Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
Many people have their own ideas about what it means to identify as a man. The idea of man or the ideal man for me has also evolved over the years. It is an idea that is not static and may evolve with the progression of time.
The societal pressures play a part in a man’s choices with respect to his career path, and by extension, the life path, making them a tad constricted. An average middle-class man in India is expected to finish his education, get a job, either as an officer in the Government or as a Corporate professional, settle down (which is a euphemism for marriage) as early as possible, have children and raise them well. Then the same cycle is repeated with the children.
A man also has to defy certain expectations of his parents and family, including at times extended family, to choose a different path and if he doesn’t appear to succeed initially, then the pressure on him increases drastically. The pressure of doing well in the chosen field is immense and the chances of success are uncertain with the possibility of failure looming large. Some people even wait for such an epicaricacy. But, I believe that such pressures have always been there on men and maybe there even in future. It is up to the individual to deal positively with them and overcome them.
At a different level, there are also facile correlations between being a man (read machismo) and development of certain habits. At an impressionable age, many young men start consuming alcohol or smoking because of peer influence to identify as men. But, how can substance dependence be considered a sign of identifying as men? The people who consume such items are doing so eventually out of their own choice and for their own reasons and those who do not consume such items cannot be considered lesser ‘men’.
I am not a firm believer in the correlation between such habits and bravery, with possibly the sole exception being the story of the origin of the phrase Dutch courage. Bravery is in one’s mind and does not have any connection with intoxicating substances, which actually impact the functioning of the mind. Similarly, there are those who feel that they ought to identify as men by indulging in promiscuity. There have been times when I have faced ridicule and peer pressure on this matter.
At a common friend’s party a few weeks back, a good friend after downing a few drinks, ridiculed another friend and I for our ‘failure’ to impress women beyond casual conversations. This was just after a few female guests had left and he was perhaps under the belief that they had gone gaga over him. Incidentally, he has been fond of quite a few men who have had multiple partners such as Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan.
Since I was still in control of my senses, I remember retorting that his ridiculous points did not really need a rebuttal, that we must behave properly since we were at the residence of our common friend who had invited us and the least we could have done was to respect him. However, the other common friend (who had also been ridiculed) and he almost got into fisticuffs. I believe that there are still those who identify as men by believing in fidelity and not in promiscuity.
A common misconception is that men who are brave do not cry. Men also express their emotions through various ways; crying is just one of them. In fact, crying is as normal an emotion as can be. In the year 2000, cricketer Kapil Dev in an interview with journalist Karan Thapar sobbed almost inconsolably when his name was dragged into the match-fixing scandal. Kapil Dev was the captain of the team that first won the cricket world cup for India against the mighty West Indies on 25 June 1983.
Speaking at the farewell of Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad on 9 February 2021, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ghulam Nabi Azad got emotional and cried in the Rajya Sabha.
Around 8 years back, during Monsoon as it rained heavily outside, I watched the Hindi film Lootera, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, in a multiplex. The film was partly inspired by O Henry’s short story The Last Leaf published in 1907. I am normally not the kind who cries while watching a movie, but towards the poignant end of the movie as the song, “Mujhe chhod do mere haal pe, zinda hoon year kaafi hai (let me be on my own, I’m alive, that’s enough)” in Amit Trivedi’s voice started playing, I realized that I had tears in my eyes.
As soon as I realized that I was actually crying while listening to the beautiful composition by Amit Trivedi, I also looked around to make sure that no one saw me cry (I was relieved to see around me other faces looking emotionally at the big screen).
Though many men may be reticent, they have emotions too. It is just that they may not express these emotions and as I have recounted, they cry too, mostly in private but at times in public.
One other aspect usually associated with identifying as a man is that of displaying bravery under adversarial circumstances. There is nothing wrong in such an association, but there may be times when men cannot throw caution to the wind. Last year, I was assaulted and my car was damaged by two ruffians in broad daylight on the main road in the capital of India. I am not embarrassed to admit that I was relentlessly kicked and punched by them till a few passersby stopped and came to my help.
Even as I was receiving the punches on my face and head in the middle of the road, I wanted to retaliate but restrained myself from doing so, for I was then apprehensive about the ruffians possessing any kind of weapon. I took legal recourse and went to the police station and filed a complaint afterwards.
Sometimes, I admonish myself for behaving in a timid manner when the two ruffians were assaulting me but then I console myself by remembering that discretion is the better part of valour.
Another quality that is identified with a man is responsibility. The quality of responsibility can span almost anything. A man taking the Central Railway local train in the morning from Dombivli to CSMT, working as a peon at an office in Elphinstone Building at Fort in Mumbai and returning home every evening to carry on the responsibility of his family is a responsible man. A scientist or an inventor quietly working at his place of work to benefit millions of people is a responsible man.
A responsible man can also be one who treats or behaves with others with basic respect and decency. So cry whenever you feel like crying. Respect women, elders and those around as much as possible. Be responsible and even retreat from any dangerous situation, if necessary. Even Lord Krishna left the battlefield to evade Jarasandha’s army (which is why he is also called Ranchhod) Who are we then, but mere mortals!
As far as the idea of ‘man’ for me is concerned, it has ranged from fictional superheroes, such as Spiderman or Batman fighting evil forces, to men possessing physical strength or those who were good at physical activities such as sports leading to I idolizing many sportsmen such as Zinedine Zidane, Pete Sampras or Sachin Tendulkar to young men in uniform who lay down their lives to preserve the integrity of this country.
To end on a lighter note, I would say that in this age of Social Media and technology, a responsible and courageous man is also someone who is able to retain his sanity, balance and positivity on Social Media despite a lot of negativity, provocation and temptation to respond to others.
Indeed, he can be what Friedrich Nietzche in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the late nineteenth century called Übermensch or the man above, over or beyond the normal man who is like the sea that receives polluted streams from all over yet retains the purity and is not affected by them.