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HIS MOTHERíS VOICE

Iíve never wanted to be anything other than a man. Being a man who likes men has sufficed. But what has begun to fascinate me as I approach middle age, and sexuality gets placed in a larger map of whatís important, is the history of the voice ó my own voice, in particular. Most of the time, Iím mistaken for a woman on the phone. Itís usually a good thing: toll-free strangers are less rude to women. So, I carry on talking as a woman. But sometimes, this can cause maddening complications ó such as when I call my bankís helpline with, say, a credit-card query. Suddenly, I become my wife or secretary (both currently non-existent). The helpline operator wants to talk to me. I say I am me. But she doesnít believe me. She asks me my birth-date and motherís maiden name. I answer correctly. She still doesnít believe me. In no time, a Chaplin-Kafka-Woody- Allenesque situation of a purely vocal kind starts building up. Iím both annoyed and amused, and the other person has turned into a confused and fallible creature ó more interesting than a disembodied voice. But how do I get to know my credit-card balance? Having a baritone lover might help. But certain kinds of personal information are best kept beyond the reach of lovers.

My motherís death gives to this situation a new turn of the screw. The phone rings, I pick it up, and thereís a gasp followed by stunned silence at the other end. Apparently, I sound exactly like my mother on the phone. Faint-hearted kin find this hard to take, and Iíve begun to wonder whether things are more complicated than Iím willing to admit to myself. Could it be that the psychic history of my vocal cords is more Hitchcock than Woody Allen? Who knows what the relationship between body and mind, and between body and environment, really is? To what extent do we actually control ó consciously, unconsciously and half-consciously ó the development of our secondary sexual characteristics? If sex is nature and gender is nurture, then what looks like nature could also be inscrutable nurture ó self-nurture as well as nurture by others. Everybody remembers the loving fuss made in the family at the onset of his or her puberty. A girlís first period, her transition into wearing a bra, the breaking of a boyís voice, his first shave. Each of these rites of passage is watched, watched over, and ritualized by the family.

I enjoy asking sub-continental men about their first shave. When did you do it? Who first noticed that youíve done it? What did this person make you feel? What did you feel while doing it? Then, a question Iím anthropologically driven to ask, even when it is not strictly relevant to this survey: when did you start buying your own underwear? Larger questions follow. What roles do mothers and fathers ó especially mothers ó play when their offspring are visibly turning into sexual beings? And how does overt and covert parental or familial control mould our sex, our gender, and our sexuality?

To see things as they are ó Mrs Woolfís knowing phrase ó is difficult. Some bits of life are too close to the bone. But imminent middle age, often premised on the death of a parent, is oddly freeing ó provided, of course, these hard-bought freedoms are what youíre after.