East of Heart

Indian Men

The presence of women in public spaces is not always equal to that of men in India. I have commented for example that in Tamil Nadu and as I recently experienced in Kerala, women are very visible and actively present in public spaces, coming close to representing the actual 51% or more proportion of the total population which they comprise. But men are predominantly the ones hanging out at the chai stand or in front of their friend’s shop, young boys play on the street everywhere but not girls, and men are the ones spitting, smoking, urinating like they own the space (in Thanjavur I spotted a commander cool squat-pissing with the left hand and smoking with the right simultaneously). Women on the other hand (sic) generally appear to be up to some errand or on their way somewhere with their children.

Just like you do not see adult women and men together in public places lest they be in couples, you rarely see teenagers hanging out in mixed groups either. Because I pertain to the group of young men who are not yet married (bachelors) and I am also of the age where I would begin to ask my parents to find me a bride or getting desperate for one, my chances of interacting with any women are slim. I have even come to internalise a discomfort whenever I ask a woman for directions, it just feels improper. This has meant that traveling single, as I am described, the majority of my interactions have been and will remain mostly with men, the same as for the rest of my gender and peer group here outside of their family circles and perhaps, liberal university environments.

Men here have a much more proximate way of interacting with each other, much like in other parts of the world where men and women operate in separate social spheres and spend a lot of time outside of the household. What is interesting in India is how young men cultivate their deep fraternities with nicknames and unique physical forms of contact and dress, and how these blend with prevalent elements of machismo. Friends walk with their arms around each others’ shoulders, but they also hold hands, hold each other by the waste and the little finger. They dance and sing together at concerts. Friends sit close on the bus and sometimes one leans his head on the other’s shoulder. Stylish young men here are colourfully dressed with flashy brands and are impeccably groomed. They love to take each other’s picture and pose, with the first picture of themselves always taken on their own cellphone.

There is a tangible need to outlet affection and male peacocking in the absence of contact with women, that can lead to behaviours that at times seem quite odd to the Western eye. I go with it though: in Toronto it is clear when a man is attempting a move on you, but because sexual man to man interactions are considered taboo and are mostly hidden here, I put my cultural stereotypes aside when it gets close. My companion on the train to Trichy insisted that we were on affectionate friend name terms, he told me that I was good-looking and combed my hair for a while, he had his arm around me while we sat in the doorway when there were no seats. But he also told me about his crush on his female classmate Ash and his hopes of finding a job and reaching elligibility for marriage.

On the flip side, I was very directly offered some love in the bushes in Goa and in Trivandrum I had the bus conductor squeeze into my seat and tell me about his relationship with a Canadian man whom he would meet with every night after work. Amongst the numerous different solicitors who circulate in the trains, there are the Hijras, “a caste of transvestites and eunuchs who dress in women’s clothing” (Lonely Planet), who sometimes come on to men in hope of spooking them into giving up a few rupees; I have had interesting interactions with them too. These were all very blatant advances though, and while I also have no doubt that in the general sphere of interaction, young men here like everywhere find themselves in situations of attraction towards other men, especially in this sexually stressful environment, but the difference between fraternal treatment and seeking more remains clear, and I am also conscious of attracting particular curiosity as a foreigner.

Marriage is practically a guaranteed topic of conversation with any young man once you have gotten past formalities. Most men (especially married ones) also strongly advocate lifelong co-habitation with one female partner, whether arranged or not. The purity of a life of single-partnerdom is very important to most people and as a result are willing to wait and long for it. Married men openly express unconditional love for their wives and are always especially proud when they can tell that their relationship with their wife came from a love marriage, not an arranged one. In my own feelings of longing for my woman, I have pushed some men to discomfort in my curiosity – “Do you never come home really wanting to see your wife but have to hold yourself back because your parents are there?”, “Do you ever push your wife up against the wall before you kiss her?” I have asked. “No, we do not have this western style of loving here” is usually the typical disparaging answer.

Open-minded Karthik whom I also met on the train to Trichy came up with an interesting thought though – with all the pressure that young qualified Indian men experience to find a job and perform professionally, it would do a lot of them good to not have their thoughts clouded by longing for women, if they could experience some of what they long for without having to embark on the ominous process of forming a lifelong commitment. Then I met a young successful professional on the train to Hyderabad who was quite comfortable with his long-distance relationship with a girlfriend whom he had not seen in 3 months, but to whom he had been openly committed for the past 3 years. Just to change impressions.

Without lacking regard for the great pressures under which Indian women live, through my contacts with men I feel a lot of  sympathy for my masculine peers here. I am thankful that cultural barriers easily fade away and let me experience this unique spirit of brotherhood and occasionally a good hug, which does not come unwelcome on this oft-times lonely journey.

North-American brawn by contrast:

Revised Saturday, June 19th

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One Comment

  1. Ruedi wrote:

    I really enjoy following your travel.
    Physical contact outside family and very close fiends has been the hallmark of my upbringing. Yet I remember episodes in different contexts and geographical areas were I became quite comfortable with it on a general level within a very short time. This should tell me that perhaps not all is lost and that I am quite capable of accepting and enjoying an obviously deeply ingrained human trait.
    Your essay must give us a lot to think about. I very much savor your style.

    Ruedi