By Sohini Chatterjee
The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Prpositions
Author: Mukul Kesavan
Publisher: Permanent Black, 2015/2008
As a student of international relations, who habitually veers towards the literary text and criticism section of a library, or the benignly named ‘Arts Section,’ as in ours, I could be accused of turning traitor to a discipline in which my academic interest and commitment ought to lie. But there are traitors everywhere. The pervasiveness of their presence is only matched by the depth of their treason. I may not admit to routinely indulging (unabashedly and audaciously) in the sinister act of betrayal, but I would still forcefully argue that I am invested in pushing the margins of a discipline for those yet to grace academia, and blurring the boundary lines between them, which continually threaten to choke creative freedom. The interdisciplinary nature of my work reeks of betrayal towards the discipline I supposedly owe my commitment to.
At the cost of repetition, I have to tell you that vipers can be found without serious effort. Examples of their perfidy lie scattered, take different forms, and have myriad motivations serving as justification, or worse, righteousness. They often live in serious denial of the fine art of infidelity, all except Kesavan, who appears unapologetic of the cult of masculinity. As I picked up Mukul Kesavan’s provocatively titled, The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (Permanent Black, 2015/2008), I imagined a brazen subversion honoring every page of his eloquent non-fiction collection of essays and poems. I longed to find an ally in Kesavan who, at first sight, seems to distance himself from the (average) Indian males he lampoons as he begins to decimate the myth of their generosity, kindness and likeable presence, with the help of a title which prides itself on an irreverent masculinity.
Living the life of a feminist, (a large part of which) involves repeatedly assuring men that I am not against them is no mean feat. You can be shoved, groped, pushed around, denied your rights, raped or killed but please remember, not all men hate women. Additionally, you have to admit (at least in the privacy of your thoughts), that most men are imaginative. You have to give credit where it is due. But then how do you explain the book in your hand? Does Mukul Kesavan challenge the collective imagination of self-assured Indian men and their widely proclaimed prophetic, messianic existence on earth? Is he the feminist’s unquestioned accomplice in smashing patriarchy? I stayed with these questions till Kesavan’s critical agenda was revealed to me, which did not take long.
In the beginning, Kesavan does seem to be calling out on the ugliness of the Indian male, both inherited and acquired. The book is divided into four parts: Looking, Reading, Travelling, and Politics. With every page, his narrative gets intensely political. However, we must desist from making a judgment on the quality and critical rigour of the book through its first few chapters; persistence is rewarded and the writing becomes stronger.
At the start Kesavan’s ‘voice’ is not quite serious; he appears to ease the reader into his style of writing, to allow them familiarity with his intelligent quips before he can trust them enough to bring out the big guns of critique.
The book begins with the declaration of the ugliness of Indian men, with reference to cinematic representations, especially. Kesavan looks at ‘heroes’ unkindly and says, “Indian cinema favours good-looking women and bad looking men because its audiences consist of good-looking women and bad-looking men. It’s rude to say this but the first thing that strikes the eye gazing upon India is that the men can be nearly as ugly as sin. The contrast between them and Indian women is striking: how delicate and vivid Indian women are, and how coarse, dull, and squab-like the men.”
Not only does he call them ugly but he also points out their narcissism, undeserved luck and obtuse aspirations. “Indian heroes look the way they do because those desperate male audiences pay money to watch men like themselves succeed with beautiful women.” He acknowledges that women, often unwittingly just settle for ugly men. And women accept this reality, which explains the success of ‘ugly’ men as heroes in Indian cinema.
Not only is this the ugliness of face, it is also ugliness of “hygiene, hair, and horrible habits.” Dirt-filled, yellowish nails grace fingers which make boogies see the light of day after they have been laboriously scavenged from the depths of nostrils. The genital area is a frequently visited zone for a solo male traveler. Ear buds are rendered redundant as the Indian male finds greater pleasure in employing the little finger for the job. The Indian man is unashamed and appears indifferent to the self-censoring manners of the well-heeled. He has an uncanny, if not obsessive, attachment to his moustache (emblematic of esteemed masculinity), and to rings, necklaces, religious threads tied around wrists. He eats with his mouth open; you can hear him gulping down his food at a neighbouring table. He swallows his snort loudly as well.
Kesavan acknowledges the folly of his kind, admits to their unbound ugliness and provides an explanation as to why they wallow in it, because despite everything that is unsavory and despicable about them, they are confident in their relationship with women. His criticism is piercing and unsparing, his text rich and lucid at the same time, while being generously scattered with witticisms which resist the temptation of being vapid.
However, I should have remembered the old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover, before enthusiastically seizing the book. This is not an all out admonishment of Indian masculinity. Its critical agenda is far wider in scope. ‘The other propositions’ dominate the experience of reading this book but, to be fair to Kesavan, it does prove to be a delightful read. These propositions include his various commentaries on Hindi cinema, sports, documentaries, media culture and the politics of looking, reading and travelling.
Kesavan writess that our enthusiasm for sports is not for the games themselves but for the hearty dose of nationalism they bring. In this regard, even beauty contests are watchable. Watching sport does not demand neutrality from the onlooker. You have to take sides. While watching cricket, if India isn’t playing, Kesavan would support West Indies, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. “In that order,” he stresses. And the team which can never hope of finding favour from him is South Africa. He writes, “South Africa! How much I loathe thee, let me count the ways. One, South African players are clean cut and disciplined and zealous, sort of monster boy scouts. Two, the team’s full of born again Christians who keep invoking the Lord. Three, they’re so white. Four, they keep beating us, so I want others to beat them.”
He confesses that his perennial search for underdogs underlines his sport viewing preferences. Can our politics be detached from our choices of watching competitive sport where winning and losing are far less complicated, and the oddities of diplomacy, foreign policy and security measures defining national interest are absent? Through sports, we live our pride vicariously.
He reflects on the politics of looking, critiques the act of presentation and provides a commentary on how media is responsible for different kinds of realities. In death, Princess Diana became the new Mother Teresa through various representations of her greatness. Diana’s humanitarian work was exaggeratedly highlighted in death. However, the passing of Mother Teresa, undoubtedly the greater humanitarian of the two, did not create similar ripples in international media. Some even provided reasons why Diana’s work holds more credibility than Teresa’s. Kesavan explains how a glamour hungry media presents truth after distorting reality beyond recognition.
Mukul Kesavan assumes the onerous responsibility of providing new perspectives to a wide range of subjects. His treatment appears daringly truthful. He emphasizes the need for historical fiction. His premise seems to be that history must be contextual. Protagonists in a novel must not be distracted by the experiences and influences of history. He reads Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and thinks of it as a whimsical representation of history. He looks to Rushdie for hidden political meanings and metaphors for India in the aftermath of partition. He speaks of his politically naive love for Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and rues its covert anti-Semitism in the same breath. He stresses the oppositional nature of reading for pleasure and being politically aware as an individual. Kesavan tries to live true to his political consciousness.
He reflects on India’s print media. Kesavan writes regular columns for The Telegraph, an English language daily from Kolkata. He says that the chaotic harvest of our multicultural and multilingual coexistence in India is succinctly ensconced within the pages of our English dailies. These speak the truth to power and escape persecution because, although the language may have assumed citizenship in multilingual India, it is still viewed as an intruder. English is the ‘other’ but its views and opinions may have an element of neutrality. However, such benefit of doubt is not extended to the vernacular press which is perceived as being too close to home to speak uncomfortable truths. Bal Thackeray may take umbrage with The Maharashtra Times for writing anything seemingly derogatory about him or his politics but The Times of India won’t immediately be taken to task for such audacity. Kesavan also stresses the vanity associated with reading English newspapers, which makes the reader resist the possibility of being “backward, unsophisticated and provincial”. As he says, “This is a posture that’s hard to sustain on third world incomes, amid an urban squalor, surrounded by violent sectarianism of every kind. India’s English newspapers reflect this tension: they are ingratiating, illiterate, knowing, shallow and self-important; they are also, in varying degrees, pluralist, moderate, liberal, and determinedly pan-Indian.”
Kesavan is not always agreeable. He speaks of the rush of digital news on the internet which is indistinguishable from opinion pieces or commentary. “In their patronage of blogs, in their willingness to allow readers in, you can see newspapers grow webbed feet and gills as this earthbound creature learns to swim in a more fluid medium.” Kesavan expresses clear disdain, appearing condescending towards the form and content of digital media, which has revolutionized its culture to a great extent. He is not impressed with the impact or reach of this 24/7 “repetitive” news production and how it keeps stories alive in public memory. His bias towards print media seems exclusionary and elitist.
The travel section of the book pales in comparison to the other sections. The section on travel lacks his trademark wit; his writing style is less probing, he examines little and lowers our expectation of him as a writer. He compares the experience of living in a community in Brooklyn with that of New Delhi, where the idea of community is understood differently. Kesavan’s travels to the West allow him to reflect on how cultures of communal living vary across spatial realms. He speaks of the meaning of the word community, and how (for example) during Halloween people come together to celebrate collective happiness while living individuated lives, which are impassive to community at all the other times. There is no historical memory to bind them together and they are conspicuous in their absence when compared to those in India. Communities have no anchorage in history but are built up mechanically in the West.
As a fan of Amitav Ghosh’s writing, I was delighted when Kesavan met Amitav Ghosh in Egypt. This chapter provides insight into the person behind the aura of a famed writer. Ghosh speaks Arabic which was sometimes a boon and sometimes a bane. He and Kesavan were thought of as locals and refused a room in a hotel which did not want to deal with locals. Then they were thought of as smugglers in a café and asked to show their passports which made the otherwise placid Amitav Ghosh mutter profanities before storming out.
On cartographic politics, Kesavan stresses, “Kanyakumari isn’t the end of the Indian earth and North and South aren’t directions, they are unequal castes. England sits on top of Europe but Sri Lanka hangs off India’s bottom like a sticky turd. Why? If this space is going round and round in black space with no beginning or end why should England be North and Sri Lanka South?”
Kesavan’s political musings take up a lot of space in this book. This section starts with a look at his life during the Emergency, when he writes, “The Emergency gave the institutional hierarchies the opportunity to live their coercive fantasies.” The rules of his college changed or modified to impose a stricter code of conduct. The author’s father was summoned by Maneka Gandhi’s office, then editor of Surya India. Allowing his father’s comment about Gandhi being ‘a chit of a girl’ appears uncouth for a progressive academic like Kesavan who usually denigrates misogynistic practices and narratives through his work.
Kesavan comments on French secularism, which denies citizens their right to carry religious markers like the Hijab into public life. It thus attempts to homogenize identities through purposefully ignoring difference. He is not discomfited by the sight of Hijab-wearing women in Jamia Milia Islamia, where he teaches History. His idea of secularism is a respect of plurality, the one practiced in India which differs significantly from the Western understanding of secularism as the separation of the church and the state. When Irfan Pathan and Sania Mirza’s Islamic identities are invoked time and again, and journalists are blamed, Kesavan finds it problematic. In fact, he would see them as “good omens” as their presence in sports ensures that being from a minority community is not an obstacle to success in India and our secular ethic permits such success and invocation. His public morality is sometimes in conflict with his private view which considers veiling a conservative practice, if not a slightly redundant one, but he is respectful of the practice because despite religious conservatism, women are allowed to have an education.
He writes that the ghosts of partition still hover in the psyche of political elites who refuse to recognize the Kashmiri right to self-determination. These elites instead defend their views on the basis that India’s multicultural social reality will have to endure a Muslim-majority Kashmir in a Hindu-majority India. Kesavan finds this satisfying; however, it is not easy to understand India’s role in Kashmir and its enduring fight for the region. Kesavan’s views on this fraught matter do a great disservice, as this subject has determined the course of India’s domestic and international politics over a few turbulent decades in Indian history after independence.
Most of the pieces in the book were previously published at different points in time, mostly in magazines and newspapers. The last chapter ‘Secular Common Sense’ is an excerpt from a book of the same name, which provides a reason why Kesavan did not fully explore the possibilities of discussion in his arguments. However, there are intelligent insights from a delightful writer whose prose makes for great leisure reading, if one is not looking for the greatest literary experience. I felt the section on politics could have been more critical and insightful. Perhaps he was under an obligation to follow the editorial style of a particular magazine or newspaper. He has, however, raised some questions, which are of critical importance to our understanding of contemporary world politics.
Sohini Chatterjee is presently reading for an MA in International Relations and writes primarily on gender, culture and politics. Her writings have previously appeared in The Huffington Post India, The Indian Economist, Global Voices, among others.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Beat and the Hungry generation: When losing became hip’, edited by Goirick Brahmachari, poet & Abhimanyu Kumar, poet/journalist, New Delhi, India.