A few years ago, while reading a column of The Tribune, I came across an obituary that was written in the benign remembrance of Punjabi Writer and sexologist, Kailash Puri. People most often called her the Agony Aunt or Humraaz Maasi (confidante aunt), the reason being that, she was the obvious choice of women in particular to share their bedroom problems, secrets and traumatic sex life experiences. A woman unprecedented by Punjabis in an era where a topic like sex was talked in hush-hush manner, she truly has left a legacy behind, perhaps sometimes even forgotten.
Early Life and Marriage
Puri was born in Rawalpindi, Punjab (now in Pakistan) to Sohan Singh Puri and his wife Prem. Her birth was not welcomed, given that those were the times when a female child was considered a burden (although things still haven’t changed much). She grew up in Kullar and later in Lahore. Though her mother wanted her to attend university, yet her future had something else stored for her. After leaving school at the tender age of 14, she agreed to marry as a 15 year child, to a man much ahead of her in age and education—a 26 years old Mr. Gopal Singh Puri, who was a botanist by profession.
Two years after her wedding, in 1946, she came to the UK along with her husband who was doing a second PhD from the University College, London. While staying in London, they faced certain problems as a diasporic community in terms of renting. However, after the birth of their first child, Shaminder, in 1947, things started changing altogether when the family shifted back to Pune, Maharashtra in 1950, with Gopal as the director of Botanical Survey of India.
Impediments in her Life
Kailash Puri didn’t receive any formal education as such in any university, which was one of the reasons that she was unable to speak English at all. As a migrant from India, she did face a lot of problems and insecurities in particular, when her husband would invite his guests in their house and Kailash would be unable to interact with them. It turned out to be a situation when her self esteem touched the lowest point and she was shy and a self conscious Punjabi, who was trying to look for an individual identity in an alien country.
Her marriage was also not an absolutely amazing experience in the initial period and her choice of becoming a sex educator was also a reflexive one arising out her own life. However, despite patriarchy being really firm in the 1950s and 60s, she was fortunate enough to have a husband who was supportive and encouraging. It was her husband who became her guide in teaching her English and even gave books of Zoology and Geology. If today, we know Kailash Puri as a sexologist, she truly owes a lot to Gopal, which she herself at various instances has agreed with.
Career and Success
Her path to becoming a controversial sex writer started in Pune when she inaugurated the opening of her magazine, Subhagwati. The name that she chose for this journal was a careful and meaningful choice, translating as – a woman with good fortune or evergreen married life. This magazine turned out becoming a huge success with people from all walks of life writing their problems to her. Not just women but few men also endeavoured to do so. She often said that we lived in a society where women were not supposed to discuss sex openly and share their marriage related grievances. Subhagwati was a channel for all such women. She devised a new vocabulary for sexual hygiene – pashm (wool) for public hair and Madan Chatri (Cupid’s Umbrella) for clitoris.
In 1968, Gopal joined the Liverpool University as human ecologist and they moved back to the UK. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the expertise of her husband in human ecology helped her a lot in educating women about their bodies and intercourse. Here she began a magazine named Roopvati and also actively wrote in the column of Des Pardes. After becoming a sexologist, she began appearing on radio and television. She was also the first Indian cookery consultant to Marks and Spencer in the 1970s.
From being a novice at English, she began advocating for South Asians’ social issues in various debates and published 5 novels in total. She preferred writing in her mother tongue, Punjabi.
Opinions and Controversies
It is quite apparent that a woman who wrote about sex and discussed it openly wouldn’t have traced her path without being labelled by people as propagator of vulgarity. Kailash Puri was often misunderstood as writing pornography. However, in an interview, she made it quite clear that she was against pornography. She said that people confused porn and sexology but her writings and understanding were a result of the Sanskrit text, Kamasutra. Rather, she said that porn reduced women to an inferior status.
A lot of hue and cry was raised over her first book, “Sej Uljhana”, as many of her critics accused her of spreading profanity. She was very vocal about issues that concerned women and once even said that rich women who run big magazines don’t think about their sisters in the village; thus, basic issues of village women go under the rug. Puri was also saddened about the shame that Punjabis have in writing and speaking in their own mother tongue. In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, Puri said that as a young woman, she would have been more compromising and calm, which she felt was a way to save relationships as women had to compromise anyways.
Today Kailash Puri is no more. She died in 2017, survived by her 3 kids and 8 grandchildren. Her autobiography, “Pool of Life: The autobiography of Punjabi Agony Aunt” was released in 2013. A woman par excellence, she was a voice of the Punjabi diaspora in the UK. Her mental health services and sex advice was a way in which she highlighted the larger problems women faced which often got neglected.
Puri helped in highlighting the honour killings and forced marriage that left little for the females. Today if Rupi Kaur is writing about sex once again, I see a reflection of Kailash Puri in her. The struggles of women in Punjab who are left behind by their NRI husbands is a different story, but it all connects to what Puri brought to light.
Navneet is a Bachelor’s student in English and Political Science at Lady Shriram College for Women, Delhi University. She loves reading and writing poems and prose both. She is a Punjabi who loves revisiting old Punjabi Culture and History.