I have a friend who was once an accidental house husband. It was accidental because conventional wisdom would assume that no hot-blooded, heterosexual male would ever consciously choose to be the “Mrs” in a relationship. As it turned out, dharampati (is there a masculine equivalent for the term dutiful wife, dharampatni?) was stumbling through the initial years of an ill-chosen career and was routinely out of a job. Eventually, the “it was not in my blood” passionate reasoning for his serial unemployment ran thin and his free time met my insidious penchant for work avoidance and procrastination. We were soon afternoon phone pals. He also became my walker to book parties, which usually commence at an hour that is an attempt (I assume) at making a point to the gainfully employed. I was fascinated by his unique predicament (he’d decided that a career was not for him) and his living arrangements (he lived with his widowed mother-in-law). His consternations were conversational doppelgangers to the ones I had with married girlfriends, mostly revolving around his mother-in-law. “Don’t get me wrong,” he would start (referring to the MIL), “but guess what she did today.” This bore a familiar resonance, barring the small issue of gender, and I was soon making educated guesses.
It is suggested that post the economic slowdown in the West, there has been an increase in the number of men who handle the household while their wives have become the primary breadwinners. I witnessed an example of this during a recent stay in New York, when I happened to be navigating the cereal aisle behind two men who were in the midst of discussing an upcoming play date for their accompanying toddlers. “If that doesn’t work out,” one said to the other when I finally managed to overtake their leisurely side-by-side amble, “let’s at least try and meet for coffee.”
An economic downturn, though a compelling reason, is still an easy assessment of a phenomenon that is on the up. It suggests the finality of a forcing of hand to explain the crumbling of gender roles, as opposed to the possible exercising of free will. There is an inbuilt dissonance when it comes to a choice such as this. There is no acknowledgement of what is by most indications a silent revolution—men exercising their right to opt out of gender definitions. It is in a lot of ways their own “tie-burning” moment, sans the noise or deserved celebration. My friend’s situation is interesting and even brave for this very reason. While he did not have the excuse of a collapsing economy or a forgiving social order to explain his decision, he still made the choice he did. Admittedly, a choice he was pushed into because of a string of professional failures, but one he embraced in a way that he had not any of the jobs he had held. It was a choice that could possibly emasculate him, and it did in many eyes, but he did not notice or at least did not comment on it.
Another friend, who happens to be gay, is always irked by the curiosity of even his liberal, accepting friends who enquire about the gender roles in his relationship. “So who is the husband and who is the wife?” is the oft-repeated query. It is not merely a voyeuristic curiosity, although there is some of that. It’s also an attempt at understanding the dynamics of an intimate relationship that is so conveniently explained by gender stereotypes in the straight world. However, he always responds patiently, not in defence of who he is, but more as a way of escaping being “lost in translation”. This aspect of same gender relationships is appealing for its freedom from the shackles of the ‘she cooks and he keeps the books’ social constructs that are meant to define “the normal”. While gender stereotyping is a consequence of patriarchal dominance, one can today make a robust argument that this stereotyping can be and often is nearly as damaging for men as it has been for women.
Returning to my friend, the book parties and phone chats continued, but the MIL grew more oppressive. “Don’t get me wrong,” he started to say one afternoon and I knew his hand had been forced yet again. He had decided to get a job to “keep busy”. But not before we did our rounds of the book parties. “No one usually asks what you do,” I assured him as we arrived for the first of our many joint appearances. “And if they do?” he persisted. “Just say you are working on a book,” I suggested only half-jokingly. And that was what he did, till it didn’t matter anymore.
(Advaita Kala is a bestselling novelist)