Archives for posts with tag: Nudity

Lifting Of The Fig Leaf

Haresh Shah


Zahir takes me by the hand.

‘Let me introduce you to some of the people here.’ I am one of the hundred some invited guests at Zahir and Bernadette Kazmi’s annual pre-Ramadan shenanigan at their spacious home in Chicago suburb of Oakbrook. Outside it’s raining cats and dogs and yet it has not deterred any of their friends and the families from showing up in droves. Only damper it has put on the event is that all of his beautiful oriental rugs are covered with large bed sheets and installed outside the house is a tent sized awning, shrouding the open sky.

The first person he introduces me is a tall and lanky Pakistani friend, whose name I promptly forget as soon as it is said.

‘Haresh used to be an editor at Playboy.’ Zahir can’t help but throw in. I think he gets a kick out of watching the reaction on the people’s faces. If not exactly ignoring, I try to slough it off with a hollow laugh.

‘But that was long time ago. And don’t forget I also worked for Time and Life and a whole bunch of other magazines in Prague!’

‘Yes, but you were with Playboy for the longest time!’


Playboy?’ The tall and lanky man rolls his eyes with a knowing smile. ‘It must have been fun working for them?’

‘Yeah, it was wonderful!’ I concur.

‘Are you still with them?’

‘No, I left them some time ago and now I am retired!’

‘How can you ever leave Playboy?’

‘Just the way you do any other job!’

‘If I ever worked for them, I would never leave.’ He is alluding to the fun part of what he imagines I did. Like, young, beautiful and naked women prancing around.

‘But I did!’ My answer has him jerk his head and render him speechless.

The next person Zahir introduces me is a distinguish looking black gentleman – Joe. His reaction to my association with Playboy is muted but not without wonderment.

Towards the end of the evening when I am contemplating calling it a day, I sit down next to Joe at the table placed by the end of the awning – a stray raindrop thumping on us. ‘Thought I rest my butt and talk to you for a while before taking off.’ Sitting on the other side of him is his wife, Yvonne.’

Joe looks about my age, perhaps a couple of years younger. He too has similar back problems. Like two old geezers, we compare notes and get our mutual health problems out of the way.

‘So what was it like working for Playboy?’

‘No different than any other job. I loved it.’

‘How do  you feel about the contents of the magazine?’

‘You mean the nudes?’


‘Well, to start with, I have also worked for Time, Life and Sports Illustrated and Fortune, as well have done a bunch of women’s titles and have been editor-in-chief of Serial, a show business magazine in Prague. In my opinion, Playboy is one of the best magazines there is in the world!’

I notice a bit of apprehension cross his face as he asks:

‘What makes it one of the best?’

‘The sheer excellence of its editorial content, and the professionalism and the care with which the magazine is put together.’

‘What about the nudes?’

‘If  you are judging it for the nudes, have  you ever given a thought to the fact that of an average 200 page issue, the nudes occupy only 36 some pages?’

‘How can it be?’ I imagine him thinking, because all he remembers are the nudes. Joe seems intrigued. So I continue.

‘What do you think rest of the pages are filled with?’ I give him a pointed look. And then answer it myself.

‘For the rest of the pages, Playboy competes for the same writers and the contributors as does The New Yorker.’

‘But isn’t New Yorker a serious literary magazine?’

‘Yes it is. And so is Playboy.’ As I say that, I am thinking of what Hefner (Hugh M.) once said to a bevy of Playmates during one of their reunions at his Los Angeles mansion: if not for you, I would be a literary magazine! ‘As a matter of fact, both of them are excellent general interest magazines.’ I add.

‘You mean also likes of Harpers and Atlantic?’

‘Precisely! Albeit more lifestyle and sexually oriented. And geared mainly towards men.’

‘Are you Muslim?’ asks Joe out of the clear blue sky. Stands to reason, because the majority of guests are.


‘Than what are you? A Hindu?’


‘I am surprised because I have never met a Hindu so nice.’ And then he goes on to tell me how his experience with Hindus has been not so positive. Strange, because that is certainly not so. We have our quirks, but by and large the Indians, Hindus or Muslims have a very good reputation in the USA. I tell him about Maria – the 93 year old Polish lady who I often run into on Division Street, up the street from St. Mary’s medical building, always raving about her Indian doctor, who she tells me treats her free of charge and how nice he has always been. And how majority of Indian doctors in the country are well regarded and respected.

‘I guess I am prejudiced because of my own experience of them. I will pay more attention the next time’

He also has some misconceptions about the animosity between Hindus and Muslims – the petty wars between them he has watched on TV or has read about. He is surprised at me saying that in spite of bit of fireworks and the sectarian violence, a few border disputes, Hindus and Muslims in India live in harmony. That I for one, grew up right next to the pre-dominantly Muslim neighborhood of Bhindi Bazar in Mumbai. That Zahir, a Muslim and I are as good  friends as anyone else baffles him.

He is astonished when I tell him that after Indonesia, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. As of 2014 census, to Indonesia’s 209 million, India has 176 million Muslims to Pakistan’s 167 million. That the Bollywood is dominated mainly by Muslims and majority of our idols like Shahrukh Khan are Muslims, and are most beloved on the sub-continent. That even though up until very recently Hindu Marriage Act prohibited Hindus from polygamy, India’s Muslims were allowed to have up to four wives, justified under the fundamental right for those who practice Islam. I totally forget to mention that during the short history of independence, of the total of thirteen, India had four Muslim presidents.

By now I have managed to totally confuse poor Joe. And I tell him how proud I was of the country of my birth when CNN sponsored debate between India and Pakistan that took place in Mumbai early in the 2000s, moderated by their star anchor Wolf Blitzer, that three of the five panelists on the Indian team were Muslims.

‘This is all new to me. Let me find my daughters, I want them to hear this. They are somewhere around her.’ With what I am saying, I am shattering Joe’s deeply rooted convictions.

And Joe disappears in the crowd. I strike up a conversation with his wife Yvonne, up until then the onlooker. I find out that they have been married for like 45 years, still happily together – albeit with the usual ups and downs of any coupledom.

Soon Joe reappears with his two stunningly beautiful gems of daughters. Appropriately named Amber and Crystal. Earlier I had noticed Amber around the buffet table. A beautifully sculpted angular face and shining cinnamon color skin, her dark hair pulled up, tall, she could have passed as an artist’s muse. I presumed her to be the older of the two. But the younger looking Crystal at 42 looks like she is in her early thirties. She is darker – the color and the texture of dark chocolate and has the shoulder length billowing hair framing her round face.

‘I want you girls to listen to this gentleman. He used to work for Playboy!’

Playboy?’ Exclaims Amber. She twists her nose in a disdainful gesture.

‘You obviously have never read the magazine?’ I ask pointedly.

‘What is there to read?’

I give them the same spiel as how only 36 some pages of the magazine are the nudes.’ And I tell her about the in-depth articles, fiction and the interviews. I mention Gabriel García Márquez, which draws a blank.

Pages: 1 2

Haresh Shah

How Do An Indian Grandma And Her American Grand Daughter View Playboy?


‘And I can no longer see Playboy calendar hanging in my home.’ I could see Gina was riled up about my last ditch attempt at saving our relationship by offering to sell my house and us together buying a condo. But it was too late to make any difference. We both knew it was over. And even though her  outburst was no longer meaningful, any more than a rubber bullet, nothing that would kill me, but boy did it sting!! And the irony is: there were never any Playboy calendars hanging in my house.  What she probably meant was all those monthly issues lying all around. Especially after I left the magazine. Because for months after my departure, my assistant Mary (Nastos) still kept sending me all the international editions, eighteen in all, every month. They were piling up and at some point could be found strewn all over my house.

Or most likely, the three nude studies by my artist friend Deven (Mehta) hanging in the guest washroom by the kitchen that had triggered her ire.  In any case, not until after she said it did I ever give any thought to the placement of Playboy in my house.  I had never seen any need to tuck them away some place out of sight. Gina’s disdainful words took me back to my Time & Life years, when we had a sort of an exchange program set up with messengers from various printing companies around Chicago area that printed a part or all of one of our publications and some also printed Playboy and Penthouse. We got them in exchange for our magazines.

When the new issues of Playboy and Penthouse arrived, we would page through them and comment on that month’s Playmates and the Pets. And then rest of the guys would slough their copies into their desk drawers, I would slip mine into my briefcase and take them home to look and  read at leisure.

‘We don’t want our old ladies to get all worked up about them!’ Big Larry (Howard) would say with a knowing smile on his face. Up until Jeff (Anderson) joined us a year or so later, I was the only single guy in the department.  At the time I didn’t give it much of a thought, except that I was single and didn’t have to worry about hiding them from my wife and kids. I must have felt a bit strange though, considering that growing up in India, my image of America came from Hollywood movies. A country that was free and liberal. That for us meant mostly the social freedom such as falling in love and getting married instead of arranged unions, kissing in public, making out and having sex before marriage. And even though bikinis hadn’t made big inroads yet, we found the American women in the fashion magazines and in the movies wearing revealing single piece swimsuits titillating.

I had only known American political history of the unilateral declaration of the independence, the Boston Tea Party and the Constitution proclaiming life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I had no idea of the puritan heritage that was weaved into the every thread of the American fabric. I had not yet had a serious relationship with an American woman. One could say that Playboy changed it all for me, but actually most of my ideas and the character have been molded by  Germany and Europe, probably facilitated by Playboy. The conclusion I had come to at the time and after Gina’s outburst, that the problem with having to hide magazines and calendars had to do with only one thing: the nudity. And that majority of the people who have strong negative opinion of Playboy, had never actually read the magazine.

Something I would have understood in my early days in the West, because in India or in my home, we wouldn’t  even remove all of our clothes even to take a shower. We soaped and sprinkled ourselves by lifting layers of  clothing.  It was when living in Munich that I began to see the absurdity of it all. The Johannclanzestrasse complex where I lived, we had coed sauna. And no one sat around in it with towels wrapped around. It made sense. The whole purpose of taking sauna is to let your pores open up and sweat out the toxins. The only way to reap full benefit of subjecting yourself to the extreme heat is to let your clothes and inhibitions drop. And the Europeans certainly don’t have any qualms about that. One of my coolest images of the sauna is that of the three generations of women together walking into the steam filled room – seven or eight year old grand daughter, her young mother, perhaps in her early thirties and the grandma in her sixties. A perfect study in evolution.

And living in Munich in itself was liberating in that sense. Our offices were downtown, not far from Englischer Garten, right in the heart of the city. When the spring came and soon as the temps climbed upwards of around 25 degrees Celsius (about 77 Fahrenheit), it wouldn’t be too unusual to see young office workers on their lunch breaks to cross their arms and lift their tops over their heads and their hands reaching backwards to undo their bra straps, becoming a part of the landscape dotted with the female anatomy surrendered to the warm sunrays. Even the nudist beach on Isar river that ran through the city, wasn’t far from the center. You would walk through some shrubbery and suddenly be standing in the middle of hundreds of people clustered au naturell, drinking beer, barbecuing, lounging just like here in Chicago at the North Street Beach. So when I returned to America, I experienced a big cultural shock, more so than the one I must have felt several years earlier when I had just gotten off the boat.

I had come back with the definite opinion and the attitude about the nudity. Though I have never been married, my partner Carolyn and I lived together for thirteen years and are proud parents of now thirty four year old daughter Anjuli. In our household, the nudity itself never was an issue. Not that we ran around in the nude all the time, but we never necessarily reached for a cover during our normal day-to-day living.

The display of the magazine I worked for and loved, was never a problem in our home. But in some people it could conjure up all sorts of weird ideas, as should be apparent from the comment by my dear friend Karen (Abbott) posted about my announced blog entry of this week: “That’s nothing. I worked for Playboy and, of course, had PB mags all over my living room tables and stuff. Some of the cute male phone techs or workman thought I was a lesbian. So what do you have that matches that? Pretty funny!”

Not exactly, mainly because of our genders. Why would anyone think of me a gay man because they found in my house magazines with naked women? In fact, once they found out I worked for Playboy, it lead to some wishful conversations, nothing more. But once I found myself in an eerie situation. A refrigerator technician was in my house fixing the compressor. He must have noticed copies of Playboy in my living room. As he was diligently fixing my fridge, I stood not too far from him making small talk.

‘Do you read them magazines lying in your living room?’ I didn’t notice it quite then, but in retrospect I remember the tone of his voice changing from friendly to critical.

‘I sure do. I work for them.’

‘You do?’ Now I sensed a certain amount of disdain in his voice, sounding almost menacing. The kind that comes from someone all too self-righteous: I  have found the way, and you ain’t. You are doomed to go to hell kind. Earlier in the conversation he had mentioned that he was “born again”. That explained.

“Well, good for you!!!” He said. But his sarcasm and self-righteousness didn’t escape me. I was never as relieved to see a workman leave my house than when he did.

The time when I had gone home to Bombay to visit my family soon after I had started working for Playboy and had “smuggled” in several copies of the magazine, my parent’s bedroom seemed to have turned into a curious little gathering containing of male family and friends.  Everyone practically waiting their turns to be able to page through one of the issues. It would of course begin with me showing them my name listed in the masthead, which certainly was a pride factor for everyone. But how could my name by itself compete with those beautiful and bare breasted  fräulines? Once the mob thinned out, my Dad sat down and gave one or two issues serious look and then exited leaving us four brothers alone. My brothers obviously asked me questions. We joked about some figures and the poses. Soon they each took a copy or two with them to show to their friends, leaving on the living room table only one issue. Which neither I, nor anyone else felt necessary to remove from there.

Must have been a couple of hours later, when everyone had dispersed or taking their afternoon naps, I found my mother sitting on the floor by the table and slowly turning the pages of that lone issue. She couldn’t read English, let alone German, so she was obviously checking out the women. At the time I was thirty-four, so my mother was barely fifty, still in good shape and quite good looking, despite her having had nine of us. When younger, she was actually a very pretty woman.  As she scanned those near perfect female bodies, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she were comparing her younger self with any of them. Wasn’t beyond the scope for a wife of the Rasa Manjari reading husband.  Hearing me come and sit down, she didn’t flinch or shut the magazine close or slough it away. She took her time before slapping it shut.

‘So this is what you do?’

‘Yup!’ And I could see her smile slightly.  Not looking at me, but just staring at the empty space in front of her.

On my next trip, I had brought along some Playboy calendars, that went like freshly roasted hot  corn-on-the-cobs.  And since then, my brother Suresh would remind me several times not to forget to bring along some calendars, because he had the Saheb – the income tax officer hooked on them and brought them along with a bottle of Royal Salute. I am sure his auditing went ever so smoothly!!

Fast forward several years to Chicago. Anjuli must have been two or three years old. She was just getting to be able to stand up if she found something within the reach of her hands to hold onto and prop herself up on her feet. Once I walked into the living room and found her standing behind the cast iron bar and methodically unloading one liquor bottle at a time from the shelf putting it down to the floor. Then at another time she propped herself up by my expensive turn table placed on a low table and yanked at the tone arm, destroying the diamond stylus – mightily upsetting her daddy. The next time,  I found her standing at the edge of the coffee table, one of her hands resting on the table, and another on an open page of Playboy. Hearing my footsteps, she must have thought it was her mother coming, I see her poking her fingers at an open page,

Mama, Boobooj… Mama, Boobooj.  She was pointing at the ample pair of  breasts on a close-up of one of the women.

© Haresh Shah

Illustration: Jordan Rutherford


Next Friday, March 22, 2013


When I look back and think of the whirlwind life I lived crossing from one country to another and hopping across oceans to different continents, it all seems a little surreal and things and the people I used to pack in within short few days. Here is the story of eleven days in the life of Haresh Shah. The days that were normal for me, but somehow they weren’t.