Author Amitabha Bagchi says that men, like women, are prisoners of their gender roles

A famous line in V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend In The River, “The world is what it is. Men who allow themselves to be nothing have no place in it,” served as a red flag to novelist Amitabha Bagchi. It inspired him to explore the notion of masculinity in his novels. Amitabha in his debut novel Above Average, through the story of Arindam Chatterjee, focused on the response of Indian middle-class men to the pressures they face.

“Even so-called ‘nothing men’”, Amitabha argues, “have something in them. They are perceived as weak, the world is bigger than them, but they fight. They find strength from their relationships, family and friends. They deal with difficult circumstances through understanding. All my characters go through this process of being understood.”

Flawed protagonist

In his recent novel The Householder (Harper Collins, Rs. 399), which was released at Bangalore’s Reliance TimeOut recently, Amitabha explores the same theme through the story of an influential man who struggles to provide for his family. His world, based on dishonesty and deceit, however, starts to fall apart.

Even though the protagonist is flawed, Amitabha has empathy for him. “He chose to be dishonest because he scrambles with social expectations and providing for his family.”

Amitabha admits that he sees life as a “gendered” experience. “We hear a lot about the gendered-ness of life for women. But we don’t understand that this is the case for men, too. Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed: The Betrayal Of The American Man influenced me. People wondered why a feminist had taken a compassionate view on men. But she realised, while researching on a feminist project, that many American men had gendered stories to tell,” he says and continues.

“The imagined battlegrounds between men and women are high peaks. But most of the world doesn’t live in the high peaks. They live elsewhere.”

Amitabha agrees that men are more privileged than women, but to carve a place in the world, to be a somebody, is a man’s cross to bear. “I have been reading a lot of Hindi literature over the last many years. The male characters in Sri Lal Shukla’s novels, and Sara Akash by Rajendra Yadav, are strugglers. On the one hand they have to be world beaters, or at least provide for their families, and on the other there’s this structure that is out to crush them.”

Amitabha says that individuals confront their roles in society differently. “I am aware that feminism, as an activist project, is about rolling back certain oppressive standards. But my job as a novelist is to enter into other people’s lives. Within an individual’s life, there occur a hundred small actions that either fall in line with that oppression or oppose it. The women in my books are perhaps structurally oppressed, but they have agencies of their own.”

According to critics, Amitabha’s male characters in Above Average were better rounded than his women characters. “One of my teachers told me my women characters in Above Average were flat. And I accepted that. At the time, I knew that I did not have the experience to write around a female character. I let them be as enablers of the plot. Between then and now, though, I have worked on projecting into the mind of a woman, which required a leap of empathy.”

Amitabha agrees with Simone De Beauvoir’s contention that men and women aren’t born; they are made. “Some people lean on biological difference to reinforce the structure of patriarchy. Science provides observations, which maybe politically motivated. Those facts are ferreted out for a particular purpose and that is why it has been a very important aspect of the women’s movement. Academics who have pushed forward gender studies, refute this claim, and say that gender is a social construct. Though I do consider this argument to be a little overwrought, I agree that biology is at times, used in servicing oppression.”

Amitabha doesn’t believe in obfuscating his language. “My prose doesn’t draw attention to itself. Developing an aesthetic is important to me when writing serious fiction. I generally tend to pare down my writing when it seems pretentious.”

Amitabha argues that a novelist must first be loyal to his or her story and not focus only on addressing complex issues. “The larger issues are like the rhythm sections in an orchestra. They support the process of reading. Books that foreground the larger issues fail as novels.”