"A small town is a place where there's no place to go where you
—Burt Bacharach, American composer and pianist
Jaipur. A schizoid city. Neither fish nor fowl. A city on the cusp of modernity. A place of inchoate yearnings, small-town dullness, repressed sexuality, provincial cruelty. Where people knew who you were having sex with even before you lit your first post-coital cigarette! Thirty years on, in a bizarre back-to-the-future turn of events, I'm back in the city I was raised in to report on what had changed. If at all. With the men. With the city.
Honest answer? Very little.
So, what was it like then? Then it was "baudy building" Jats from rich farming country like neighbouring Sujangarh, Ganganagar; neo-royal Rajput poseurs from the innumerable, minor, impoverished-or-getting-there "thikanas"; a smattering of bania traders' sons (apart from us faceless middle-class regular types that were the floating debris of the in-transit population), who constituted the flower of Jaipur manhood. Manifested and compulsively validated by leering at every passing girl/woman. Any woman in jeans was deemed "available".
Fast forward to here and now. It is midnight. I'm at Tablu: swinging rooftop bar and popular watering hole for Jaipur yuppies at the Clarkes Amber Hotel. I'm chatting up young Rajiv, 25, criminal lawyer's apprentice from (where else?) Sujangarh, and Paramjit, 24, his "praupertie" dealer friend with abundant pectorals. Both very distracted. By the pectorals of the young, happy Ukrainian girl on the opposite table that are straining at the limits of her lycra top, whose dimpled smile is the stuff of many a Paramjit's wet dreams. "And what, to you, is a man?" I ask him. His voice is thick with unspent emotion, "Someone who f***s as many girls as possible." Touche! What does he think of Mallika, Bipasha, Malaika, Shilpa? All "available", they both assure me. And what makes them so sure, I ask. Their jaws drop. They look at me with a mixture of pity, incredulity at my naivete. "Have you seen the way they dress?" Q.E.D. Flashback from 30 years ago...girls in jeans are "available."
But then I also meet Rahul Jain, 31, jeweller-turned-IT professional, and his chartered accountant friend Kshitij Jain, 30. Laidback, easy, poised, articulate. Both chatting over their beers while their wives presumably slumber at home. Rahul's wife is a jewellery designer "who makes more than I do", he tells me smilingly. Kshitij's wife assists him in his business. "Maybe we don't answer to the small-town stereotype you have in mind," says Rahul. "I live in London part of the time." Kshitij has an astute comment: "Life is lived at multiple levels where we are. There is no one 'type'. People are many people at the same time. Traditional, mainstream, fringe, alternative.... And are comfortable being each one of them."
Single is safe, says fashion designer Puja Arya
Puja Arya, 41, divorcee, fashion designer, agrees. "Men realise that the pace of change is overtaking them. They can't accept it, but are willing to go along with it. If only not to be seen as being left behind." Seven years ago, she found it uncomfortable going out alone as a single woman. "Today, I'm more comfortable. I don't feel preyed upon." And what does she ascribe the change to? "Media, proximity to metros like Delhi, people coming back from elsewhere with an education, an open mind."
But is it all for real? Is the attitudinal gear shift just surface veneer? A strategic ploy that flatters to deceive? I ask long-time Jaipur denizen, the dimpled, glamorous, golfer, yoga instructor, socialite and woman-of-a-certain-age, Asha Bhatnagar. "Absolutely. The small-town male will affect an urbanity, a suavity that has not necessarily been internalised, which is certainly not inbred. That affability, the seeming ease is a business ploy in a get-ahead environment."
A contention difficult to disagree with. Take Rajiv and Paramjit. Both look good: gym-toned, well-dressed, well-spoken enough. Having said that, they've acquired the trappings without the internal gear shift that would make the critical difference to the social context they inhabit. Rahul Jain offers insight. "Media and money are the key drivers. Towns like Jaipur are seeing the influx of new cash-rich kids. Landholders sitting on 100 bighas are selling out to SEZs and developers at Rs 1 crore a bigha. That does have a profound effect on the culture, the attitudes, the ethos—the way these men live and think. But deep down, does it really? More money doesn't mean more mind."
So, is there a small-town man mindscape? In a media-knit, culturally homogenised environment, are there any definers that represent the quintessential small-town male? Publisher and organiser of the SYAHI literary festival, Meeta Kapoor, 41, insists there is. "While male attitudes are very similar across the board, there is a small-town differential. I find men here are either patronising or intimidated when confronted with professional women. Overall, in comparison with the larger metros, there's a percentage decline in terms of refinement, finesse and elegance, especially in the way they treat women."
Asha Bhatnagar heartily endorses that. "In progressive societies, men spend time taking you out, do the flowers-candles-dinner routine. Here? No finesse. No foreplay. They just grab your boobs!" And the thought of being rejected never occurs to them? "Not at all. Self-esteem is never low, because they are men. They are kingpins. Mothers, wives, daughters ...everyone has always told them that."
Uttam Tharyamal: "Manliness = sex + lust"
So, who is this new Jaipuria Man? "He's the guy who'll throw a lavish bash on his own birthday but not even think of doing the same for his wife," quips Kapoor. Bhatnagar differs. "This type is really the pan-Indian male. The Jaipur guy is essentially using the new urbanisation or modernity to facilitate his own 'other' life. It is easier to meet girlfriends, have clandestine paid/unpaid encounters in anonymous hotel rooms, watering holes, without anyone finding out. Dealing with more self-assured, economically independent women is to his advantage. He is able to walk away sans baggage, and any self-doubt is immediately obliterated by either amnesia or inebriation. Meanwhile, he'll conscientiously plough through his marriage, raise his picture-perfect family, marry off his preferably virgin daughter at 21 to someone exactly like him not only in caste but also in the head—so, the circle of chauvinism is complete. Convenient."
That's Jaipur, then. A city where my friend Kulsum set up her first unisex beauty parlour in 1978. She has 11 now. The last seven were opened in the last six years. Of the estimated 5,000 beauty parlours in the city, 3,000 are unisex. Lakme, Arcura, Kaya, Bodyworks: the big brands are all here and thriving. So are the gyms. Apart from the huge Talwalkar's, there's Gold's and Addiction. At last count, male grooming boutique enterprises Appearances and Affinity were frantically scouting for places...catering to Mr Jaipur. He who wants his hair coloured, permed or teased, eyebrows threaded, feet cosseted, hands kneaded, face pummelled and treated with a thousand exotic aloe vera, papaya, pineapple, cream, yoghurt, apricot, peach, banana and honey masks.
The last word must come from Jaipur Man himself. So, what is a man, I ask Uttam Tharyamal. "Sex. Lust. A man is not a man without that." Well, he said a lot else!
P.S.: The good news? There are now many places in Jaipur to go where you shouldn't.