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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄėNew Indian Male‚Äô ‚Äď 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 child-rearing 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 ‚Äėmore and more‚Äô?
Evidence is, the urban Indian male hasn‚Äôt really changed. He is cocooned as he has always been in a sort of prolonged infantilism ‚Äď 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, ‚ÄúThe Indian male‚Äôs bullet-proof unself consciousness comes from a sense of entitlement that‚Äôs hard-wired into every male child in an Indian household.‚ÄĚ
Turn to the men in the lives of People Like Us ‚ÄĒ fathers, husbands, brothers, lovers, colleagues and friends ‚ÄĒ and Kesavan‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ us ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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.
So, truth is, the New Indian Male announced a decade ago was a mirage. The man who lays out the plates for dinner and perhaps washes them ‚ÄĒ fifteen minutes of haloed domesticity ‚ÄĒ 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. ‚ÄúIf I am supposed to cook, why can‚Äôt I cry? We men are constantly guessing. Am I supposed to pay for dinner or not? We have nothing to go on ‚ÄĒ you just patch something your girlfriend told you with something you saw on Star World and hope to get by!‚ÄĚ
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, ‚ÄúIndian men are ugly on account of the three Hs: hygiene, hair and horrible habits. Despite the way they look, they‚Äôre always paired off with goodlooking women.‚ÄĚ He‚Äôs right. The unequal logic of arranged marriages does spin out perversely. Nalini, a 22- year-old student in Pune says, ‚ÄúI 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.‚ÄĚ
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, ‚ÄúThings are very difficult. I am not getting any.‚ÄĚ Krishna is suffering from the cruelest and newest of India‚Äôs 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‚Äôs the single thread that connects him with the New York professor: an unexamined sense of selfentitlement.
So who‚Äôs 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 ‚Äėhouse-husband‚Äô, 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. ‚ÄúI never thought I was doing anything unusual. My parents were radicals. My father lived underground for years.‚ÄĚ
PARENTS ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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 ‚ÄĒ nature and illness ‚ÄĒ 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. ‚ÄúWomen cripple their sons and husbands by doing everything for them,‚ÄĚ says she. ‚ÄúI 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.‚ÄĚ
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. ‚ÄúWhen they were growing up, I never pampered them emotionally. I never tried to protect their or their father‚Äôs feelings, never tried to get around them or manipulate them as I have seen other women do.‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúI never hear boys ‚ÄĒ mine or others ‚ÄĒ talking about their feelings in the way I know girls do.‚ÄĚ