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Not a far cry

Manik Sharma | Updated on July 20, 2018

Tear away: Our ideas of conservative masculinity have for centuries declared sensitive men as weak and febrile   -  REUTERS/CARL RECINE

Sport is all about thrill and excitement, but it also offers the sight of vulnerable men

The FIFA Football World Cup final ends in two eventualities, a winner, and a collection of players (we are talking about only the men’s tournament here) overwhelmed by the emotion of either losing or winning. The lasting image of Sunday’s final was that of a disconsolate Luka Modrić holding his player of the tournament trophy, seemingly incapable of enjoying the moment. On the other side, Antoine Griezmann, a World Cup winner with France, wept in near-disbelief.

Sport offers thrill and excitement but what it also offers is the sight of men, vulnerable through both elation and dejection. Rarely do we see a side of men that redeems their masculinity from the metallic definition of shape, size and tautness of the body. Our ideas of conservative masculinity have for centuries declared sensitive men as weak and febrile, or worse — if you believe some — feminine. The sight of tough, grown men breaking down on the most visible of occasions must, therefore, be a reassuring sign of the existence of a levelled landscape, where pride and sensitivity can look each other in the eye.

One of my clearest memories of watching the underwhelming Indian cricket team of the ’90s is of an inconsolable Vinod Kambli, being ushered off the pitch at Eden Gardens in the final of the 1996 World Cup. Up until then, I had consumed cricket as a sport whose constitution was largely physical. Yes, the totemic victory and loss did exist, but the latter seemed as obligatory as the former seemed distant. Further, I had seen brawn men be tacit and aggressive on the field, but hardly as frail or dispirited as Kambli seemingly felt that day. His tears registered the emotion that people invest in sport, and ultimately in the other tasks of life, however modest or inconsequential. To see Kambli submit to a moment where he just couldn’t keep it together translated as the annulment of this unofficial contract Indian men have with the statisticians of human fragility.

The limits of this closed constitution of masculinity are, however, as vast as our history. The tears in our mythological texts are largely shed by women. Our films have always cast emotionally fragile men as either naïve, or perpetually drunk, appearing as victimised or injudiciously delivered to that moment of weakness; out of place, one way or the other. Rarely has the Indian male protagonist bawled on screen, sunk or silently shed a tear at the imminence of a tense moment or release from it.

There is then the disdain that expression of fragility invites. “Ladki ke jaisa rona nahin (don’t cry like girls), we have all heard growing up; a statement that patronises both women and sensitivity. In the company of men, like I was in school, that sentiment is ever more aggressive in its rejection. “Chhakko ki tarah ro mat (don’t weep like a eunuch)”, boys would tell anyone who cried. Locating sensitivity in abnormality and identifying it through minorities is commonplace in our culture. Tragically, this culture extends from the young to the oldest of men, those who partake in WhatsApp groups that are the polar opposite of each other in terms of ethic and restraint. To these men, the image of a man crying is as outlandish and unbecoming of male character as their heroes would be — because “mard ko dard nahi hota (men don’t feel pain/hurt)”. Which is why most role models young men choose are impenetrable, spun in gossamer that deflects the slightest of emotional queries.

Bollywood has contributed generously to our ideas of masculinity. Our men cry at losses, but not at longing, not at being outdone by inevitability, not at being calamitously tricked by faith or at the struggle of pulling through an average life. That role has always been assigned to women. Be it the saas-bahu serials on television or the tragic love stories of the ’90s, popular cinema and entertainment took their women as easy outlets for the letting-loose moment. Even the template of our marriage tips at the bride’s vidaai, a moment where she is expected to only cry, turns eyes into judgemental lenses. At no point has the potential of the man to be overawed by the occasion been considered. Not because he does not, but because it is assumed he won’t.

To classify sensitivity as the sole preserve of women is self-defeating. In the hands of men who revel in toxicity, this definition has become an impediment to channelling any form of constructive discourse. The most morbidly aggressive men are usually the first to make this distinction, perhaps because it elevates their sense of self. Consequently, the moderate men dissipate, for they must choose, either to hide or to suppress emotions. To which the sight of such strong-willed men, at the very zenith of sporting accomplishment, shedding tears on both sides of a definitive result is more than just reassuring. Evidence that the sporting summits can be reached without having to separate the heart from the body, masculinity from its pride.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture

Published on July 20, 2018

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