When she’s not planning world domination, Dr Tanaya Narendra is busy breaking down barriers about sexual health and related matters and simplifying it so that everyone can understand it. We caught up with her at Kunzum for the signing of her book, Dr Cuterus, Everything Nobody Tells You About Your Body. Some excerpts:
BSA: Where did the name Doctor Cuterus come from?
Dr Tanaya: The uterus is our first home, and we always have fond memories of our first home, but when we talk about the uterus, we don’t talk about it in a very positive way. The uterus needs to be detoxed and cleansed and I wanted to give better PR to the uterus. For me, it’s a very cute organ. Because my mother is a gynaecologist, I grew up appreciating and admiring the uterus. So, cute + uterus is “cuterus”.
BSA: There’s a lot of stuff in this book which nobody really talks about. You’ve broken it down and brought it to the layman. How did that idea come to you?
Dr Tanaya: About three-and-a-half or four years ago, I started creating content on the internet about simple, sexual, reproductive and menstrual health topics. And I realized that the level of knowledge I had assumed that people have was much higher than what people actually had. So there needed to be some very basic ground education that needed to happen. Because this is a chapter that is often skipped in biology class in school, I wanted to do a “Your Genitals 101” kind of book. That’s how not just the book, but all the work that I do started.
BSA: When I was flipping through this book, I couldn’t help but wonder, are these illustrations all hand drawn by you?
Dr Tanaya: I wanted to hire an illustrator, but I felt that I’d like to work on the idea that if you create something ridiculous, it will be more memorable, so I wanted to create slightly ridiculous illustrations that would help cement certain ideas in people’s brains. I thought I would be able to do it best and do simple line drawings and that’s why I illustrated the book.
BSA: When you were writing this book, tell us about the kind of entertainment you had while writing it.
Dr Tanaya: There were some very interesting papers and very interesting reading material I had to go through. I was living in the US when I was writing this book, which meant that every time I had new friends who were coming over, they would see me sleeping on the sofa with like five books that just said the word “breast” in large letters on the cover or like a massive book that says “The Penis Book”. Or stuff like that. So, we just have people coming over and I’d be like half asleep with my laptop over there writing with all of these books surrounding me. I think, more than me getting entertained, other people got entertained seeing the experience of writing this the book. I have a little dog who would keep me company and who would make me very happy. My dog is called Samosa and Samosa is mentioned in the book as well and he would make my days a little less challenging because writing a book is a very intense process.
BSA: You’ve taken this, let’s say the hymen, you’ve completely broken it down and referred to it as a dhakkan, and there are other such instances in this book. Where did all those ideas come from?
Dr Tanaya: A couple of things have led to this kind of ideology for me thinking about my body, other people’s bodies and education in this way, which is that a) my mother is a gynaecologist, my dad is a male fertility doctor. I was always in that environment where things were taken into their basics. The Feynman philosophy of understanding things is always that if you can explain a concept to a 5-year-old, then you know your subject and I wanted to apply that to my own subject to break it down in the simplest non-patronizing terms and also slightly ridiculous so that people would remember it as well and also the inherent curiosity I had about science as well as using that same ridiculous philosophy to remember subjects in medicine when I did MBBS myself. I think all those things culminated in the way I make my written or video content.
BSA: Some of these chapters are extremely wicked, is that your normal style of writing?
Dr. Tanaya: Yes, it is. For example, I know I have a chapter on anal sex that I’ve written as “Peaches”, and the whole introduction is it starts with a big paragraph about peaches, and then it’s like a record scratching happening and then going back to what we want to talk about. It helps add some fun because this is normally such a sensitive topic that people struggle to talk about it in a very normal way. We never struggle to talk about the nose, but why do we struggle to talk about the vagina that same way? It’s just a body part. I wanted to add an element of whimsy. It is how I design all of my work generally around this topic.
BSA: Tell me one memorable incident of writing this book that brought loads of laughter to you.
Dr. Tanaya: It still makes me laugh. When I was researching the book, I have a big section on contraception and I was working on something around condoms, so I wanted to speak to industry people who know how condoms in India work and what is the market share and things like that. I spoke to a leading industry expert who told me that there are certain states in India that are the largest consumers of edible underwear and a) I didn’t know that’s a category and b) I didn’t know that the eastern part of India is extremely interested in edible underwear, and it led to some very interesting Google searches the screenshots of which I still share with my friends. It’s a very interesting and amusing space, I guess, and the entire experience of writing the book was this.
BSA: And apart from the edible underwear, what other strange discoveries have you had?
Dr. Tanaya: So India was one of the first few countries to establish a family planning unit because we were concerned about not having a massive population that we can’t support. Very progressive, in that regard. But at that time, condoms were quite expensive and India was importing condoms from other western countries. They were really expensive at INR4 apiece, which is expensive even now. Back then, in the 1950s, that must have been an astronomical amount. So India was like ‘we’ll make our own condoms’. And the rubber rich state of Kerala was narrowed down on, and they decided to establish Hindustan Latex Limited (HLL) over there. All well and good. They decided to put a brand name to the Swadeshi condom and they think ‘we’ll call it Kamaraj’ because “Kam” is pleasure, sexual pleasure and Raj is the Raja of Kam. Sounds great in theory, except the president of the Indian National Congress at that time was called K. Kamraj, so they had to drop that idea and the name eventually became very clinical and it was called “Nirodh”. And to this day we have Nirodh coming from HLL, and I find that fascinating as a story.
BSA: Now that you’ve done this. What is the next step in this?
Dr Tanaya: World domination. (laughs)
BSA: That’s interesting, good luck with that. In terms of the kind of education that we’re providing our children on matters related to sex and genitals, where do you think India stands? Is there scope for growth? Is there scope for improvement in what we’re doing as part of our educational system?
Dr Tanaya: I don’t think we’re even at zero. We are below that because where it is right now is very ill-informed and it comes from several factors, including parents not being comfortable with this information. That is why I wanted to tackle an adult book first to break down this idea in an older generation who would understand why this is important, especially because better knowledge of sex education prevents child sexual abuse, which is a very rampant problem in the world, not just our country.
People lead healthier, happier lives if they know about their bodies and we want to do the same thing for children. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening at the moment. Even with regards to things like menstrual health, a lot of my content is informed by stories that I hear from young people who come and tell me that when they had their first period, they thought they were dying because they never been told that, you know you’re going to have your period and this is what is going to happen. It is an unnerving experience. If you wake up one day and your ear is bleeding non-stop for four days, it will freak you out, except it’s a little bit more freaky because it’s happening from the vagina, a part that you’ve been told is, “Shame, Shame”. We need to dismantle the shame that exists around this topic because it is just around the body part. It is a body part that goes through a very dramatic change at a certain age. So, we do need to have a safe space where people can talk about this and learn about this.
BSA: From the land of the Kamasutra to a land which now looks at anything related to sex and such matters in an extremely derogatory or in a very perverted kind of way, do you think there’s still scope for our society at large to understand what exactly is it that we’re talking about? How did we come to this stage?
Dr Tanaya: It’s a very philosophical answer, so I don’t know if it’s the right answer for the kind of interview we’re having so far. I think the reason why there is such a perverted view of this topic is because it has been hidden or it’s meant to be under the covers. But the minute you start talking about it candidly, it’s suddenly revealed how ridiculous it is that we treat it this way. And if it comes to the land of the Kamasutra and the kind of rich heritage and culture we’ve had around being a sex-positive nation historically before these Victorian moralities were imposed on us, is it not silly that we are not able to align with our own culture that way? So, the idea of it at the end of the day comes down to if we start embracing the older literature we have and just become a bit more culturally aware, it might be an easy thing to do. And that’s what I’ve realized, which is why I’m saying slightly philosophical, because the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is a very easy conversation to have and people are keen to have this conversation. Everybody wants to know about sex.
BSA: But the only conversation that most people are having about that is in terms of swear words.
Dr Tanaya: But the minute you initiate a critical, critically nuanced dialogue, people really want to talk. Everybody wants to talk about this.
BSA: Yeah, but then their ideas come from sources which are not really that reliable. I mean pornographic movies are not really reliable sources to understand what exactly goes on.
Dr Tanaya: But I think that the popularity of porn itself is a great indicator that people want to see and learn and talk about this.
BSA: But pornography is banned here.
Dr Tanaya: That’s a different set of challenges I won’t get into. But I think the key factor is no matter what socioeconomic, caste, creed, whatever demography you’re approaching, everybody wants to talk about sex. It’s up to us – when I say us, I mean doctors and subject matter experts – to break it down in an understandable way and to take away the shame and stigma around it. When that shame is there, it is weaponized against vulnerable people like women and people from other vulnerable communities, and that’s why things go wrong. It is our job and our duty to step up, and not just in this context, I mean, not just the doctors and the subject matter experts, but everybody that exists in the world that we all have a certain degree of privilege relative to another person. And we can use that privilege to dismantle this culture of shame and perversion that we’ve built around the idea of the natural human body. It’s such a simple thing. It’s the body. We are never ashamed to talk about having pain in the elbow. Why is it shameful to talk about having pain in the scrotum? It’s just a body part at the end of the day.
BSA: When you’re not writing all this stuff and when you’re not reading about such stuff, what are you doing? What are you reading?
Dr Tanaya: I read a lot of food science. I like to see the world through a lens of science because it makes sense, so, food history, food culture, food science, a lot about Indian geography, geopolitics in India and how it’s informed by history. I find that quite interesting. What else? I love children’s books because it takes the fundamentals of things and explains them to you. I’m also a scuba diver, so I read a lot about the ocean.
BSA: Would you give us five books that have impacted you or influenced you a lot?
Dr Tanaya: One of my favorite authors in the world is Bill Bryson. He has some excellent books. The book that changed my life in particular was called A Short History of Nearly Everything. I read it when I was 13. And it changed my worldview, and it made me appreciate the magic of science, which sounds like a very corny thing, but it really is. The second book that changed my life is by an author called Meg Cabot. She has a series called The Princess Diaries and it’s a series that I reread every year. I’ve been reading it for the past 15 years because every time I go back to that book there’s something new that’s revealed to me and it sounds like a very fluffy, pink, glittery girls novel. But it’s the book that taught me about feminism, that talking about geopolitics, that talking about environmentalism… it’s a very nuanced book presented in a very disarming. Really love that book. Number 3 would be, I am a big fan of Salman Rushdie. I don’t like magical realism in general, but his work is magical. Enchantress of Florence is one of my favorite books ever. Who else? Sanjeev Sanyal is somebody who writes amazing books about Geography and history and how it influences the current worlds. So The Ocean of Churn is one of my favorite books. Right now I’m currently loving this book. It’s called Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb. It’s a fantastic book that presents the idea of therapy using slightly fictionalized context. So it’s an easy read. It’s not a very heavy non-fiction read, and it’s very good for creating awareness about mental health and the human condition.