In India today, the rapes of women, from children to grandmothers, are daily news. Frothy television programs on sentimentalized family values are interrupted by advertisements for a new smartphone app: VithU, which allows women in danger, at a double press of a power button, to send an S O S alert with their location to predesignated friends and family members.
Universities are debating requiring students to abandon jeans and adopt formal dress codes, as though the trappings of civilization are needed to hold at bay the anarchy of sexual violence. Twelve-year-old schoolgirls are attending rape awareness seminars, in a death of innocence.
Indian cities are awash with feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure, fighting poverty, exhausted, denied access to regular female companionship, adrift on powerful tides of alcohol and violent pornography, newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence — and not able to respond to any of it in a safe, civilized manner. This is the world of women under siege, the medieval world of the walking undead, the rise of the zombies, targeting females rich and poor. For women, at least, winter is coming.
In this context, it might appear odd to examine any other variant of the Indian male. But it is important to do so and to do so now. To bear witness to an alternate male reality that also pervades India on a daily basis.
This is what I witnessed on a recent flight from Kolkata to Bangalore. The plane was typical of budget air travel: full of businessmen and mothers. The smart flight attendants were young men. The pilot, captain of the flight deck, was a woman. This is not an uncommon combination in India these days. I was struck instead by the behavior of the male passengers.
In most countries, a woman clambering aboard a plane with a fretful infant and turning a crowded row of six into a de facto row of seven is usually met with hostility. Here, every other row seemed larded with these women and their babies. But those stuffy Indian businessmen — men of middle management, dodging bottles and diaper bags and carelessly flung toys — they didn’t grumble. Instead, up and down the plane, I saw them helping. Holding babies so that mothers could eat. Burping infants and entertaining toddlers. Not because they knew these women, but because being concerned and engaged was their normal mode of social behavior. So, I will say this — Indian men can also be among the kindest in the world.
Women know this. When I asked my friends and acquaintances — both Indian and expatriate — about their perceptions of Indian men, they mentioned intelligence, wit and a reverence for learning. Others described gregarious partners who knew how to relax and enjoy themselves. All of them talked about commitment and caring. One said, “I love that he is deeply concerned about his parents.” An Englishwoman said of her long-term Indian partner, “He makes me feel cherished and taken care of in a manner I never experienced in the U.K.” Another said of her father, “He supported my mother through their marriage, through her job, with the kids, her health, everything.” A 16-year-old schoolgirl echoed this: “You feel safe with them. No matter what, they will see you home safely.”
Strong familial commitment is not a phenomenon restricted to the urban middle classes. Migrant laborers care for wives and children, and still send money home to their parents. The young woman who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus on Dec. 16 had a village-raised father who supported her ardently. This part of the story is so unsurprising, it rarely makes the news.
Let me introduce the Common Indian Male, a category that deserves taxonomic recognition: committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger. Frequently spotted in domestic circles, traveling in a family herd. He has been sighted in sari shops and handbag stores, engaged in debating his spouse’s selection with the sons and daughters who trail behind. There is, apparently, no domestic decision that is not worthy of his involvement.
There is a telling phrase that best captures the Indian man in a relationship — whether as lover, parent or friend: not “I love you” but “Main hoon na.” It translates to “I’m here for you” but is better explained as a hug of commitment — “Never fear, I’m here.” These are men for whom commitment is a joy, a duty and a deep moral anchor.
At its excessive worst, this sensibility can produce annoyances: a sentimentalized addiction to Mummy; concern that becomes judgmental and stifling; and a proud or oversensitive emotional landscape.
But when it is at its best, the results, in women’s lives, speak for themselves. If the image of the Indian female as victim is true, so, too, is its converse: the Indian woman who coexists as a strong survivor, as conqueror, as worshiped goddess made flesh. Indian women have served as prime minister and president. They head banks and large corporations. They are formidable politicians, religious heads, cultural icons, judges, athletes and even godmothers of crime.
Modern India has a muscular democracy and a growing economy, both of which have significantly transformed the lives of women. But female success, in a place like India with complicated social structures and a tradition of the Old Uncle Network, doesn’t happen in isolation. A successful woman is very likely to have had a supportive male in her life: a father, a spouse, a friend, a mentor.
For his part, the Indian male, when nested in family and community, is part of a domestic tapestry that is intricately woven and vital, it seems, to his own sense of well-being. Take that away from him, hurl him away — and a possible result is a man unmoored, lost, adrift and, potentially, a danger to himself and to his world. Disconnection causes social disengagement and despair — and the behavior that is the product of alienation and despair.
Lavanya Sankaran is the author of the novel The Hope Factory.