The Dirty Indian Male

Without rape, Indian machismo is incomplete. It seeks security and upholds honour through ­violence on the other, argues Shiv Visvanathan.
Illustration by R. Prasad

The Indian male is a creature full of paradoxes. Spoilt by women, he responds by being an absolute patriarch. His patriarchy is a two-tier system: he is nationalist in public and patriarch at home. He is the rhetorical vigilante patrolling the streets for deviance. He plays gau rakshak to the state. At home, he is rakshak of the female body. His two great turfs—the nation-state and the female body—are marked by boundedness. As a maintainer of boundaries, he becomes controller of excesses, examiner of morals, protecting both the body and the body politic.

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There is something schizophrenic about him. He wants excess for himself and restraint around his women. Oddly, his ideal woman is the mother, whose sacrifice, restraint and duty he celebrates. The mother is the equivalent of the self-disciplined nurturing state. But from his other women, he demands excess or prescribes it for himself. The sexual revolution as a new set of technologies or values has not touched him. For him, the condom insults masculinity. His masculinity becomes an overall metaphor for his behaviour. He seeks machismo in all walks, from decision-making to technology. He wants the nuclear bomb and the national security state. Yet, he is never sure of his potency. As a masculine hawk, he suffers from missile enemy. In fact, I have always wondered at the male fascination for the word security. Security encloses, bounds, protects and captures his umbilical sense of potency. In defence, at home he seeks security and argues for surveillance.

In an odd way, the Indian male is a repressed creature. Conditioned by fixed categories, he is predictable in his sexual and career choices, thinks the world ends between accountancy, engineering and medicine. Living in a limited world, he is bored by 40. He dulls out, begins a second adolescence at 50, mellowed only by a touch of religion. In fact, despite all restraints, India is one country where the men get duller after 40, and women somehow appear more interesting. If we look at all the interesting activists from Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy to Indira Jai Singh and Ela Bhatt, Irom Sharmila to the new tribal activists, one senses women forever at ease about sexuality and hegemony.

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Oddly, it is the man who is repressed and, in his repression, seeks to suppress others or pursue a certain hypocrisy, as a basic morality. He legislates separately about men and women. In fact, I would maintain the khap panchayat and the national security state have a lot in common. In both, security stems from controlling anxieties and, as anxiety-maintaining mechanisms, both tend to be violent and vicious. It is as if both, in repressing themselves, have to allow for an excess of violence on the other. An orgy of violence and an orgasm become emotional equivalents. When one watches any violent event from AFSPA cases to the riots in Gujarat, violence needs rape as a consummator event. It is rape that becomes the trademark of masculinity and the impunity that accompanies it. Without rape, Indian machismo is incomplete.

Next to security, the most suspect term is honour. Honour is not a sense of grace or dignity; it is a proprietorial sense of respect created almost as ownership. If a woman transgresses, she must pay. Honour killing becomes a ritual for maintaining male honour. It is almost as if honour is a potency that is renewed through acts of honour killing. It is the status of the male that is important. Women become a dispensable form of honour-maintenance.

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This sense of honour killing hides the greatest secret of the Indian family—incest. Incest is almost blatant in India and seen as sociological excess, a catharsis for the Indian male subject to alienation and migration. Yet it is incest that makes a lie of everything he states. One is always surprised that rape generates so much scandal, but incest is treated as a secret, a tacit world no one talks about. I wonder if India has the courage to confront incest statistics. The hypocrisy of the Indian male operates between the tacit world of incest and the ‘alleged’ scandal of rape.

He plays gau rakshak to the state.... he is ­rakshak of the ­female body. His two turfs—the ­nation state and the female body—are marked by boundedness.

Oddly, the Indian man working like a frenetic pump, full of leakages, has little sense of the erotic. An erotic world seems part of the nostalgia of history. His idea of courtship is more a bumbling Punch and Judy show than a ritual to be enjoyed. The missingness of the erotic in contemporary life might explain why boundaries and boundedness become so obsessive in male life. Eroticism needs a more fluid sense of the other, the powers of language, bodily rituals that are now confined to a mechanical use of deodorants.

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One has to add to this the sheer boringness of marriage. Husband and wife have little to say to each other. Conversation for pleasure is at a discount. If one watches an Indian family at a restaurant, the men eat in lonely splendor, while the women spend time catering to children. There is little sense of delic­acy, the ease of gossip. It is almost as if the family is caught between duty and transgression, sacrifice and excess. There is little sense of courtship or poetry after 40.

Illustration by R. Prasad

It is as if power replaces sexuality as the new aphrodisiac. Work or gossip about work becomes a substitute for sexuality. The Indian male appears like an engine that has sputtered out at 40. I think there is a silent tragedy here that needs an archaeology, a retelling where men bum out but do not realise it. It is the sputtering male unable to confront his overall impotency that becomes the custodian of morals, the inquisitor of khap panchayats, the judge who condemns all rape victims as agents of their own destruction.

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It is not the individualistic Freud we need in India, but a collective psychology of male Rorschachs enacting out the tragedy of each male as a patient, part victim-part perpetrator in a world he rarely comprehends. His patriarchy simplifies the complexity of the world he faces where the body, sensuality, technology and morals have changed, while he plays the last Victorian, a creature out of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, a classic study of oppression and repression.

Fundamental to the difference in attitudes between the genders is the way we construct the body. For men, the ­women’s body is a turf, a piece of territoriality. They also read it as a symbol of civilisational values and dictate conform­ity to it. There is a doubling here we must understand. Women as sisters or wives are the domain of honour, but other women have no symbolic value. The women, as other, is an object of contempt, for use. Sadly, a raped woman becomes a piece of soiled goods, someone whose pollution threatens the honour of the family. In fact, the narratives constructed around the event tend to blame the women for her humiliation. A gangraped woman is abandoned territory. A search for justice seems remote between a moral code where women are property and a code that allows licence and impunity to men. The institutional reflection is the khap panchayat, which deals more with honour and pollution than the requirements of justice. Even attempts to negate such an attitude do not pass muster.

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I was recently looking at advertisements by Farhan Aktar and John Abraham speaking of a man as he who defends woman. As messages, they are weak—the kind of utterances that one would hear in a Rotary Club meeting. Farhan and John Abraham seem more like boy scouts uttering the expected oath, enacting a piece of civic duty than actors providing power and meaning to the role. Their resolutions sound like individualistic testimonies, well-­intentioned, but they hardly breach the code of community values. In fact, that is part of the problem of reform. The ‘good male’ of reform and advertisements appears superficial and skin-deep. He does probe into the primordiality of violence at the core of rape or harassment. As a cynic observed, even a condom advertisement summons more melodrama and emotion than the anti-rape advertisements. The message has to go beyond civic duty and boy scout resolutions and touch at the core of values and emotions that we rarely discuss. About the only time I have seen a directive that made sense was in Punjab after Partition. Here the religious authority insisted that women who were raped should be taken back by their families. There was no room for negotiation. One has to reach this sense of community value and depth. Mere secular laws may not be the right alchemy for such attitudes.

In fact, one wonders whether law by itself can bring about this change. Sanitised law, even at its legislative best, does not touch the primordiality of rape. When gangrape becomes an act to be conducted with impunity, a mere sentence for a few years lacks a moral equivalence. One needs a sense of justice, which is more epic, something with a touch of Greek theatre, where fate, nature and civics combine to create a cathartic resolution.

The social sciences, as they stand today, are too antiseptic to provide such narratives. We need literature and language plumbing the body, creating an archaeology of emotions that touches something in the unconscious of a man, the very core of his self to bring about the change. One needs a virtual metanoia; a literal alchemy of the spirit to create that change because what we are seeking is not a repair in plumbing but a civilisational change. Greek tragedy had that sense of language and poignancy. Modern Anglo-Saxon law often sounds cosmetic in its impact on rape. The silence of literature about incest is also Kafkaesque.

One senses little empathy for the women in that existential situation where the social in any ethical emotional sense ­abandons her. The poignancy of that isolation has to be grasped by law almost in a phenomenological sense. Only then can rape be responded to.

I think law and reform need to forge a new creative link between the body and the body politic, where a violation of a woman’s body literally stirs a tremor in the body politic. Think of an acid attack today and the pain and humiliation a woman has to undergo. Merely publishing a picture of it as an act of media piety makes little sense. At best, one sees the male as a deviant or a pervert. In ordinary news, the acid-thrower like the bride-­burner with a love for kerosene needs to face ostracism, a sense that his act has alienated him from the body politic. To treat him as a smaller kind of arsonist or petty thief bowdlerises the problem. Society has to provide rituals of response, the eloquence of language that goes beyond the antiseptic measure of law and language letting down the demands of justice here.

In a broader sense, I think rather than an immediate panacea, which has about the same effectiveness as books on personality development, or placebo cures, what we need are acts of storytelling, sites for conversation where the silences of Indian sexual life are subject to discussion and exorcism. However, between repression and censorship, there appears to be little chance for it. The male, the Indian male, will go down as one of the most repressed and coercive archetypes of this century.


(Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad who has recently published Theatres of Democracy: Between the Epic and Everyday.)

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