'He was completely non-judgmental'.
'He would never make fun of the person asking the question, however way-out the question may have been.'
"It'S almost poetic," says Meenal Baghel, about the passing of Dr Mahindra Watsa, barely 10 days after the Mumbai tabloid from the Times group, Mumbai Mirror, was shut down. Dr Watsa's column, Ask The Sexpert, ran every day in the Mumbai Mirror since the newspaper commenced publication in July 2005, right till its last issue on December 19, 2020. Dr Watsa was 96 when he breathed his last on December 28.
The column attracted the attention of the BBC, The New York Times and Washington Post. There's even a documentary on Netflix called Ask The Sexpert.
Meenal Baghel, the former editor of the Mumbai Mirror, talks to Jyoti Punwani about the doctor and the column that became identified with the paper she edited and ran until its last day.
Why did you decide to ask Dr Watsa to do a column that offered sex advice?
When planning the paper, I had wanted a wellness column. I had also thought of a weekly sex advisory column. It was one of the slots that I thought would fit in well in a tabloid.
But I also wanted it to be matter-of-fact about sex because we are so prudish. I had seen columns in newspapers where boys who sent anxious queries about being distracted during exams by the urge to masturbate were told by the 'expert' that succumbing to the urge would bring them wrong karma!
I wanted someone medically trained to answer such questions without being squeamish about sex.
I also wanted to see whether a mainstream paper could push the boundaries with a column like this.
My colleague (S) Hussain (Zaidi) recommended Dr Watsa as the right person for the job. So I called him. The conversation lasted less than five minutes. He was ready to do it, even on a daily basis.
Did you give him any instructions?
Only that he must not use asterisks while talking about the penis, the vagina, breasts, etc, and that we would not carry questions about underage sex as that counted as rape.
Did the column take long to take off?
On the contrary.
From the beginning, there used to be a big stack of mail for him -- inland letters, postcards -- in the features corner of the office. Later, the questions came via e-mail. Not one question in all these years has been made up. They were all genuine.
In the beginning, some people thought no such person existed, that we were making up the questions and answers. So we had to put his picture in the column. Later, we no longer felt the need for it.
Within three months, I started getting feedback. (Mumbai-based psychiatrist) Dr Harish Shetty told me many of his patients were greatly helped by the column.
Did anyone raise objections?
Yes, some parents did tell me they would remove that page before their kids got hold of the paper. But these were only a handful; most parents were glad to outsource the duty of educating their children to Dr Watsa!
The one person who hounded us was Pratibha Naitthani (a Mumbai-based professor who opposes all adult content in mass media). She filed multiple cases against us. She even led a morcha to the office.
That actually led to Dr Watsa and I becoming friends. We had to attend magistrates's courts everywhere. So we would travel together to the Kurla court, the Dindoshi court (in northwest Mumbai).
It was difficult for him; by then, he was in his eighties. The Kurla court (in northeast Mumbai) was especially tough -- the courtroom was on the second floor, there was no lift and there were no railings on the staircase. His BP would shoot up. Those court benches would be full of bed bugs.
So, finally, we got an exemption from appearing for the hearings.
Did you, or he, ever censor anything?
I never did. He did occasionally censor questions that he thought were too traumatic to be published. But, otherwise, nothing was off-limits for Dr Watsa.
Did the column turn out as you had expected?
I just commissioned it. What the column became, what he turned it into, was all Dr Watsa's doing. His wit, his compassion… he made short stories out of those questions. He was completely non-judgmental. Also, though his answers would be witty and funny, he would never make fun of the person asking the question, however way-out the question may have been. He never made the questioner feel ashamed for asking the question. Even questions sent obviously for fun, he would reply to in his dead-pan manner.
Was the column one of the reasons people bought the Mirror?
Yes, it was. He was one of our stars; one of the biggest draws of our paper. It helped us tremendously. Of course, we had great stories but I knew that if there was an issue without a strong story, people would stop to read Dr Watsa.
What did his column tell you about us?
It told me about the need for knowledge about sex in our society. The column was a big hit among young people. I know students would share it in school buses. But it wasn't just the fun part of it.
I realised over the years that we are doing such a huge disservice by not including sex education in our schools. There is so much ignorance and so much anxiety about sex. It need not be so. We are condemning so many young people to so much fear and anxiety, while the solution is so simple.
For many, the column was, to use a cliche, a safe space. You were anonymous; you knew you wouldn't be judged. And the column helped you figure out things you couldn't ask anyone, be it doubts about homosexuality, pre-marital sex, the fear of your penis shrinking...
I hadn't noticed, but Dr Watsa told me that, over time, a number of women had started writing in. He was very pleased about that.
You must have invited him to your get-togethers. Did people want to meet him?
We did call him once or twice. Not just outsiders, my colleagues made a beeline to meet him!
But though this column made him a celebrity, remember it made up only 15 years of his life. Before that he had done so much. Thanks to him, the Family Planning Association of India started its first sex education and counselling centre. He organised so many workshops, including the first on human sexuality.
This column though, did give him a lease of life; he was always in top form whenever I met him. No wonder he was on his feet till he died. What a glorious way to go!
What was he like as a person?
He was deeply, deeply progressive, and yet such an old style gentleman. Once or twice a year, he would say, 'Let me take you out for lunch.' We would go to the Willingdon Club (in south Mumbai) and have lunch in the old-fashioned way.
He was twinkly-eyed, there was a certain jauntiness about him. He was also a big charmer. I once visited him in hospital and he started saying, 'Now that you’ve come, I already feel better.' He was flirting with the nurses.
That persona that you saw in his column? That was really him.