As the iconic magazine gets back to publishing nudes, here’s a remembrance of the days past, when Playboy was an essential part of many an urban teenager’s rite of passage to adulthood.

Before all that came a book, Massage Girl. I think she came into our lives in the seventh standard, and immediately the book was coveted and feared at the same time. You wanted to take it home to read in the privacy of your toilet. But, almost as soon as we had achieved the results we desired, we wanted the book out of our lives again. A foreshadowing of things to come? Perhaps.

The 1970s, the decade in which I came of age, were a difficult time for India, but it was an even more difficult time for the young men and boys who wanted some pornography to read. Mark the word: read. For the longest time, we only had access to a small stack of books, mainly by Anonymous, in the corner of the circulating libraries to which we belonged. We didn’t even dare borrow them because there was generally a family account, and everyone would know. Some of the more intrepid souls would steal them, but more often than not, we just read sections as quickly as possible before moving on to the comics. I believe Massage Girl was stolen from one such library.

It should be clear from all this that our pornography was verbal, not visual. Even the home-grown stuff was written: there was a truly terrible magazine called Rasvanti that came out from somewhere in north India. There was always a train coupe and a young married couple and an older woman with a drink who had big balls. (Balls was the word of choice for a woman’s breasts.)

So, Playboy was really important to us. Not because of Hugh Hefner’s battle for freedom of speech and expression. Not because of the famed Playboy lifestyle, but because there were pitchers of nekkid women in there. And, no men. I remember the great disgust with which a friend once told me that he didn’t like porn films because they featured naked men. Thus the glossy airbrushed blonde with the staples in her stomach was so alluring. She was alone on that page and she looked up and out at you and you were obviously the man in her life. There was no other. This was her basic and fundamental allure.

Then, one of our number, the Lucky One, went to America, and he told us he had found several old Playboys in the trash. He wanted to bring them all back to the place where he and his parents were staying with his relatives, but he didn’t how to get them back to India. Still, he managed to smuggle two home, across the borders, worrying all the time that he might be arrested for smuggling or, worse still, be found out by his parents.

We revelled in these two Playboys for several years. We eked them out when we went to his home, because that was the only safe place for them, behind the flush tank above the commode. When his parents were out, we would bring them out and look at them and even make critical comments. In truth, that was our way of proving that these women were not above us, unreachable. But, they were, they were.

It was difficult to believe there was a Playboy every month. How could there be so many gorgeous women in the world, we wondered. How was it that they were willing to take off all their clothes and be photographed, we wondered (although we didn’t stay with this thought too long, because soon enough a camera interposed itself, and the illusion of all that glossy beauty spread out for you was destroyed). How was it that men could tire of this and throw out old magazines, we wondered.

One of my friends, let us call him the Entrepreneur, told us that a second-hand Playboy cost Rs 100. (This was a time when Rs 5000 was considered a very respectable salary.)

“How many did you say this guy threw away?” he asked the Lucky One.

“I don’t know, about ten or fifteen.”

“See, if you had brought them all back, we could have sold them. And, we would have been rich,” said the Entrepreneur with a sigh.

There was silence as we contemplated this lost opportunity. Of course, we admired the Lucky One’s sheer guts in even thinking about bringing them back. We knew they must have spent a good deal of time tucked under his banian and shirt, held to his tummy by the waistband of his trousers, the safest place for any contraband. “Imagine, all over America men must be throwing out their old Playboys. We could get them all from the trashcans and we could sell them and we would be so rich,” said the Entrepreneur.

We imagined.

Playboy was for us the springboard of our dreams. I believe it was the reason why so many young men wanted to go to America, because it, more than anything else, represented the American dream. There she was, her hair teasing, her eyes inviting, her mouth naughty, her body perfect. She did not talk back, she did not make unreasonable demands. She did not want to watch romantic comedies, and she did not want a diamond ring and a promise. She was everything the life we lived was not.

I need hardly say that there was some fine fiction in Playboy, and some quality journalism, too. We paid no attention. Great interviews may have lurked in those pages, which would have illuminated the interior workings of the minds of some great men. We read nothing of them. To us, the Bunny was the thing.

As it is, Playboy and the much more explicit Hustler were being referred to as porn for men without internet access. On most channels, they practically give away the stuff. You can watch anything for free. I wonder how many men need more. But, there you go — there is as much nudity and sex as anyone might desire on the net, so what’s the point?

I don’t know why I feel as if an era is passing. I don’t know why I feel a faint hint of sadness. Maybe it is because some years ago, I was asked if I might be interested in being the editor of Playboy India. I laughed. I knew that the successive editors of Debonair, long called the desi Playboy, had spent much of their working lives sitting with lawyers or policemen. I had no intention of playing these games with the mealymouthed custodians of our morality. 

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