Book Review: Why It’s Not Easy to Become a Man in Today’s India

I have often wondered what goes on inside the cars full of men that slow down at the sight of every girl or woman out on a street in Delhi.

It plays out differently for me every time.

Often, a window rolls down and only one head pops out; sometimes, two of them emerge at the same time as if pushed by an invisible force. What follows could either be just sounds and gestures or full sentences spoken with purpose. It might be a remark on my looks, an offer to drop me to my destination, an invitation to go for a drive, or words I want to unhear as soon as they have been uttered. 

‘Becoming Young Men In A New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence in the Postcolony,’ Shannon Philip, Cambridge University Press, 2022.

A new book, Becoming Young Men In a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence in the Postcolony, by Shannon Philip, a British-Indian ethnographer, studies the forces at play inside these cars and multiple other male-dominated spaces in Delhi to show the fragilities that drive such aggression. 

It’s not easy to become a man in the new India, the book argues.

The process is dictated by a formula that applies to every aspect of an aspirant’s public self. Certain exercises are to be performed at the gym, clothes to be bought at the shopping mall, poses to strike before the camera, and girls to be chosen from the crowd. Those signing up to become men train themselves to modulate their tone of voice based on who they are talking to – curtly to waiters, firmly to women, and respectfully to fitness trainers, who must always be addressed as ‘sir.’

The idea, as Philip, a young man himself, demonstrates by immersing himself into their world – gyms, clubs, parking lots, cigarette shops – is to effortlessly switch between aggression and refinement. It takes smartness, they tell themselves, to be a modern Indian man who pulls out the chair for his girlfriend minutes after he has taken care of someone who dared to graze his car. It is this pursuit that unites the disparate men he follows in Delhi. 

He hangs out with sets of “strivers”, a term defined by the National Council of Applied Economic Research as members of the Great Indian Middle Class who are better off than “seekers” from the lower middle class but don’t qualify as “global elites” from the upper middle class.

All of Philip’s informants are unmarried, north-Indian, Hindu, ‘upper or middle’ caste and between the ages of 20 and 27. The writer doesn’t explain why a young man from a Muslim or Christian or Other Backward Class background won’t make an “urban smart striver.” What he does, however, is show the lengths to which his chosen cast of informants are ready to go to be perceived as “smart bande (men).”

The physical template for this new masculinity – groomed, muscular, hairless, fair-skinned, and distinctly heterosexual – is laid out across their hangout spots, as Philip illustrates through his sharp visual analysis. “Shopping becomes a men’s activity that is carried out in masculine ways,” he writes.  

The template shows up in the “mast (fun)” body” of Ranveer Singh whose life-size cut-outs illustrate the perfect pose for a man to click a selfie, in the carelessly stylish way (the late) Sushant Singh Rajput chills out in the posters for jeans that claim to enable a “fast life”, and in the confidence with which Virat Kohli carries off his sherwani in the hoardings that exhort men to wear their “identity.” The last one draws pure reverence from his informants for the cricketing star’s command on refined vibes and “hard” looks. It elevates him, in their eyes, from a “smart banda (man)” to a “true son” of India. 

The new India arguably demands that its sons be hairless and hard at the same time. That they use fairness creams but never smile for photographs, wear glossy sunglasses but stare at everything in sight, and drive ruthlessly in their perfumed cars. How to strike this impossible balance?

It takes ‘smartness’ to be a modern Indian man who pulls out the chair for his girlfriend minutes after he has taken care of someone who dared to graze his car. It is this pursuit that unites the disparate men Shannon Philip follows in Delhi.’ Photo: Adam Cohn/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Philip observes his informants employing “skilled practices of the body”: building up a frown, tensing up arms, and smoking their cigarettes sternly. Their constant switching between public and private personas can be comic.

He notes one of his informants, Aman, a bank employee who wishes to become a Bollywood actor, change after leaving a cigarette shop in Connaught Place. “Once we move ‘offstage’…away from ‘public view’, he becomes gregarious and excitable again. He slouches, looks around carelessly, his arms relax, and he smiles and laughs loudly.” Aman also keeps urging Philip to harden up himself. “If you keep smiling and looking soft, people will come and sit on your head.” 

Building an image is easier than being burdened with reality, as the political icons of the new India have established. The young men believe they must work to earn respect (“izzat”), like their fathers and grandfathers did, but few would find jobs that look good on their CVs and pay enough to have their sisters wedded.

They crave success that will make the world sit up and take notice; and they want the same for India.

While neither seems within reach, the young men find themselves with a lot of free time – and they spend it roaming the city. Philip’s informants like to roam only the “smart” places in Delhi – South Extension, Greater Kailash, Connaught Place – even if they live far away from these neighbourhoods. They hang out at places that keep out the “riffraff” by charging an entry fee or imposing a dress code or putting their visitors through “security.”

However precarious their own prospects, they stress that poor and working-class men have no place in a smart city like Delhi. One of them refers to homeless people as “kachra (trash)” that must be removed for India to realise its potential. 

The men want their smart spaces not to be invaded by women, either unless they happen to be their girlfriends. Generally, they view women with suspicion: what if they reject them? What if they cheat on them? What if they come between them and their bhailog (brothers)? Since their girlfriends are not going to become their wives, because, whether new India or old, marriages are dictated by caste and religion, the men don’t see the point of going further than casual dating.

Ultimately, they question the value of having non-family women in their lives – you can’t ring a girl when you get into a street fight! What you need in those moments is a carful of bros who will drive recklessly to your rescue. 

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They don’t want women at their gyms, their cigarette shops, and the happy-hour bars they can only visit in the afternoons because they must spend their evenings at home playing good boys.

They might tolerate a woman walking purposefully to catch a bus, but they don’t want her to dawdle while out in public, much less break into a dance. If she dares, they believe it’s their duty to discipline her. One of Philip’s informants, Raj, spells out his attitude: “Friend, you know it is not right to lift your hand on women, but a little bit you have to keep them under control, otherwise they get out of hand.” 

While animated by brotherly love, the author sees their world as defined by a “desexualised homosociality” in which there is no space for queerness. Some of them might have sex with men because it is easier to arrange that in a city like Delhi, but never identify as gay. “Because I am smart,” says one of them, “I don’t want to have a boyfriend.” 

Philip, who set out into the field as a queer researcher, lucidly draws out the contradictions between how he and his informants inhabit public spaces in Delhi, including a time when one of them coaxes the writer to urinate alongside him because he believes that’s what brothers do. This seems to shock no one else in the public toilet but him. 

“To me,” he writes, “the space suddenly felt crowded and uncomfortable, but everything continued just as it was.” 

Snigdha Poonam is the author of Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World (2018), which won the Crossword Award for nonfiction.

The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.

This article was first published on The Wire.