At the IIT Delhi campus I am judging the ‘Mr and Ms Rendezvous’ competition, where students from all over India participate to win the coveted title and be declared the most eligible bachelor and bachelorette on campus. Here I meet Prayag, who wins the title and steals the show with his rapturous, albeit heavily accented, rendition of Michael Bolton’s When a Man Loves a Woman, which would have made Bolton proud. Over the next few weeks, by spending time with this bright, young mathematician from Nagpur I realise that along with complex numbers and rigorous coding, sex is festering on every brilliant IIT mind.
On a sunny winter’s day in Delhi, I sit with Prayag and his new girlfriend, Priya—a 3rd-year IIT student of computing and mathematics—at the canteen. A pretty girl strolls by, she has bright blonde highlights in her hair, and she is dressed boldly in an abbreviated skirt and a tight top shows off her full figure. Prayag’s body bristles like a hound in heat, and he turns instinctively to stare at her. Priya doesn’t seem to notice this, she is busy in chirpy, technical conversation with a classmate of hers. Prayag furtively whispers to me that her name is Charu, she is a humanities student, and is hot stuff on campus. I casually ask him if she has a boyfriend, and he nods his head vigorously.
“She does,” he says, his eyes fixed in rapt, lascivious attention on Charu.
“You like her?” I ask teasingly. Prayag tears his eyes away from Charu’s bosom and drops his gaze, his face now suffusing with guilt. “No man,” he finally says, though his tone is pregnant with afterthought.
“Why not? She’s pretty,” I whisper, making sure Priya, plainer by comparison, isn’t around.
“She is not a good girl,” he says, cool and granular, suddenly different from the flushed teenager of a few seconds ago.
“What do you mean? I ask him, wondering what hot stuff Charu could possibly be up to.
“She’s just, how do I say this, a bad girl, if you know I mean,” says Prayag. He explains, “Well you know there are girls who are good, and then there are girls who are bad. Priya is a good girl. Charu is a bad girl. I mean, I guess there are girls who are in-between. Sakshi was like that, but she was really special. I guess other girls can be too.”
Sakshi is someone Prayag speaks of often, his first girlfriend at IIT, a girl who he fell deeply in love with, but who left him for a friend of his from Delhi University. Prayag says he loves Priya too, though he has only been dating her for a month, although he could never feel for anyone like the way he did with Sakshi.
What’s different about new sexual behaviour is it’s not just a guy thing. Female sexuality is rising; girls want to do it as much.
Prayag, like many of his contemporaries, has grown up dividing women into two categories—’good girls’ who were not sexual, and ‘bad girls’. While he lusted after the latter, he could not imagine being romantically involved with them. During his campus courtship of Sakshi though, he had been forced to redefine the sexual nature of modern women. He knew that a modest, homely, conservative coed, like Sakshi, could pose in the nude in dorm rooms, perform fellatio in empty classrooms and conduct a secret sexual affair with another while being committed to him.
For many young Indians, the first opportunity of independence comes when they leave their cloistered homes and arrive on college campuses. Free of the claustrophobia of constant parental supervision, they are able to explore their sexuality, and ‘making’ a girlfriend or a boyfriend is of the highest priority. I visit and speak frequently at campuses, and through my interactions with people like Prayag, I have come to believe that a sexual revolution of sorts is afoot: young Indians are having sex more than ever.
In a recent study, University of Chicago psychoanalyst Shefali Sandya estimated that in urban India, in the 26-56 age group, 59 per cent of husbands and wives reported having sex before marriage. For individuals between 18-24 in metros, the statistic for pre-marital sex was close to 75 per cent.
Perhaps what is different is that it is not ‘just a guy’ thing anymore. Female sexuality is on the rise, and girls want sex as much as men do. Soft indicators of this include the burgeoning Indian lingerie market, which includes foreign brands like La Senza, as well as local shops with ‘fancy’ items—lacy and often kinky underwear (the teeniest of thongs, in the wildest of prints and colours.) Other indicators include an increase in hymen restructuring surgery, sprouting of abortion clinics, products like 18-again vaginal cream being available and Brazilian bikini waxes becoming a standard feature of beauty parlours. Recently, I saw one on a menu of a parlour in Haridwar.
But it is not so easy to let go of the past. Sex in India vacillates between the two paradigms of a pure Sita and a frolicking Radha. Owning up to sexual desire would make a girl bad. Refraining from sex before marriage is a way to show virtuosity and commitment, and virginity is worn like a badge of honour. On the other hand, the notion of purity and virginity points to an atavistic mindset.
Today’s Indian girl is stuck somewhere in between. She is no longer a Sita enclosed in a lakshmanrekha, but more like a modern-day Radha, hanging out with her lover in malls and sneaking out of dorm rooms for midnight rendezvous. But like Radha, sex is not casual. It is done when you are deeply in love, in a committed relationship that one hopes will ultimately lead to marriage. Statistics from a 2007 report on Indian youth published by the ministry of health and family welfare prove this: 61 per cent of men in urban India want to marry their pre-marital partner (42.3 per cent men do end up doing it), while 78.2 per cent of women want the same (86.3 per cent do it.)
Virginity and female chastity have always been highly valued. While it is true that pre-marital sex is increasing as taboos around ‘doing it’ are eroded, virginity is still cherished by women as well as men. According to the survey, only 1.1 per cent of urban men have had casual pre-marital sex, while the number for women stands at zero.
At the crux of the change are men like Prayag, who are coming to terms with their desire, and girls like Charu, who challenge stereotypes. As young India sets out on a journey of self-discovery, there is ample evidence of where this maiden voyage will begin.
(Novelist Ira Trivedi is writing her first work of non-fiction, India in Love: Love, Sex and Marriage in 21st Century India.)