29/03/2015 9:58 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Indian Man, On Closer Scrutiny


This article is from Open Magazine.

By Sunaina Kumar

A survey conducted by the UN Population Fund at the end of 2014 found three broad categories of masculinity in India. It identified 'rigid masculinity' in 32 per cent of Indian men, the ones who exercise excessive control in their intimate relationships and believe that women and men are unequal. On the other hand, the report classified 23 per cent as the 'most equitable men', who exercise less control in their intimate relations and believe in gender equality. The rest of the men--45 per cent--were in between, 'moderate' in their attitudes and behaviours. It is generally advisable to treat surveys with some amount of scepticism. But surveys can be indicative and useful talking points. This one suggests not all Indian men are would-be rapists. Professor Annette Beck-Sickinger of Leipzig University would of course disagree. Her indictment of Indian men is so nonsensical that at another time, it would have been easily dismissed as the rant of a prejudiced mind. It created the kerfuffle that it did, preceded as it was by the agitation over the BBC documentary which rendered Indian manhood in an all-too-familiar and repulsive image.

The image is described by author Aatish Taseer, speaking to Open via email, thus: 'I think a certain kind of Indian man, powerless and empty-handed, on the edge of urban life, has come to see women--especially those that are ahead of him--as objects of hatred. There's a certain kind of Indian man, it seems, who wishes to punish women for the desires life has excited in him, and cannot satisfy. These desires include money, sex, mobility, a job, a phone, a car... the list goes on.'

If one were to take the temperature of Indian men, it would be safe to say that some (those who may be classified as 'equitable' and 'moderate') are feeling distressed and defensive. "As a writer, as a woman who lives in India," says author and poet Tishani Doshi, "the standard question for everyone to ask outside the country is: how difficult is it to be an Indian woman? I think it is almost more difficult to be a man in India at this point of time. There is a sense of privilege, but there is also a feeling of being trapped. There may be some men who want to be different, but they have not gone through any process of introspection."

When we ask a few men across age groups and cities about 'being an Indian man', we get a range of thoughts:

"The creepier the image of the Indian man becomes, the more difficult it will become for an Indian man to ever find a mate. I think every statement twice in my head to see if it sounds creepy before I articulate it to a woman. We are paying for the sins of our fathers who have glorified the Indian past and patriarchy," says Hriday Ranjan, 27, a blogger from Hyderabad.

Karunesh Talwar, 23, a standup comic from Mumbai, used to make sexist jokes on women, because he says, that is what standups unthinkingly do. "Now I talk at length about the Indian man. I identify as a feminist on stage." His friend and standup comic Ashish Shakya comments ironically on Twitter: 'Fifty Shades banned in India, because why watch a fictional woman being dominated and humiliated when we've got the real deal playing 24/7?'

"I am not proud to be an Indian man in the wake of everything that is happening. I know that I am going to be judged and evaluated and looked at with suspicion. Not all Indian men are the same. I've always contributed to housework. For many years I have reported to female bosses without my masculinity feeling 'threatened' as they say," says Vidyasagar Ayyapan, an infotech professional from Mumbai.

Navtej Singh Johar, the renowned Bharatnatyam dancer nicknamed the 'dancing sardar' by Khushwant Singh, was told when he decided to be a dancer that it is not a manly thing to do, and that he won't earn any money from it. "I wasn't convinced about the conventions," he says, "I chose to not get offended and followed what I felt was right."

Anirban Bhattacharya, a corporate lawyer in his thirties, says when he first moved to Delhi, he adopted a masculine swagger to be taken seriously by other men. "It was not easy for me to exhibit aggressiveness, but as a short geeky-looking man, I felt I had to make up. Now, as I know better, I have recalibrated my behaviour. The stress of masculinity is also felt by men."

Admittedly, these men represent what would be called a 'tiny metropolitan elite' and not 'real' India. For that, we can turn to another survey, which confirms our worst suspicions of patriarchy, and that too among the youth. In a study done this year, 55 per cent of students in the age group of 15 to 19 across cities agreed that the way women dress and behave provokes men.

A glance at the week's news turns up instances everywhere of men behaving badly, from the gangrape of a nun in West Bengal to Sharad Yadav's unrepentantly sexist comments in Parliament. We expect no better of politicians, but some of our best-loved icons are guilty of casual and deliberate misogyny, from the profane lyrics of Punjabi-rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh to our bestselling writer Chetan Bhagat's lame defence of what he calls his funny sexist comments, to television's most popular anchor Kapil Sharma's non- defence of his non-funny sexist comments. And then there is Salman Khan, the most masculine of our male icons, well known for hitting women and then justifying it as an act of protection. Perhaps we get the icons we deserve.


What is the matter with Indian men? Rarely does a film try to find an answer to this. NH10, an indie film, goes bravely where mass cinema fears to tread, and finds that the problem lies in constructs of masculinity. A young urban couple witnesses an honour killing in the badlands of Haryana, a killing carried out by the girl's brother and arranged by her family to defend its honour. The film's triumph (apart from the vicarious pleasure in seeing Anushka Sharma slaughter all the men) is that it shows us instead of telling us that there isn't that much of a difference between the brutalised brother and the liberalised hero, both confined by notions of male honour and pride. The movie finds an eerie echo in the recent incident in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh where a group of six men thrashed a young woman and the man who was accompanying her and then shared the video on WhatsApp.

Gloria Steinhem and Lauren Wolfe have written on the cult of masculinity that builds up in various forms in different countries and the importance of reporting on and paying attention to the victimiser, not just the victim. The very fact that masculinity is being discussed in India is in itself a change. It is not 'natural' or 'obvious', but open to scrutiny as any other identity. The media, on its part, has been sending out images of positive masculinity. In advertisements, for example, we find the single dad, the supportive husband, the man helping out at home. An ad film by Vogue, 'Boys don't cry', endorsed by Madhuri Dixit, nudges us to rethink the way the male child is brought up in India, forced to repress his emotions, not act like a girl (how many times have we heard parents say that), and ends with him physically abusing his wife. 'Start with the boys' is the message delivered at the end.

Harjant S Gill, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker based in the US, has through his films--Roots of Love, Mardistan and Sent Away Boys--interrogated Indian masculinity and the ways in which men are imprisoned by cultural stereotypes. He says, via email: 'Most Indian men grow up enjoying the kind of privileges that accompany being a man in India, there is also an incredible sense of responsibility and familial expectations that is placed upon them (to get married, have kids, look after the family, care for ageing parents, manage family finances). Their choices about how they want to or can live their lives are severely limited; meanwhile, the pressure to act tough, to be successful, and to fulfill familial responsibilities can be just as constraining and limiting as the kind of expectations placed on Indian women. The stereotype of what it means to be a man varies widely. For instance, in Punjab (where I do research), twenty years ago, the stereotype of successful masculinity was defined by the type of careers that privileged physical strength (physique) over intellectual accomplishments-- most Punjabi men aspired to be successful farmers or joined the Indian armed forces, or the police. Today, the stereotype of successful masculinity among Punjabi men entails migrating and settling abroad in a country like Canada, USA or Australia, and sending money home.'

As a society, we are in deep denial about the violence young boys and men are subjected to, and are surprised when they grow up to inflict similar violence on those weaker than themselves, often the women in their lives. Says Gill, 'We tend to stereotype Indian men as the 'perpetrators' of violence, but we forget that men are frequently victims of violence, including sexual violence. At least three of the four men whose experiences I chronicle in my latest documentary, Mardistan, have dealt with some form of violence--whether it's emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abuse. We have to confront this if we want to address the issue of rape and sexual violence. We must provide young boys and men with support, and allow them to be emotional and sensitive, and to learn empathy.'

MASVAW, short for Men's Action to Stop Violence Against Women, is a grassroots- level alliance of men that works on gender sensitisation and masculinity in the interiors of north India, covering a large part of Uttar Pradesh. It is one of the few groups in India that work from the point of view of men, with the understanding that masculinity, machismo and its Hindi equivalent mardangi--often expressed in symbols such as a moustache--are ideas which thrust on men the onus to act aggressively, put on a swagger and be ultra- competitive, but these shut men out from the experience of more fulfilling emotions.

Mahendra Kumar, a coordinator for MASVAW, says he had to recondition himself to understand that violence against women is not just wife-beating, but exists in many forms. "While growing up, we were told that eve-teasing is masculine. I would do it myself." Those men who practise some form of equality often find themselves isolated by family and neighbours. Kumar speaks of a typical case of peer pressure: "Santosh from Banda would help his wife at home with cleaning and cooking, spend time with her, and got her admitted to school. He was reproached by all the men, and they all accused him: 'Mahilaon ko sar pe chadha diya hai'."

"In the face of such opposition, it is hard for men to change," adds Kumar, "Most are not even aware that things could be different."

In a state like Uttar Pradesh, the idea of masculinity changes from district to district, just like it does in different regions of India. One of the most extreme districts that MASVAW works in is Bundelkhand, which is known for its legendary female icons, Rani of Jhansi (a woman whose bravery is celebrated with a masculine eulogy, Khoob ladi mardani, woh toh Jhansi waali Rani thhi) and Phoolan Devi, but where the practice of sati is still glorified by cultural traditions.


Simone de Beauvoir encapsulated men's resistance to introspect and change when she said, "A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male... A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man."

The Indian man seems stuck in a time warp. Mukul Kesavan, social observer and acerbic columnist, has had the last word on this. 'Indian men aren't born ugly: they achieve ugliness through practice. It is their habits and routines that make them ugly.' He has a list of three Hs that make the Indian man decidedly ugly: 'hygiene, hair and horrible habits'. And why? 'I think it comes from a sense of entitlement that's hard-wired into every male child that grows up in an Indian household.' He wrote this a few years ago, but round up any man on the street and see if he doesn't fit this description.

Meanwhile, the Indian woman has changed in large parts of the country, threatening the established doctrines of masculinity, taking away the role of protector/ provider from men. Women are more visible than ever before, in the workforce, on the streets and public transport and in media and entertainment. Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth, who has been researching masculinity in India, says that what we are seeing is a manifestation of the anxiety brought about by change. "It is a much more unsettled situation. The structures of work are changing, more women are working and have access to financial independence. There is far more interaction between men and women. Women from small towns are migrating to the city. But old structures are still in place. It's through women that men derive their sense of honour, and those who can control their women, wives, sisters and daughters are seen as better men. In a world that is changing rapidly, men have remained unchanged in India, and that is the source of the conflict."

An important area where masculinity plays out is in sexual relations, which only unsettles the Indian man even more. Writer Ira Trivedi, in her book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, argues that India is in the throes of a sexual revolution. Hindi cinema seems to confirm this hypothesis. The metaphor of nodding flowers was laid to rest a while ago, and it is now a rare movie that does not casually throw in pre-marital sex.

"Indian men have been suppressed for so long, and suddenly they have easy access to pornography on their phones," says Rochie Rana, a voiceover artist from Delhi. "It makes them want to live out their fantasies. But they are mostly pathetic lovers, gauche and unpractised."

To re-imagine itself, masculinity in India could consider taking cues from less rigid aspects of the country's heritage. In Hindu mythology, the standard gender divides of society are not to be found. We have gods taking male and female forms. As mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik says in an email interview: 'God is not just masculine, neither is Goddess only feminine.' He turns the entire argument on its head. 'As a people,' he says, 'we tend to define ourselves through the eyes of the other. In the 19th century, Indians were described as effeminate. In the 21st century, we are being described as hyper- masculine rapists. We have accepted both opinions as truths, not realising that they serve the White Man's civilising gaze. In the 19th century, our gods were visualised without six-pack muscles, with a gentle maternal gaze. Now, they increasingly have muscles and scars and angry looks. Clearly, we don't trust our view of ourselves. The hyper-masculine Indian male is in my view the construction of the Western--and later feminist--gaze, and is now firmly endorsed by Hindutva forces. I don't know how 'real' it is.'

All images have been provided by Open Magazine.

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