Taken from The Economist

When, as a young woman looking for solid work, Katharine Whitehorn was moving round from one grungy(dirty, grimy) digs(lodgings) to another, she realised that the cookery books of the time were no use. To begin with, they assumed a knowledge of food and its preparation she simply didn’t have. Besides, it was hard to produce a decent meal, let alone anything impressive, when all you had was a gas ring in one corner of your room and water down the hall; and when the problem wasn’t just to assemble passable ingredients, but to find somewhere to put down the fork while you took the lid off the saucepan. So was born “Cooking in a Bedsitter”(one room having a bed, sitting space & a kitchen) (1961), a bible for the cookery-challenged for decades afterwards, with its cheery insistence that yes, you could cook cabbage, if you chucked in a crust of bread to stop the smell getting into the curtains; and yes, you could knock up a delicious little dinner à deux(intimately with just 2 persons) out of packets and tins, as long as you got rid of the evidence.

Such down-to-earth advice, practical, witty and, if necessary, sharp (essential to have a sharp knife, as Ms Whitehorn said) came equally from Mahinder Watsa in Mumbai, who realised that an increasing amount of his time as an obstetrician-gynaecologist was taken up with counselling people who knew little or nothing about the birds and the bees. In the 1960s he started a “Dear Doctor” column in a women’s magazine; in 2005, at 80, when counselling had long overtaken his medical practice, he became the daily “Sexpert” on the tabloid (a newspaper with small pages, a lot of pictures & short articles) Mumbai Mirror. Could a woman get pregnant, ran one enquiry, if a man and a woman sleeping alone thought of making love at the same time? (Answer: “There are no angels to carry your sperm to the person you dream of.”) If acidic substances prevented pregnancy, ran another, could orange or lemon juice be poured into the vagina after sex? (“Are you a bhel puri vendor? Where did you get this weird idea?”) Young men—especially young men, though about three in ten who wrote were women—knew that if they wanted sprightly(energetic) clarity on sexual matters they could find it on page 34 of the Mirror; just as, in Britain, women—especially women, though men were also firm fans—searched out Ms Whitehorn’s trenchant(vigorous or incisive in expression or style) views on life in the Sunday Observer for more than 30 years, and after that in Saga magazine.

Both she, and he, cut through the confusion with a strong sense of mission. Ms Whitehorn was the first columnist in Britain to give a voice to ordinary, non-decorative, muddling-through women, and became the model for the dozens of confessional columns that followed. She had started in journalism, a patriarchal(mostly men) club as it was in the 1950s, typecast(looking same) and moody-looking in the fashion section, but quickly encouraged women (in books and broadcasts, as well as columns) to overcome any obstacles of biology, maternity or delicacy, and to write about anything and everything. As for Dr Watsa, his campaign, almost single-handed at the start, was to talk plainly and naturally to Indians about sex. From 1974, when he joined the national Family Planning Association, he promoted sex education in schools, trained teachers, wrote manuals and ran workshops, daring to raise against considerable hostility a subject that people too often wouldn’t face.

Sometimes real fear was the problem. Dr Watsa was quite flummoxed(confused & perplexed) by the number of missives(a long letter) he got about masturbation, which made up half his postbag. Would it drain your strength away, or make you lose your hair? Would it shorten the penis? (“You talk every day, has your tongue become smaller?”) Would it make you fail exams? What if you did it on a day that the astrologer didn’t recommend? With infinite patience, Dr Watsa explained that it was harmless, perfectly normal, and by the way, astrologers were frauds. (Like a giant sigh, “It’s Normal!” was the title of his collected columns.) In Britain Ms Whitehorn defused the ever-present social terrors, remembering her own cringe-making(cringe= to feel embarrassed) attempts to navigate smart London. What if you dropped a brick(to do or say something that embarrasses you) in a conversation—making some crass(stupid) joke about money, say, when talking to a bankrupt? Don’t try to pick it up again, she wrote; keep your eyes steady, and pour your attention on the other person. What if your knickers fell down in a public place? Kick them off, scoop them into your pocket and walk on, as if nothing has happened.

Inadequacy could be almost as bad as fear. Nothing, Dr Watsa knew, could stop young men worrying about their penis size, but he tried. To one, who sent anxious measurements of his organ at rest and play, he wrote: “Stop sounding like a tailor. Your genitals will look after themselves.” Would it help, another asked, if he pulled his penis for 15 minutes a day while reciting a prayer? “If that was right, most men’s penises would be hitting their knees.”

Ms Whitehorn, meanwhile, dealt with the eternal worries of women that they were not elegant or organised enough. Her most famous column, in 1963, defended all slatterns(dirty, untidy women) who had ever safety-pinned a hem, changed their stockings in a taxi, or seized some item back from the dirty-clothes basket “because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing”. She implied she was a slattern too, though Roedean, Cambridge(an expensive English private school for girls), her dress sense and her darkly posh voice rather gave the lie to(serve to show that something previously assumed to be is not true) that. But at devil-may-care-ness she did well. In “How to Survive Children” (she had two, chaotically balanced with work), she advised that bath-time went better after a glass of gin. As for housewifery(the function to work as a housewife), “no book of household management can ever tell you…how to begin. Or maybe I mean why.”

Both columnists continued to a great age, thriving on long and generally happy marriages. Wisdom seemed to gather around them until both were national treasures. Their essential optimism was tempered: Dr Watsa’s by the beatings, abuse and unhappily arranged marriages he was told of, and could do nothing about; Ms Whitehorn’s by the feeling that sex had come to tyrannise relationships. But the numbers of people they had braced with confidence were legion, and occasionally their advice was similar. To a woman worried about not being a virgin on her wedding night, Dr Watsa wrote: “Don’t worry, your husband won’t notice.” While to a young bedsitter(very small flat) hostess, cooking for a man, Ms Whitehorn breezed: “Don’t apologise, and never ask ‘Is it all right?’”