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Updated: December 14, 2013 16:14 IST
ARMCHAIR WITH A VIEW

The enchanted flute

GEETA DOCTOR
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Illustration: Satwik Gade
The Hindu Illustration: Satwik Gade

Do Indian men need lessons in seduction?

Recent lapses in the romantic entanglement between famous men and the women they seek to impress, makes one ask: are all Indian men cads? Or are they merely culturally confused lads? Has the global Indian male become the ignoble Indian male because he carries his own barnyard of false expectations into the marketplace and behaves like a hillbilly braying with the over-confidence of the socially effete?

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala would have answered that very easily. In her short stories and novels set in India, men tend to leap before they speak. The almost instantaneous tension aroused in an amorous Indian male at the sight of a newly arrived Western female triggers a shock wave of “Heat and Dust” as she would have it.

Her Indian men like to lunge, plunge and bolt. It’s much the same way that they behave at a wedding buffet, no matter how lavish. The guests dive for the food even before it has hit the chafing dishes. They help themselves to the starters in fistfuls between glugging the Scotch as if Scotland had run out of peat. This is particularly true when it comes to standing in a line to get into a plane, a train, or seek a darshan at a temple, or at a first day, first show, release. Men like to jostle each other even if they have a reserved seat.

They grab the sweets proffered from a tray by an airhostess, while giving her the once over, as though to suggest, “Thanks, sweetie, I’ll have you next.” It’s the Indian way of showing appreciation — a little lust goes a long way. Often expressed in the form of a pinch of a cheek, a swat on the bottom, the repertoire of gestures available to the Indian male is decidedly outmoded.

It must go back to the earliest times when men arrived onto the lush plains of the sub-continent either as nomadic cattle herders or marauders. Nomads tend to be always on the move. Their terms of engagement are for a limited attention span. They graze their territory before moving on. They leave little behind except perhaps memories, like the lilting, teasing traces of a bamboo reed lingering in the air singing of the intoxication of love. It may explain why despite rumours of philandering on an epic scale, there’s a tendency to forgive the antics of the divine cowherd and his enchanted gopis as transcending the norms of everyday social behaviour. The enchanted flute becomes a priapic metaphor for seduction.

Marauders on the other hand are collectors. They destroy the opposition so that they can move into their lands, burning, raping, erasing folk memories and replacing them with brand new narratives that they solder into the fabric of the old. Their territory is greed and acquisition.

Going back into time, it’s interesting to note that the standard response for a man intent on wooing the object of his desire was to propose a “Gandharva” style of marriage. It’s the politically correct way of saying “Consensual relationship”. The most celebrated case was that of Shakuntala consorting with her royal lover, Dushyanta. To be sure he did not force himself onto her. She went bashfully, but willingly nonetheless. It’s what happened later that makes one dubious. As everyone knows when she went to the royal court and presented Dushyanta with his son, Bharath, as she had named him, he suffered a memory lapse with almost tragic consequences. Was he just being a cad of kingly proportions, the kind we see strutting their reasons in the Courts today?

Even more telling is the case of the fisherman’s adopted daughter, the piscatorially fragrant Matsyagandha. She was quick-witted enough to turn the admiration of her elderly suitor, the sage Parashara, to her advantage. When he grabbed her wrist while she was rowing him across the river to his hermitage, she resisted. “It does not become a Brahmin to make love to a mere fisherman’s daughter,” she said. It only inflamed his desire. “First remove my fishy odour,” she said, making the first of four deals. “It will enhance the quality of our love-making.” In an instant she became so sweet smelling. You could feel her fragrance for miles — Yogagandha — as she was called. “Let me remain a virgin.” He agreed. Then she asked for a mist so that they could make love in seclusion and finally that she be made the mother of kings. She became Sathyavati, ancestress of the Pandavas and Kauravas. For others she remained Dasayi, an aboriginal girl, though re-invented today as a militant feminist.

Princess or playgirl, then or now, it no longer depends on who is telling the story. Women are re-writing the script, anyway.

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