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Guest-Editorial: Masculinities in Urban India: Of contradictions, dilemmas and uncertainties

By Madhura Lohokare

Recent literature on men as gendered subjects signals a shift from an earlier analytic blind spot that characterized research across social science disciplines in India, wherein men’s gendered identities had been rendered invisible. This shift owes a huge debt to feminist theorising and later queer theorizing of gendered identities as fluid and performative, which has opened up the space to explore how the “masculine” is as much a constructed category as the “feminine.” Thus in exploring men’s relationship to gender, this perspective lays bare how the link between men, masculinity and power is not naturalised, but one which continually needs to be established and reinforced anew, as a link which can also be disrupted. This issue on masculinities in urban India attempts to focus precisely on these processes of renewal and disruption, in trying to understand how men become (or not) and experience themselves (or not) as “men.”

Thanks to feminist theorising on intersectionality, it is now gender-studies-common-sense to acknowledge that studying women and men as gendered subjects, divorced from their caste, religious, class or sexual identities, is profoundly inadequate in analytical terms. To this mix, I also add place. Places, as repositories of uneven histories, as archives of our intimate and social lives and as active shapers of political and economic processes, are a crucial site which can make available new imaginations of and spaces for gendered performances, while also reinforcing certain other gendered norms. Almost three decades after liberalisation of the Indian economy, its cities also manifest this contradictory mix of entrenched inequalities and the possibility of creative contestations of the same. This issue of Café Dissensus hopes to turn our attention to the ways in which the city is relevant to how men’s gendered identities are imagined, performed, and disrupted.

Given this focus on urban India, it is suggestive that young men feature overwhelmingly in the essays included here. Indian cities, as rapidly changing material and social spaces, are a witness to emergent forms of self-making and of hierarchies. It is hardly surprising that it is the youth, as vociferous claimants to the city’s life, who are in the direct path of the contradictions set off by these changes. Whether it is young Jat men in Delhi’s urban villages (Pati), Dalit youth in a Hinduised Ahmedabad (Jasani), upper middle class gay men in metropolises (Tondon), or working class men in a fictional neighbourhood in the 1960s Mumbai (Lohokare), young men seem to be grappling with their masculine selves shaped in response to their implication in contradictory urban processes of gendered privilege and caste or class-based marginalisation, of aspirations to liberalness and patriarchal socialisation.

A continual anxiety grazes the edges of the “men-power-masculinity” equation, via their lack of employment, lack of cultural/ social capital and loss of dignity, in several of the essays. Response to loss of masculine power is recuperated by exercise of control in other realms: participation in violence, in local politics or in exclusionary tactics. While this insight is not new, the various essays in this issue throw light on how the different recuperative strategies are a function of the spatial context in which they are exercised. An interesting variant of masculine anxiety is reflected in R. Sharma’s essay on men’s rights ‘movements,’ wherein urban, professionally qualified men’s rights activists appropriate the narrative of ‘victim’ and ‘experience’ (of oppression)  to counter the alleged ills of  feminism. Even as we argue for going beyond simplistic renderings of masculinity in terms of patriarchy and underlining the vulnerabilities that disrupt the links between maleness and power, instances like this point to the tight rope that such a proposition represents, in the light of the emergent patriarchal backlash to gains of feminism.

While recuperation is a crucial, yet now familiar theme while discussing masculine identities in India, the insertion of a self-reflexive voice in the realm of masculine identities is most welcome. Reflexivity as a difficult process of turning the gaze inwards and locating oneself in relation to privilege, is one of the most important imperatives in challenging naturalised and institutionalised hierarchies of gender, caste, class or religion. P. Sharma and Niazi’s essays take on this difficult task, as they reflect upon the making of their middle class masculine selves through fraught negotiations in spaces ranging from family, educational institutions and feminism.  Behl, in his interview, points towards how his own trajectory as a man blended in with his filmic characters, unconsciously and at times, consciously. Kurian also contends in our conversation that middle class male stand-up comedians are increasingly conscious of their humour not being perceived as sexist. All the above essays provide an insight into how the upper caste/middle class urban man seeks to fashion (albeit with uncertainty) a liberal gendered self, and the dilemmas that his hitherto class/caste and gendered privileges pose for this process.

Their willingness to examine their gender-privileged location is in important ways a response to a growing public discourse of feminism/women’s rights, especially in the context of gendered violence against women/harassment in urban India in recent years. The fictionalised scenes from a newsroom (Koshi and Dasgupta) are a result of the growing consciousness of women to call out instances of everyday sexism, especially in the allegedly liberal spaces like the news media. While this essay details out almost in ethnographic detail the minute ways in which upper caste, middle class men occupy these spaces and consequently masculinize them, it is suggestive that the authors of the essays have chosen to anonymise their experiences. Men’s response to feminist assertion clearly need not always be affirmative, as evidenced by the need to anonymise these essays and in the emergence of men’s rights ‘movement.’

Masculine self-making in the city also constitutes an entry point into insights about the nature of urban spaces themselves in contemporary India. Kamath and Raj’s essay illustrates the fashioning of the figure of a political leader in tandem with the discursive shift in the projection of an urban space from an ‘ignored urban backyard’ to a ‘smart city.’ Here the non-metropolitan aspirations to a global city status are clearly mapped on to the masculinity of its political leader. Behl’s protagonist’s desperate strivings to fulfill his aspirations can also be read as a metaphor for his own joyless, grim suburb located on the margins of Delhi: the latter nursing a reckless and urgent desire to become like the big city, an aspiration which marks much of the small cities and towns in India today. Tondon’s essay documents the city’s career as a sexual space, riven not just by caste, class and gendered exclusions of upper class gay men, but newer assertions by its trans community, who increasingly lays claim to the city’s spaces of pride marches and gatherings.

This issue of Café Dissensus is in no way representative of the myriad and overlapping masculinities that are realised in urban spaces in India today (this issue focuses primarily on cisgender male identities, and does not refer to several other constituencies like older men, men’s changing roles as fathers/partners, etc.). We hope however that this issue sets off future conversations around masculinities in the spirit of self-reflexivity and criticality, which mark these essays.

Photo-credit: Adage India

Madhura Lohokare
has completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Syracuse University. She teaches Academic Writing at Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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