The whole question of what it means to be a man in modern India is a vexed one. Notions of morality, sexuality, nationalism, consumerist desire and the anxiety produced by modernity, to name but a few, combine to produce a reality difficult to grasp and make sense of. The retrospective masculinisation of tradition, which seems to find expression in more assertive and muscular visions of nationalism, coexist with the increasing fetishisation and commodification of the male body. The expanding boundaries of sexuality and the changing power relations between genders have placed man in contexts unfamiliar and often threatening and make any reading of masculinity in India a complicated issue.
In Moral Materialism..., Joseph S. Alter attempts to disentangle some of these strands and provide a refreshingly original perspective. He locates the enquiry in the desirability of celibacy and the conservation of semen from where many of the traditional notions about masculinity originate, arguing that “the whole discourse on brahmacharya is so fantastically skewed that gender...becomes a purely self-referential question rather than a problem of distinguishing between masculine and feminine attributes....” He goes on to argue that if the western notion of virility lay in a form of sexuality where “power was measured in terms of one’s ability to spend semen” or “in terms of the sex you have”, the Indian belief in celibacy was “defined by the sex you do not have”. This takes the masculinity discourse on another trajectory altogether where the concern is much more with self-control and ideas of truth than with power and domination. And although there is “a powerful moral effect on the individual’s overall health”, celibacy isn’t cast in a “puritanical or prudish sense simply by virtue of being intrinsically opposed to sex or sexuality”.
Alter presents his case through very engaging examinations of the culture surrounding akharas and wrestling, the literature and promotional material produced in support of celibacy, the many discourses around the practice of yoga and the ministrations of those peddling cures for sexual problems. In each of these, Alter combines anecdote with insight, giving us both a close-up view into the phenomenon itself as well as a pulled-out perspective that places it in context. The chapter on wrestling is particularly brilliant, for he is able to evoke both the texture and smell of the akhara as well as undertake a nuanced dissection of ideas of desire, discipline, competitiveness, balance and order—what he calls the “poetics of fluid movement”.
Alter’s key contribution is to substantially deepen the reader’s understanding of the question by separating as well as reconciling some of the perplexing questions involved. For the lay reader, the book is well worth the effort. As with many books of its kind, this is a collation of some previously written papers and hence the reading tends to be a little uneven; there is some repetition and there are issues with sequence, but those are minor quibbles. Overall, this is a fascinating examination of a very real question and helps remove some of the nagging doubts that dog the easy explanations proffered while examining what it means to be a man in modern India.