Book Excerpts

What It Means to Be a Man

Prachi Gangwani | Updated on November 19, 2021

On #InternationalMen’sDay, an excerpt from Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeTooIndia, a book that explores how Indian men across ages navigate romantic relationships in a country that is still teetering on the cusp of modern and traditional

‘One, two, three… these Russian hookers came to our room and stood in a line.’ —Pranav, thirty-one

I’m at a family lunch. I scan the room for someone who’d make me the least uncomfortable and gravitate towards a cousin and her husband who are ten and thirteen years my senior respectively. They have a seventeen-year-old daughter who, from the looks of it, is being raised with progressive values. By this, I mean, she’s a class topper. Every year, she travels unchaperoned by parents to study abroad for a semester. Her parents and grandparents boast about her academic achievements, and she seems to be on the path of joining the 3.7 per cent female top brass.

I want to hang out with her parents. Ten minutes in, I start telling them that I’m working on a book about gender and romance. I keep it generic because, at the time of this conversation, the book was still in its nascent stage. ‘The problem is,’ my cousin’s husband begins, ‘women nowadays want to be like men — they want to hold jobs, drink, smoke, use abusive language…but they can’t. They can’t ever be like men, and now they are becoming less and less like women. They are losing their worth.’

I am shocked at the contradiction between his emphasis on his daughter’s education, and his belief that women wanting to work is an overstep. Then, I think about the many educated women out there who gave up their professional aspirations for domestic duties. For many people in our country, the definition of womanhood lies in her being domestic and free of vice. And the definition of manhood means to have a job, drink, smoke and use abusive language. This is an apt example of what toxic masculinity is — to box men as money-making machines with reckless vices and no regard for their health, and of course, bad manners.

Where does this leave men who find joy in cooking and having leisurely conversations with their loved ones, men who find bliss in being fathers, men who choose not to be a part of boys’ clubs where they only drink, smoke and talk about their bank balances and the big deals they cracked, men who are polite? Well, with their partners and families, away from the boys’ club.

Pranav and Dhruv went to college together. They were two among a group of five boys who were extremely close. During the three years they spent at Delhi University (DU), they had most of their meals together, spent many drunk nights on the paying guest (PG) terrace where three of the five lived, learnt how to cook, made and lost girlfriends, travelled to McLeod Ganj and Goa several times, and swore to be friends forever.

After graduation, higher education and jobs took three of them to different cities, leaving Pranav and Dhruv behind in Delhi. The five of them stayed in touch. They would get together at least twice a year. Then they fell in love. Now in their thirties, all of them are married. Two have kids.

Dhruv is one of the two fathers in the group. When his wife started showing, Dhruv began visiting the neon-lined streets of Mahipalpur in Delhi — a busy marketplace by day and a prostitution hub by night. At Pranav’s house, he tells me why he isn’t in touch with the group anymore.

We are six months into the pandemic, and Pranav and his wife have not stepped out of the house yet. I’m their third visitor in six months. Pranav makes chai for us as he tells me about Dhruv, while his wife gets mugs and snacks in place. ‘You know he took me there one night. I was shocked! He just said, “Chal baahar chalte aaj (Let’s go out).” And he took me to this shady hotel. He said let’s get a room and drink araam se. So we ordered a bottle, and started with our drinks.

Then...’ He pauses and raises both his eyebrows. His jaw drops, as if he’s visualizing what he’s about to tell me next. Behind him, his wife shakes her head and rolls her eyes. ‘One, two, three… these Russian hookers came to our room and stood in a line. I was shocked. I didn’t even know this happens in Delhi! I just couldn’t believe it.’

Pranav texted his wife and asked her to call and feign an emergency so he could get out of the seedy hotel. ‘That’s the only time he’s ever done something like that. Otherwise, he’s always the last to leave a place.’

That night marked the beginning of the unraveling of ‘toxic masculinity’ in the group. The next time the five of them were back together in Delhi, Dhruv suggested the boys make a visit to Mahipalpur, while the wives could have a girls’ night.

When Pranav protested, he was made fun of. ‘Yaar, don’t you get bored of the same routine with the wife?’ ‘Ha ha. You’re a sissy!’ ‘The wife keeps you on a tight leash.’

We, as a society, can’t handle men who show a sensitive side. Take a moment to consider how people react when a man cries as opposed to when a woman does the same. Both in reel life and real life, we don’t see enough healthy representations of a man expressing sadness. In pop culture, a man crying is often the butt of jokes. When a woman sheds a tear or two, it is no big deal. It’s just another day, another mood, another low moment that will pass. A low moment that has no real gravity and warrants no real reaction.

It is considered ‘normal’ for women to cry, encouraged even. It doesn’t surprise or shock us, and it certainly doesn’t catch us off guard. But when a man cries, even the most progressive among us are guilty of having at least a moment where we don’t know how to respond to this display of vulnerability. We may freeze in panic, as if a man’s tears are almost a threat to the delicate balance of human interaction. We may go overboard trying to comfort him, as if he is not capable of comforting himself.

We may ignore the tears altogether because we feel that they are a manipulation tactic and aren’t in fact an expression of sadness. Or we may find ourselves overwhelmed by the sadness hidden in the tears because a man must be terribly broken to come to this point of a meltdown. Tears are considered a meltdown for a man, and an everyday occurrence for a woman.

Everybody pays a price for gender stereotypes. When women are expected to be submissive and cooperative, any act of self-preservation is immediately regarded as selfish. But men, too, pay a price for the prescription of masculinity. Or, what has come to be known as ‘toxic masculinity’.

(Prachi Gangwani is a Delhi-based writer and content creator. Gangwani runs a digital publication, Keeping Zen, which delves into relationships, sex and gender, and wellness)

About the Book

Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India

Prachi Gangwani

Bloomsbury India

Rs 599; 248 pages


Check out the book on Amazon here

Published on November 19, 2021

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