unified global Indian, who can compete with anyone, anywhere. In Kamasutra’s 2003 survey, Hyderabad was proudly declared to bemore sexually active (17.1 times a month) than France, “the nation of lovers” (13.1).
Ironically though, as Patricia Uberoi points out in her essay ‘The Sexual Character of the Indian Middle Class’, which was based on the 2007 India Today sex survey of married couples, several aspects of the liberalised sexual mores now attributed to the Indian upper middle class have longbeen associated with lower classes, tribals, and other marginal groups in Indian society—–whose lifestyles have not generally been regarded worthy of ‘competitive emulation’.
What do we learn from the latest exercise? Kolhapur leads in frequency of orgasm (44 percent always achieve one); Jamnagar in sex toys (27 percent); Aizawl, multiple partners (11 percent); Ratlam, threesomes (11 percent); Kottayam, extramarital affairs (41 percent say it is acceptable); Guntur, one-night stands (48 percent think they are OK); Asansol, wife swapping (6 percent); and, startlingly, 63 per cent of Kota has anal sex.
Why, you could ask, is Kottayam more into extramarital affairs than comparably liberal Asansol? Why are sex toys only popular in Jamnagar? With the exception of Aizawl in Mizoram, whose numbers for live-in relationships and multiple sexual partners are explained in terms of the region’s youth culture, more equal gender relations and traditional customs, you’re on your own if you want to understand what about the history, geography, trade structure or religious or caste composition of other towns might have to do with the baffling statistics.
“It is not important whether or not the change that is being talked about has taken place or not or whether it has been accurately comprehended,” the social anthropologist Kriti Kapila wrote in a 2011 essay on sex surveys. “What these surveys do is feed into the rhetoric of change [‘India is changing’, ‘Indian society is changing’, ‘Indian values are changing’] that is a part of the larger discourse of modernity.” Uberoi puts it wonderfully: “it is as though India’s 7–8 per cent economic growth might be matched by a comparable growth in sexual voracity.”
In any case, the baseline against which this change is said to be taking place isn’t apparent, beyond a vague idea of “old India” that each young writer evokes from his or her growing-up years. Yes, many of us grew up in an India where wearing jeans was a big deal for girls and Harold Robbins novelshad to be read furtively with their covers concealed, but did that make us care any less about sex than those growing up in the New India?
The efficacy of results is also dampened by statistical asymmetries, especially along the gender line. It is difficult to believe that “60 percent of women in small towns have an equal say in sexual matters” if “70 percent of the men insist on marrying virgins”. Is it because of under-age marriages that “21 percent [of small-town women] have had sex for the first time in their pre-teens and teens, compared to 13 per cent in the metros”—given that the same survey reports“most men experience their first sexual encounter on their wedding night.” And how could 40 percent of small-town women have dated more than one man, if “by 19, most men have fallen in love and want to marry that person”?
Uncertain results aren’t exclusive to this survey; since 2003, there have been a spate of media sex surveys, none of which has been able to establish with any authority if Indian sexual behavior is indeed changing. Aside from the factors that hamper all behavioural surveys, such as self-selection or a low response rate, Indian sex surveys miss the target because of an ill-advised determination to circumscribe marital sexuality. If we documented the shifts in how men and women were negotiating sexual terms inside marriage, rather than projecting sex as suddenly being free of marriage, we would have had a more realistic picture of Indian sexuality.
The surveys present a fascinating anthropological problem, Kapila writes, because “we cannot evaluate from a social science perspective exactly what the nature of the change is”. It’s not because tabulation of sexual behavior is new in India—state-sponsored family and sexual health surveys follow the same process—but because its market-driven version isn’t rooted in social examination. To see the difference, read the sociologist GS Ghurye’s survey of the ‘Sex Habits of a Sample of Middle Class People of Bombay’ from 1938, which sought similar information from 2000 Hindu men in that city, but far more deeply. The professor dwelt on matters such as the time between being married and having sex, since girls married young; or a possible rise in sexual passion prompted by wives’ yearly visits to their parents (“do you find any change in the frequency of your sex-intercourse after reunion?”); or whether Hindu scriptures’ complex diktats governing sex during menstruation were being followed.
As Uberoi explains, Ghurye, a Sanskrit scholar and keen observer of the Hindu way of life, saw the act of sex more as a function of male self-restraint, considered a prized Hindu trait, than self-expression or passion. Judging by the extent of new knowledge generated by this colonial-era undertaking, the current survey across “citadels of orthodox India” seems only to have skirted the boundary walls.The gaze that urban India directs at the places it calls “Bharat” is, in fact, almost foreign. A correspondent dispatched to interview people in Salem—a mid-sized city in Tamil Nadu of which the residents are among those identified posting online ads in search of sex—returns with the news, “There is an outward innocence about the people, still too shy to talk about dating, let alone sex.” Who cares, of course, if neither looking for sex online nor being uncomfortable discussing one’s sex life with strangers is really a Salem thang?
Snigdha Poonam was previously an editor at The Caravan. She has written for a number of publications, including the New York TImes, The Guardian and Granta.
WE'RE SITTING IN A FLAT, brown fishing skiff, rocking in the mild Bay of Bengal swell with no other boats to be seen. And, for that matter, no land either.
Pondicherry, that whitewashed bastion of French colonialism in India, lies some 12 kilometres away, beyond the horizon. Today there are no clouds or birds. Not even a breeze. Were it not for the heat, this could even be peaceful.
Even in February, the south Indian sun dries lips and parches throats. Our drinking water is painfully, revoltingly hot.
The motor is off. We drift with the current. Everything is quiet save the lapping of waves against our hull.
This borders on desolation. It feels a bit like the end of the earth.
I briefly think this must be what it’s like to be stranded after a plane crash, adrift on the ocean. A sort of Old Man and the Sea without the rotting fish carcass and circling sharks.
But no one in this little boat is really interested in aesthetics at the moment. All attention is focused on a small electronic box, a Garmin fishfinder, that’s sitting atop some compressed air tanks; it’s attached to a sounder on our stern which is scouring the ocean floor about 25 metres below us for signs of life.
And at the moment, the sounder sees none.
This excursion off of Pondicherry is the frontline of India’s fledgling dive industry, uncertain and out of place in a country where the sea is largely the domain of salty fishermen and the natural environment takes a backseat to the toils of daily life. In fact, scuba diving is so new here, it can barely even be called an industry.
The coastal waters belong almost exclusively to fishermen and the military. India’s dive centres are mostly stationed on the once-hippie laden beaches of Goa; the high-class, high-cost resorts of Lakshadweep and the remote, idyllic Andaman islands.
But even a few dives in the Andamans showcase enough marine life—schools of bannerfish, humphead parrotfish, Napoleon wrasses the size of scooters, turtles and rays and sharks—to envision India’s future.
That’s why I’m tagging along with Temple Adventures, a new outfit in Pondicherry that has permission to explore potential dive sites along the southeast Indian coast.
Our captain, JK Iyappan, is a local fisherman and though he speaks little English, he seems almost bemused with his three passengers, all scuba divers in a country that barely knows what scuba diving is.
At one point, I ask Iyappan what he thinks of us, huddled over the fish sounder, sweating profusely in the midday heat. The translation is rough: he says he’s happy for a day’s wages and is pretty keen on our sonar.
But I get the distinct impression that he finds us a bit silly as we hope to look at fish, rather than catch them.
We continue to stare at the small computer screen hoping for the shapes of schooling fish or uneven bottom—signs of reef or rock or debris.
Iyappan simply stands at the bridge in his brimmed hat and lungi and stares out into the sky. He idly tosses an empty chip bag and later a Sprite bottle into the sea.
Almost no one has dived these waters before, at least not recreationally, says David Hearn, Temple Adventures divemaster. He has big dreams for a dive and surf shop and a partnership with local government in everything from tourism to marine conservation.
“But look, we’ve really only been here since this winter. And most people here have no clue what scuba diving is,” Hearn says. “At first, no one knew what we were doing. We got lots of stares. Now everybody knows who we are, the Coast Guard, the fishermen, when they pass us on the water—‘Oh, that’s Dave and his dive buddies’—because nobody else is doing this.”
Hell, not long ago, neither was I.
IT WAS LAST DECEMBER when I stepped from the ferry, newly docked at Havelock Island, the popular, if still off-the-radar, tourist destination in India’s paradisical island territory, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
After the dirty and dusty warrens of Delhi—and a particular budget guest house in Paharganj—the lush greenery of Havelock, the thick jungle that abuts road and beach, the bright fields of rice and grain seem like another world.
For years, the islands have ranked high on my list of ‘must-visit’ locales, for their remoteness, for their vistas, for their ability to stop time. But I know nothing of their growing reputation as the epicentre of India’s dive culture.
I spend a few nights in a luxurious jungle resort, just off a spit of pure white sand known as Radhanagar Beach, or its rather bland alternative, Beach No. 7. I have no intentions, no plans; no schemes other than turning off and disconnecting.
Drinks and meals turn strangers into new friends. In conversation after conversation, I hear of Havelock’s pristine undersea life that has been spared the pressures of tourism that have mangled and overdeveloped other dive spots the world over.
Consider the scene in Mexico, say some scuba divers, where boats sometimes run non-stop, carrying 30 or 40 or 60 divers at a time. Or look at Thailand, where sometimes beaches are fronted by nothing but bars and hotels and dive centres, and dive waters are filled morning and afternoon with dozens of backpackers learning how to dive. Guidebooks tout nearly 200 dive centres in Phuket, Siam’s scuba mecca.
Though both destinations still offer some world-class diving, they’re more than overcrowded compared to India’s Andamans.
“This is Phuket or Cozumel 20 years ago or more,” says Bruce Farkas, who heads the adventure tourism wing of the Barefoot Group, which also runs a luxury hotel and diving centre. “Really, this is what Phuket was like before it became Phuket.”
On a lark, I sign up for a one-day short course in diving; nothing more than a teaser. I figure it’ll make for a good story for friends back home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I even swam in the ocean. And when I head out, I’m sharing a boat with three young Indian men from Bangalore, who say much the same.
This, apparently, is a common mindset for first-time divers, particularly in a country like India. Here, even people who live on water often don’t even know how to swim. The ocean is for catching food or watching the waves.
Scuba diving, it seems, is simply something to try once, to notch the belt, so you can say you did it.
Indeed, when we come up from our ‘discover’ dive, my new buddies are done; they’re eyeing our boat’s canister of chai and a stretch of beach that eventually serves as a gully cricket pitch.
I, on the other hand, immediately want to gear up for another dive. I’m giddy at the combination of methodical movements and focused breathing—it’s almost meditative, like Pranayama. I’m concentrating on all my movements, carefully using muscles and contorting my body to swim close to reefs that contain entire ecosystems.
And at the same time, I feel like an explorer, an adventurer in a world that many people never experience.
At one point during my second dive, we spot a cluster of humphead parrotfish—each a metre long—in the murky water. I blurt out obscenities, which are lost in a stream of bubbles.
We count at least seven, maybe more. I hold my breath briefly to listen to them munch on the coral; they’re oblivious to my intense shock.
After we surface, my dive instructor lets on that she has never seen so many at once, anywhere in the world.
On the boat ride back to shore, I’m already mentally checking my bank account balance and asking myself if I can afford this new, expensive hobby. I feel the pangs of addiction, of obsession.
THE NIGHT AFTER THOSE FIRST DIVES, I launch into getting certification with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), one of the world bodies that regulate recreational diving and generally the most widespread. Though the dive instructing community can sometimes be a bit corporate and commercial, this is still the first step to making a regular sport of this.
After each subsequent dive, I record as much of the marine life as I can remember: from the tiniest nudibranch to white-tipped reef sharks. By the time I leave the Andamans, I’ve racked up more than 30 dives.
As I talk with seasoned divers nightly in cafés and restaurants, I begin to realise just how lucky I am to have stumbled onto diving in India, specifically Havelock. The Andamans, by many accounts, represent a final frontier in the diving world.
The waters here have all the diversity of the Indian Ocean—much of the same ecosystem as parts of Thailand—but the underwater life is often more pristine. Coral beds are less likely to broken by reckless or inexperienced divers. Deep sites have less remnants of trash left, even accidentally, by dive boats.
The area was largely unscathed by El Niño and coral bleaching that damaged many marine ecosystems around the world in the late 1990s. As well, the pressure of tourism on Havelock—from trash in the water to careless divers damaging the reef—is also far less than the world’s most popular dive sites.
“The potential of diving here is still really untapped,” says John Ferguson, a financial advisor from the United States who has logged hundreds of sites from the Maldives to the Red Sea. He is one of the voices who initially persuaded me to try diving.
“From the dive shop, we’re doing only a fraction of the possible dive sites in the islands,” Ferguson says. “The literature is really thin on these and it seems that many of the dive shops don’t even run trips to the farther islands.”
For example, the waters around Barren Island, home to India’s only active volcano, are several hours from Havelock by speedboat and were only mapped earlier this year. Other parts of the archipelago haven’t seen any serious dive activity since Jacques Cousteau visited years ago, some scientists say.
The pressure of tourism remains startlingly low, at least for now. Government figures say only about 11,000 non-Indians came in 2007, the most recent year for statistics.
A dive site in the Andamans would be crowded if more than 30 divers visited in a day, whereas a popular site on Koh Tao where I dived this spring, might see as many as 200 in a single morning.
The waters around Koh Tao, though still beautiful, are renowned on the backpacker circuit as an easy and cheap place to get certified. With dozens of shops to choose from, thousands learn to dive there. A shop on India’s Havelock island would be lucky to train 400 divers in a year.
But nobody predicts this will last. The Indian government already has plans to open up other islands in the Andamans for tourism. Hotel chains are vying for development licences, a move that conservationists are eyeing suspiciously.
The concerns over protecting the environment—in part because of the Andamans’ potential diving and tourism gold mine—become imminently clear as I sit chatting with biologists in a field research station a few hours by car and ferry from Havelock’s tourist hot zone.
I pose what I see as a basic question about India’s future to Tasneem Khan, the base coordinator for the Andaman and Nicobar Island Environmental Team, a leading conservation NGO in the islands.
I want to know how a conservation organisation functions in a country where the environment, bluntly put, doesn’t seem important to a lot of people. Attitudes have been changing as cities revamp public transport and continue to build infrastructure, but water in many areas remains nearly toxic, and a personal culture of littering is pervasive.
Even the Andamans, though far more environmentally aware than the mainland, struggle with a growing population that doesn’t necessarily look after the environment. Garbage collection is nearly non-existent there, too. Some of the more popular beaches only stay clean if hotels hire workers to pick up trash.
“Look, it’s a developing country. That means that economic progress has often been put ahead of the environment. Look at the sanitation services in the country, the pollution in major rivers. It’s not easy to conserve, or to convince people to do so,” Khan says with a hint of frustration and also defensiveness.
“But we’re seeing a general shift in consciousness in favour of environmental protection. Some of that is a result of the economy, finally. More people now have the luxury to be concerned.”
But will that be enough to force sensible development in the Andamans? I ask, noting the ramshackle construction at a breakneck pace in other parts of the country. Khan says she sees positive signs coming from the island government—talk of restricting construction, of having serious environmental impact plans—but, at this point, she isn’t sure.
But the infant dive industry is expanding slowly in the country. In addition to the Andamans, Goa and Lakshadweep, shops and dive clubs are springing up in major cities like Bangalore and Mumbai to introduce Indians to the sport. Last November, PADI held India’s first instructor development course, a crucial step in populating the dive industry with nationals rather than simply expats.
But more divers in the water, as clubs and shops spread the word and interest increases, leaves India at something of a crossroads. Like the chaotic development that has strained infrastructure and hurt the environment elsewhere in India, a dive industry that grows with abandon will likely do more harm than good.
The industry has a chance to bring reef conservation to India just as much as tourism revenues, Khan says during our chat over beers. Most dive shops and hotels already advocate marine protection and working with fishermen, whose knowledge is needed but whose nets and trash are feared. Tourists themselves, Khan says, must be active in the process as well.
“As more dive shops appear, who is going to regulate them? The ones now are mostly doing a good job of policing themselves and looking after the ecology, but can that last? Probably not,” she says between sips. “Tourists are going to have to demand best practices as much as the government.”
MEANWHILE, THE DIVING SCENE in Pondicherry is years behind the Andamans, let alone dive sites in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean that have more than two decades of commercial build-up; Hearn’s outfit is only beginning to log coordinates of potential dive sites.
With the sun beating down on us, we’re still trying to find fish on the sounder. Eventually, another boat motors up alongside us. After a bit of negotiation and payment in bags of tomato-flavoured Lays potato chips, some local fishermen lead us to a spot they’ve been hitting earlier in the day.
Their sense of geography is uncanny; they can return to a specific patch of water without any landmarks. We troll slowly behind them, still looking intently at the sounder. Seconds after they tell us to cut our motor and drift, the sonar spikes: the bottom contour is broken and fish markers appear on-screen.
“The screen says there’s a massive load of fish down there,” Hearn says as we gear up. “We’ll find out.”
As I’m preparing to backroll into the water, Hearn also offers something between a disclaimer and an apology.
“No one has dived these waters that we know of,” he says. “There are no maps. There are no records. When we go down, we’re the first people to see some of this. If we find something, we mark it on the GPS. If we don’t, well, that’s exploration diving.”
He perhaps doesn’t realise that his pep talk only makes me more excited.
At the bottom, we try not to kick up the dark, heavy sand. Our boat has drifted a bit from where the sounder showed schools of fish so we’ve got some strong swimming into the current. About ten minutes later, a tree—sunk by fishermen to act as an artificial reef—materialises before us in the somewhat murky water. It’s surreal to see it down here and know that I’m several storeys beneath the surface.
As we get closer, the tree comes alive. Giant potato groupers sit lazily on the ocean floor amid branches. Barracuda school overhead. Dozens of tiny fish swarm here and there. From a distance, we warily eye jellyfish the size of watermelons.
We spend about 35 minutes on the bottom, first staring at our find, then searching the water nearby for any other landmarks. When we surface, Hearn is wistful: “That was one tree and look how many fish showed up. That’s how rich these waters are. Think what it’ll be like when we discover actual reef.”
ADAM JADHAV spent his early years as a political journalist in the United States; he has also filed stories and photos from Peru, Mexico, Lebanon, Cuba, Kenya, Madagascar and India. Today, he researches environmental, social justice and development issues.