A few weeks ago, not long after the highest court in New Delhi overturned the city's ban on homosexuality, I got together with a friend from India. She was heading out soon for her yearly return visit, first-stop Delhi. Home-town mores were much on her mind.
"I wonder if my uncle will finally come out of the closet," she said after the waiter set down the tea. The arch of her eyebrow suggested "not likely;" her tone implied this cloaked and bicameral life had caused some painful fallout in the family. "You think he will?" I asked.
"Us mein himmat nahi hai," she said. "He doesn't have the guts," she explained when I wouldn't stop squinting. I'd spent a year in India learning Hindi but hadn't gotten up to "himmat."
How was the advance prep going, I wondered. What was she getting for her gifts? I knew from several stretches there that when you go to the subcontinent, you're supposed to come packing. In Hindi, there are 53 names for specified relatives--the cousin of your mother's paternal aunt is known by one particular word, daughter of your grandmother's sister another--and every one of those people are going to expect a present, preferably something you can only get in America. When I'd gone over for my extended stay, I learned that not having relatives didn't get you off the hook, that you were supposed to bring gifts for all the people who might eventually develop familial feelings for you, a sum that could number entire townsful. So I set out to find items particular to America and discovered that our native specialities were now shlock items. Plastic lint removers, for instance, though they'd been a big hit.
"Books," my friend answered. She counted many readers among her friends. "My father, he's always hard." Still no ideas there. " And my best friend wants The Rabbit." She cupped one hand in the air and made a buzzing sound when she saw I'd resumed squinting.
"But how does she even know about The Rabbit?" I said.
"Oh they all watch Sex and the City now," she said. "They all want The Rabbit." One gay friend of hers always returns with bagfuls for his lesbian friends, even though he risks seizure at customs and, should anyone official want to push it, a prison term. Sex toys are illegal in India, their purchase or use, one reason for their high demand as gifts from abroad, now that Sex and the City and the internet has spread news of their existence. But while they may have lint removers beat, Section 292 of the, um, penal code states that the first time conviction for purchase or use is maximum two years in the Big House. A second offense, five years.
Apparently, however, a lot of people are willing to risk life in the bone yard. The sex toy industry in India is reputedly a 500 crore a year business, or about $102,000,000 in dollars. That's six million eight hundred vibrators, roughly, if a vibrator goes for $15, which they do in the gray markets of Dehli and Mumbai: in Palika Bazaar, Sarojini Nagar and Ghaffar Market, to be specific, in New Dehli; Crawford Market in Mumbai. Sales might even spike higher still if the sales guys in these backroom business weren't inclined to make heavy breathing offers of up-close product demonstrations on potential women customers, which is what happened, in extremis, when Marie Claire India sent two undercover reporters out to see what they could see.
But while in salesmanship, India might be behind the sex toy curve, in distribution, they seem to have everybody beat. According to one survey, 13 percent of urban Indian women have used sex toys. (No statistics available on urban Indian men; butt plugs and cock rings are still not available here, even grayly, perhaps one legacy of the fact that homosexuality is largely still illegal.) The population of Mumbai and Delhi alone is nearly 30 million, which works out to a lot of customers.
And a lot of industrious distributors, when you consider that they're operating with the handicap that their wares can be, and often are, confiscated. At the Foreign Post Office in Ahmedabad, for instance, inspectors seize at least 500 parcels containing "objectionable and banned items" a month: vibrators, pornographic magazines, inflatable dolls. Addressees are sent notices and given the chance to explain themselves, possibly on health grounds--"unmarried men are advised to use dolls rather than visiting prostitutes and contracting AIDs," Dr. Paras Shah, a noted Indian sexologist, sensibly states--but according to Express India, "the embarrassed person never shows up."
Embarrassment levels in India no doubt run higher than in, say, New York City, where if the post office tried to pull that trick, they likely have postal customers, not employees, on their hands, law or no law. But society there remains sexually conservative, despite the fact that India, of course, give birth to the Kama Sutra. In the Sankrit era, according to the Sutra, sex toys proliferated. The book describes dildos made of gold, wood, and silver, how elephant trunks can be used as sexual apparati. In contemporary India, though, where many women are still in parda, veiled, it's still rare for the India film censors not to snip any scene in a Bollywood movie that shows a couple kissing. Viagra and condoms are legal, but not condoms manufactured with a vibrating ring (the sex toy offense). Six states recently banned sex education in schools, on the grounds that the pictures of bodily changes during puberty were too graphic. Pornographic films are illegal, although anyone with access to the internet, pretty much, can get an eyeful if they want, as my friend was explaining over tea.
She was describing how she'd visited a Bombay internet café where the floor was covered with bodily emissions, using a word that begins with "sp" and ends in a viscous sounding "ge," which caused me to exclaim, "God! You guys are getting as perverted as we are." "Getting?" she said and snickered. Then we both laughed in agreement, though we were both, for the moment, wrong. America will surely stay ahead in that derby till the film censors let the couples kiss.
Katherine Russell Rich's most recent book, Dreaming in Hindi, came out last month. It's about a year she spent in India learning to speak Hindi.