A while ago, I watched this excellent documentary, When Four Friends Meet, by Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan. Through the narratives of four young men from a lower-middle-class background, the documentary explored a myriad of intermeshing and complicated issues which range from thwarted ambitions and sexuality, to notions of masculinity.
Anubha Yadav’s The Anger of Saintly Men plunged me right into the world I’d left behind in the documentary. The collection of short stories, located in the nineties, is about three brothers – Sonu, Anu and Vicky. These loosely interconnected stories explore a range of ways that beat and hammer masculinity into shape in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society in a multitude of ways. Through many perceptive vignettes, Yadav painstakingly etches the insignificant, and the significant ways in which masculinity is moulded, reinforced, and applauded in our society.
From boys to men
You stumble upon little boys harbouring “shameful” secrets of sexual molestation, to “innocent” explorations of sexuality that degenerates into the “disgusting”. Then there are troubled young men populating the stories whose manhood is challenged and shamed each time a marriage proposal is turned down. Or worse, if a marriage breaks down. Even those in the evening of their lives are seen struggling to live fearlessly, finding some relief, ironically, tragically only when dementia sets in and frees one to be their alter ego.
It isn’t just the family that is portrayed as the culprit, but images of macho men peddled every minute through films and advertisements – that is seen as critically determining. Elements of popular culture, like films, are seen as catalysing extremely gendered notions of even concepts like patriotism and heroism, wherein the men are barely left able to distinguish between the real and the imagined beefed-up self.
Yadav doesn’t delve deeper into the idea, but women too – victims of gendering themselves – are also seen as perpetrators of an accepted, formulaic masculinity, where any man less than Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is seen as a lack, or at best, a compromise. The menfolk of Chuhedani are trapped, in this rat-race to be more virile, better-paid, more desirable, well-respected – only to lose themselves bit by bit, till they are left as pale shadows of the men they possibly could have been.
I found the style of the writing slightly inconsistent as the initial stories are written in a language reminiscent of what can be seen as almost a literal translation of Indian languages. However, the language becomes progressively more uniform and the stories themselves, more nuanced. Sometimes, one gets the impression that these stories were penned over a longish period of time.
What, of course, was most striking to note is that we have here, perhaps, an example of “womansplaining” masculinity. The subversiveness made me chuckle, but on a more serious note, made me ponder: Does the answer to toxic masculinity lie in shifting the gaze to the male from the female – “a penis for every naked breast and vagina”. Is that how one wrests the narrative back?
Well, I don’t think Yadav’s novel makes any such suggestion. It offers a scathing yet empathetic examination of the bits and pieces of the innards of toxic masculinity.
Shibani Phukan teaches English literature at a Delhi University College. You can find her on Instagram @fotonama007
Featured image: The Anger of Saintly Men/Anubha Yadav/BEE Books