Myths about men

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Myths about men

At a time when Indian masculinity is in crisis, writer-journalist Aatish Taseer explores the evolution of the modern Indian male on his new show ‘Chivas Studio — Gentlemen’s Code. Preeti Verma Lal talks to him about his take on gentlemen

Meet writer-journalist Aatish Taseer and he’d jump into a crisis narrative. Crises, actually. Not of the millions melting in a messy financial cauldron, but of an existential crisis. The crisis of modern man. The Indian male. The crisis of his masculinity. Of his ‘manly’ transition as a thing in flux. The crisis of young urban Indian men who need to “cultivate a lively interior life”.

But not for Taseer, the rigid parentheses within which men — Indian men — can be stashed. No stiff parameters with which they ought to be measured, calibrated and then labelled. Taseer believes a “new kind of masculinity is being born” and modern man is reinventing himself. The new man is a different man from the one that came before. Different in his attitude to women, to sexuality, to work, and to his emotional and personal life.

But why is the author of Stranger to History: a Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands (2009), The Temple-Goers (2010) and the mint-fresh Noon so trapped in the idea of masculinity? His books do not hinge on that thought; masculinity is not the pivot of his blogs. Taseer’s preoccupation with masculinity, however, is not random. On Star World, he is hosting Chivas Studio-Gentlemen’s Code, a television show that deconstructs the mind of modern Indian men. 

A fresh perspective

What triggered the idea of peeping into the man’s mind and dismantling his notions of relationships, marriage, sex, money, wants…? There’s the story of Taseer’s encounter with Hameed Mahesari, the Mango King, in Sindh, Pakistan. For Mahesari, poverty did not stifle his aspiration of being a gentleman — he carried a gentleman-guide book in hand that taught him that a “gentleman does not adjust his crotch in public.” 

Ask Taseer about the gentlemen’s code idea and he goes back to an incident — a gangrape in Delhi that tore through the nation’s psyche. “I liked the idea — in the context of all that’s happened in the country over the past year since Nirbhaya — of doing a show on men. The idea was to explore the pressures on Indian masculinity, with that special lightness of touch that television brings. We wanted to look hard at men and masculinity, but also to deal with it as a thing in flux.

This ‘gentleman’ idea was foisted on me; what I was really interested in were young urban Indian men who, in my view, are more different from their fathers than at virtually any other time in the country’s history.” 

For Taseer himself, this first foray into the square box of entertainment meant stepping out of seclusion. “I had spent almost eight years working in a kind of seclusion. It was hard to break that, hard to be part of collaboration. Also, I found that after being internal for a long time, I suddenly had to project a certain external way of being. I had to find some way in which my natural personality — which is quite reserved and inward — could be converted into a viable personality for television.” 

Trying times

Taseer agrees that it is a bad moment for Indian masculinity. But he also believes that it is a moment with possibilities. It could be one of those occasions, when one set of attitudes becomes fettered and breaks, and something new comes into being. In his show, Taseer is not keen on writing a ‘gentleman’ edict on stone. He admits he is not attempting to capture the full spectrum of Indian masculinity.

He wants to identify a direction, to give a little indication as to how the story will unfold — to identify a little strain of something general in the particular.What really is a gentleman’s code? Can there ever be a textbook code? Doesn’t it vary from one age to another, from one culture to another? I ask Taseer. “Absolutely. I resisted this word ‘gentleman;’ it sounds dated and prescriptive to my ear. But, as I said, it was foisted on me.

I don’t think it is the show’s objective to identify any particular code as to how men should be or behave. Our job is simply to represent men and manhood at an interesting time, a time when those notions are ever more fluid. If the show succeeds in catching something meaningful about the experience of the modern Indian man at this particular point in his history — a certain restlessness, as it were — I would consider my work done.” 

If Taseer had a magic wand with which he could create the ‘gentleman’, what attributes will be imbibe the man with? “Paramount to my mind is a certain kind of emotional acuity. I would like men to be able to develop their sensitivities, to cultivate a lively interior life. It would be nice if men could overcome certain inhibitions and possibly develop an emotional vocabulary that would better answers their needs. Be better able to speak to their wives and children. The men I grew up around, I felt, were of a type, limited in their ability to express emotions. One hopes men might feel easier in their skin and have richer emotional and creative lives, away from their work.”

Taseer is deconstructing the mind of modern Indian men. For the Sagittarian who loves Marcel Proust and calls Istanbul his favourite city, the idea of a gentleman is not dead. He knows a gentleman. Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf. Taseer calls him the world’s best gentleman. Any clones around, gentlemen? 

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