A FEW YEARS AGO, a group of young men, all Bengaluru- based lawyers, were asked who bought their underwear. Their answer bears out the seemingly arbitrary nature of this intrusion. Of the five men, all in their late twenties, all wellgroomed and intelligent, all given to the unconventional in their personal and political lives, only one bought his own underwear. For the rest, this was the first time they were thinking about why their mothers were the ones still picking out their boxers and briefs.
In the popular imagination the Indian male has always been the stuff of nightmare, able to rape, beat and oppress with his hands tied behind his back. Certainly the newspapers and the grapevine are full of such tales. Here is the one who beats his wife everyday. Here is he who rapes his daughters for years as in the Mira Road case earlier this year. Here is the man who pays to have his daughter’s Muslim husband bumped off as was alleged in the Rizwanur case. Here is the one secretly buying acid to burn into blindness the schoolgirl who rejected him.
But one could bat that away as just an exaggerated version of the brute Indian male. A decade ago, the same media had triumphantly heralded the arrival of the ‘New Indian Male’ – gentler, kinder, more in touch with his feminine side. And true to image, in the sliver of Indian society that is upper-middle class, educated and reaping the benefits of globalisation, Indian men seemed to be undergoing big changes in social roles. More and more men cooked, more and more men participated in childrearing and more and more men were cleaning themselves up. Or so it seemed. Was this mere wishful thinking? Was it a media-manufactured trend cranked up by the handy feature-writing phrase ‘more and more’?
Evidence is, the urban Indian male hasn’t really changed. He is cocooned as he has always been in a sort of prolonged infantilism – a hatchery protected by doting mothers, fathers, sisters, girlfriends, and society itself. As Mukul Kesavan, author of the The Ugliness Of The Indian Male And Other Propositions says, “The Indian male’s bullet-proof unselfconsciousness comes from a sense of entitlement that’s hard-wired into every male child in an Indian household.”
Turn to the men in the lives of People Like Us — fathers, husbands, brothers, lovers, colleagues and friends — and Kesavan’s prognosis looms everywhere. They seem innocuous, but beneath the surface, the twitchy, occasionally grubby person with a collegiate sense of humour milling everywhere around you is perhaps only a milder version of the raving beast in the news clips.
This innocuous man never makes the news because what he does is not news. He leverages power so casually it seems to be his by natural right. To him and to others around him — us — it is legitimate for him to exert measured but highly effective violence to protect his way of life. He is the man who is impeccably well-behaved everywhere but at home, where he throws plates if meals are late. The man who finds it difficult to deal with his girlfriend’s higher income. Who assumes all young women are interns or secretaries or have slept their way up the professional ladder. Who assumes his teenage sister-in-law does not mind his copping a feel as long as she stays under his roof. Who discusses the difference between analytic and synthetic philosophy with his students while forgetting to introduce the wife who brings in tray after tray of coffee. He is the one who tells his much loved and high-powered daughter that if she comes home later than 7pm after work, she is without morals. The one who wearing designer shirts, drinks in designer bars but does not flinch from casually slapping his designer wife in spaghetti straps. He is the one who brings the attitude of the thwarted child to any zone of conflict: an accident on the road, a difference of opinion with a spouse or child, an employee not subservient enough. The hushed whisper families maintain around the tyrant of the house is uncannily similar to the ones that surround a colicky baby.
The man who lays out the plates for dinner and perhaps washes them — fifteen minutes of haloed domesticity — the man in the giddy magazine features is actually a bewildered robot caught in a crisis. He is expected to be new; the new emancipated Indian woman certainly expects him to be new. But he has not been brought up to be new. He has never been taught how to live in an egalitarian society.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra, author of the forthcoming The Butterfly Generation, a book about urban young men and women between 25 to 35 years old, epitomises contemporary confusions. Changed rules, changed expectations and zero preparedness. He paints a picture of utter pathos. “If I am supposed to cook, why can’t I cry? We men are constantly guessing. Am I supposed to pay for dinner or not? We have nothing to go on — you just patch something your girlfriend told you with something you saw on Star World and hope to get by!”
Who, and what, is responsible for hard-wiring Indian men into this mess of emotional clumsiness and latent brutality? The answers sprawl across an untidy canvas.
Kesavan says, “Indian men are ugly on account of the three Hs: hygiene, hair and horrible habits. Despite the way they look, they’re always paired off with goodlooking women.” He’s right. The unequal logic of arranged marriages does spin out perversely. Nalini, a 22- year-old student in Pune says, “I have a cousin in New York, a 35-year-old professor. He sent word home that he wanted a beautiful 19-yearold village girl. She had to be musical, highly religious and from a strict Brahmin family. But since he fancied himself as very modern, his wife would have to cook meat for him. Whether or not this would violate her beliefs did not matter. And, of course, his parents found him one.”
KRISHNA, A 24-year-old software engineer who moved from Kerala to Bengaluru for work, seems to have the opposite problem. Allowed by his parents to find a girl for himself, he is out hunting. But as he says, giggling, “Things are very difficult. I am not getting any.” Krishna is suffering from the cruelest and newest of India’s free markets: the singles scene. Nothing he has learnt so far in his young life has taught him how to engage the attentions of a woman. He has never needed to please. That’s the single thread that connects him with the New York professor: an unexamined sense of selfentitlement.
So who’s programming this bug in the circuitry of the Indian male? Rahul Verma, 56, trade unionist and Delhi-based writer, is the anti-thesis of smug traditional male or even the bewildered one wandering about in a newly egalitarian world. Verma, who calls himself a ‘house-husband’, was the epitome of the New Indian Man long before such a phrase was coined. He has kept house, cooked for the family and cared for his parents and his in-laws for decades. Ask him how he came to these life choices and he shrugs. “I never thought I was doing anything unusual. My parents were radicals. My father lived underground for years.”
PARENTS — THERE seems to be a simple equation between parents and the drought of responsible, responsive Indian men. In the homes of People Like Us, young boys do not automatically learn to cook or even to be grateful to those who cook for them. They are rarely taught to anticipate other people’s needs. They are not automatically involved in the care of siblings, the elderly or the ill, while their sisters are encouraged to keep vrats (or fasts) as spiritual general insurance for the whole family. They are not taught to settle conflicts peacefully or, to use the unfortunate phrase, to occasionally shut up and put up. Indian boys are not just perpetrators: they are victims of the plague of the stereotype.
From the nineties, Stanford University psychologists have conducted long-term experiments that prove that if you can convince children that stereotypes don’t limit their potential, they can perform wonderfully and variantly. But Indian schools are utterly unmindful of this. Girls are widely expected to do better in board exams, and usually they do (albeit for some embarrassingly sexist explanations that suggest girls have a greater and innate desire to sit quietly in front of their NCERT textbooks). Boys, it is assumed, are naturally restless in classrooms or, in an increasingly pathologising world, suffering from Attention Deficiency Disorder. Both reasons — nature and illness — excuse them from having to take responsibility for their actions. Outside of school too, presumably, behaviour modifies itself to match expectations. Given the wild largesse accorded to boys then, it is absurd for us to be surprised at the startling excesses of public and private behaviour in Indian men.
The odd parent determined to set things right must resort, then, to constant vigil. Take Delhi-based blogger Mad Momma, for instance. Well-known for her views on parenting (she has had both stalkers and hostile parody bloggers) and brought up by relaxed hippy parents, 30-year-old Mad Momma runs a tight ship. Her young son and daughter are schooled into absolute politeness and her house is intimidatingly pretty. MM and her husband have worked out a relaxed and equitable distribution of household chores and child-rearing. “Women cripple their sons and husbands by doing everything for them,” says she. “I am rabidly feminist about treating my children equally. But my mother-in-law and even my cook are not. They sometimes give my two-year-old daughter a piece of dough to play with, but never my son. My husband too instinctively asks my son not to cry if he falls down but will hug and kiss my daughter if she does. But we are constantly talking about these things in our house.”
Like Mad Momma, Veena Naidu, a Pune-based academic with two grown sons sees herself as part of a disturbingly small minority. Her biggest anxiety in raising her sons, she says, is ensuring that they do not become a burden on other women. “When they were growing up, I never pampered them emotionally. I never tried to protect their or their father’s feelings, never tried to get around them or manipulate them as I have seen other women do.” Yet today she continues to worry that her sons may be too terrified of the uncontrollable or uncomfortable nature of emotions to ever fall in love or sustain other meaningful relationships. “I never hear boys — mine or others — talking about their feelings in the way I know girls do.”
This male inability to express feelings is a common affliction. Therapists across the country tell stories of men who face tremendous crises at work but who enact elaborate ruses to hide them from their friends and family. A Delhi-based therapist describes the shock of a wife who found out her middleaged husband had been leaving home everyday, dressed for work, for six months only to spend lonely days in public parks. “Why didn’t he tell me he couldn’t face going to work anymore? I would not have blamed him,” cried the wife.
Mothers, wives and trendseeking journalists are not the only ones to fall unwillingly into discussions about the seemingly innate differences between boys and girls. Global pop culture (such as television shows and self-help books with alliterative titles) rampantly emphasise and reinforce the inscrutability of men to women and viceversa. For decades, in development jargon, gender had come to stand in for women. And for decades all initiatives, political and intellectual, were directed at the transformation of women’s lives or the yeast-like raising of women’s consciousness. The queer movement opened up rich possibilities of happiness. But all this left the straight man out of conversations about emotions and self-expression until the mid- 1990s when funding patterns shifted. Suddenly, the focus shifted from women to the inner worlds of straight men, creating a domain called masculinity studies.
Ratheesh Radhakrishnan, now at IIT Mumbai, a researcher in this relatively unknown area of study, suggests usefully that one way of resolving the naturenurture contradiction (‘If I brought up my son in gender- sensitive ways, why is he still using a doll as a gun?’) is to look away from individual sets of parents to the culture that fosters notions of self-indulgent masculinity.
Today, we are learning to appreciate and enjoy our daughters. It is not uncommon to hear parents now saying they are grateful they have daughters because they are assured of care in their old age. Nor is it uncommon to see around us confident young women encouraged at every step to excel. We react with awkward but sincere pleasure about stories of a woman firefighter, a woman Foreign Secretary, a woman who has sent her children to engineering college on a labourer’s income. In the manner that the modern, independent woman has the option of playing out any number of sexual types and social roles (butch, femme, friend, superboss, languid mother, gaming junkie, film festival nerd) men, too, should have the option of embracing a spectrum of roles and selves. As yet, they do not.
Nowhere is this entrapment more vividly evident than in male responses to that most reviled college experience: ragging. Young Indian men routinely brutalise incoming juniors in colleges and justify it as tradition or socialising. Stripping, beatings, ritual humiliation, the eating of shit and licking of toilets, sodomy – everyone has a story. Worryingly, these stories are told with a grin. Naveen, a gentle, young Chennai-based doctor, for instance, says he thoroughly enjoyed a ragging ceremony that lasted hours and ended in his standing in neck-deep mud. Vinay, a 28-year-old security analyst, shifts between saying, “I know it was all bad” and “It was the best years of my life” when talking about the elaborate ragging rituals in Madras Christian College. His room was once ‘egged’ — covered in eggshells filled with urine — for weeks. But Naveen justifies it by saying it was all about being accepted and liked. His father and grandfather had gone to the same college and he is quite sure he wants his unborn son to go there someday.
NEITHER VINAY nor Naveen will concede that their experiences are merely a variant of the violence that killed 19-year-old medical student Aman Kachroo in March this year in Kangra. Mary John, Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, says that the tendency of young urban college boys to talk of Kachroo’s death ‘as the kind of thing that happens out there’ — far away from their own realities — fits well with modern forms of masculinity which are inclined to deem overt violence as infra-dig. “The successful man today is one who can get what he wants — power, service and his woman — through consent. Overt violence would be a sign of failure,” says John.
There are reasons why ragging remains a perversely beloved ritual among young men. Unlike Indian women who are trained emotionally and socially by parents and society to gear up for a time when they must leave their parental home and occupy their space in the adult world, and unlike their selfsufficient counterparts in western countries, there are no major markers to end childhood for Indian men.
When an Indian man goes away from home (if at all he does) he is almost entirely unprepared to look after himself. Indian university towns such as Pune, for instance, are full of well-heeled young teenage boys housed with cook-cum-major-domos to clean up after them. Young women in Indian metros often refuse to visit their male contemporaries’ homes, sure that there will be no towels, no furniture and no food. Maya, a 26-year-old Delhibased professional, recounts how various male acquaintances would land up at her home at odd hours of the morning without notice, casually demanding specific items for breakfast (‘I’ll just have some juice’) with every expectation of these demands being satisfied. Even marriage does not necessarily mark adulthood for Indian men in the same way as it does for women.
SO, IN a sense, ragging in college is the only real initiation rite privileged young Indian men get to pass through. It is the only time they feel they have ‘faced something’ – suffered, and so walked through a doorway into a wider, adult world. For the first time, they feel the thrill of no protective shield around them. Certainly there are few other things in their lives that was not for their taking.
Ironically then, Indian men are unable to break the stereotypes that entrap them and embrace the pleasure of multiple selves precisely because neither parents nor society allows them to experience any markers that end their childhood. The beautifully christened Yuvraj Singh lounging in an up-market Delhi coffee shop is a perfect example of this. 24-years old, good-looking, well-travelled, he is just out of a fouryear relationship that ended recently and is dating again. He is polite and likes clever, feminine women. He has never been in any scuffles. The one time a girl’s boyfriend arrived outside his school to beat him up, he called his father’s security company and his problem was taken care of.
Now, as his student life in London draws to an end he is on the verge of returning permanently to Delhi. Returning involves a big decision. Does he want to join his father’s multi-crore business immediately or in a while? It is a decision that is clearly weighing on his mind. He admires his father tremendously but wonders whether it is the same life he wants for himself. “I want to be able to stop thinking about work at 6 o’clock, go home and spend time with my family.” Family is a word that comes up dozens of times in his conversation. His mother, his father, other people’s mothers and fathers. Family, family, family. His parents know everything about his life, he says. “I don’t smoke or drink in front of my father. I can’t,” he smiles sweetly. You are irresistibly reminded of Kesavan saying that Indian men are only required to be sons.
Globalisation itself has brought new complications for the Indian man. At one level, it has encouraged many Indian men to morph into the pleasant-smelling, colour-coordinated, high-spending creatures called the metrosexual. At another, it has hardened some of the traditionally fluid lines of Indian masculinity. For instance, the once easy, even lavish, physical affection between Indian men – holding hands, slapping butts, slinging easy arms over friendly shoulders — is now being schooled into selfconscious homophobia. And the quintessential south Indian nerd or the overweight and wonderfully romantic movie heroes of our past are no longer kosher: it is the big muscular body that is now more universally coveted.
George Jose, gleeful father of a three-year-old daughter, and Programme Director of the Asia Society, Mumbai, sums it up wonderfully. “Indian men are no longer going to be able to take their place in the world for granted. They will suffer the anxieties that women have been dealing with forever, wondering what is appropriate or inappropriate all the time. The pity is that in their case there is no women’s movement to light the path ahead and men are too scared to admit the need for such groups.”
But until that fear is routed, the search for the genuine New Indian Male will resemble a quest for a unicorn. And what is the unicorn we are looking for? Is it 29-year-old, Bengalurubased Kamal, all spikes and metal piercings, a porcupine in a Jesus t-shirt at first glance? Kamal, who belies his looks and is quiet and retiring and enjoys the discipline of domesticity, who keeps house without turning house-keeping into a cult, and admires his wife’s ability to bring home an income because his band does not make any money yet? Kamal, who is looking forward to having his own children one day and being a gentle father, and who is happy for now making music and maintaining his fragile peace? Or is it Jinu Joseph, hulking new villain of Malayalam cinema, macho man of the world, comfortable in his skin and comfortable with women?
The point is, there should be no one unicorn: no new stereotype to replace the first. If there was to be a masculine movement to equal the feminist movement that has set large sections of the Indian woman free, the goal for Indian men would be to throw off some of their own deprivations. From the moment they can walk, Indian men are taught to provide but not feel. Taught to command, not empathise. Taught to expect subservience not companionship. Taught, most damagingly, to repudiate their emotions. Their inner life. Their capacity for variety.
As Jose says, “Part of the problem has always been language and how men and women speak to each other. You know how the old feminist guard gets all worked up when they hear young women today saying, ‘I am not a feminist’? It is as if these young women are ungrateful for all the hard work that was done before they were born, work that paved the way for their individualistic freedom. But actually it could offer an interesting and intuitive new space. It is as if these women are signaling to the men they meet and saying, ‘Let’s set aside the history of stereotypes that set us apart. You and I, let’s start on a fresh page.”
Published here