Bombay Showcase

How not to woo a woman

Heart of the matter:Writer and journalist Dave Besseling’s latest book, Laid in India, is a masochistic journey into urban Indian dating hell.— Photo: Saimantick Bhadra  

In this country, it’s quite unlikely you’ll meet a complete stranger in a club and leave with their number. For most people, the exercise is futile by the time they navigate the clique of friends their objet du désir has come with. But India’s (self-styled) Number One Pick Up Artist (PUA in their ‘lingo’) feels your pain. “…clubs are a waste of time. Everyone’s on their guard. It’s too much hard work,” he sermonises in writer and journalist Dave Besseling’s latest book. It’s a masochistic journey into urban Indian dating hell with his personal Charon, (that ferrymen who charts souls to the world of the dead), ‘Sid Malhotra’ (no, not the actor).

What’s in a name?

Titles can be a strange thing. This one in particular is the kind that puts everyone on their guard. Laid in India: Eight Weeks with Bombay’s #1 Pick Up Artist isn’t a book you’d be comfortable reading in a café, or carrying aboard for in-flight reading. With its red-washed parody of a desi Mills & Boon cover, and the kitschy font screaming Laid in India , it’s designed to have onlookers more curious about the person reading it than the book’s actual content. So it follows that mentions of this book on social media have led to harried DMs from feminist friends to the effect of “U mad bro”?

But that’s something Besseling is prepared for. “A lot of people won’t bother with it, but will talk s**t about it just because they think the subject is silly, or evil,” he mumbles when we meet at a rooftop restaurant in Colaba. “But yeah, it’s fine.” You can’t blame people for thinking the book promotes misogyny with that title. “I did this because I thought it would just be a story… 2000 words… I really wanted him to fail,” says Besseling, who first produced part of the PUA’s story as a long read for GQ India , where he’s wrapping up a stint as Deputy Editor. “He constantly talked about how cool he was, and I thought, oh yeah? Let’s see it.”

Calling the guy on his bluff, Besseling took him to Bonobo, a club in Bandra, and was surprised to see Malhotra’s questionable charm at work. Because no one can believe that a PUA who creeps up to a woman in a public place and tells her that he’s a face reader can end up with her number. Or for that matter, that this same guy can walk up to another girl and compliment only her friends, till one bit of praise her way results in the exchange of contacts. When the GQ piece came out, most women, including this writer, read about Malhotra’s tricks incredulously. It’s hard to believe this guy is for real: he’s the most obvious line there is, with every line.

As to why this story became a full-fledged book, Besseling says, “I had to figure out why [Malhotra’s tricks] worked.” The Canadian journalist continues, “There’s obviously something a lot bigger than him. And to put it crassly, a lot of foreign journalists who’ve been here for a while, they all have a compunction almost, to do an ‘India book’.” Besseling has lived in India since 2008. “Listening to [Malhotra’s] story, there was so much about how India had changed in the last decade that I can see through fragments of Sid’s life,” he adds. “So I got my big India book after all, but through the prism of this nutcase”. Additionally, Malhotra and Besseling had a similar itinerary through the last decade: Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. Except the India that Besseling inhabits is still a rarefied one, vastly different from Malhotra’s small town ambitions.

What unfolds out of the two men meeting is a conversation about traversing the sexual landscape of urban India. What makes it special is navigating these tricky waters in the time of the Internet, capitalism, increasingly uptight right wing policies and the country’s much-lamented history of adoring boys who refuse to mature into men.

The young Indian male

Malhotra’s constant rule seems to be, pay attention (even when you’re pretending not to). Then be polite. Dress well. Ask about her work or interests, even if you don’t care. Don’t come off as aggressive. Back off till the lady in question trusts you. When you think about it, Malhotra’s rules aren’t so bad. In fact, they sound like things you’d appreciate, even expect from a random guy walking up to you in a bar/mall/airport (the PUA’s preferred places of conquest). It’s hardly a surprise then that Indian women pretend to have minimal desires, given the crop we often have to choose from. Take for instance that nice guy who suddenly surprises you with unwarranted pictures of his nether regions. Then there’s that guy you’re occasionally involved with who shows up sans protection but with a morning-after pill. And, what about the fellow who has no problems with pre-marital or casual sex, but thinks protection is anywhere between gross, unreligious, or just, not ‘real enough, man’.

But as Laid in India elucidates on what the Indian woman faces in her pursuit of love or an orgasm, it also parses the reflections of caste and the colonial ‘whiteness’ hangover, often conflating with class in the modern urban social scenario. Besseling asks you to consider the young Indian male – especially a small-town boy who has grown up in a repressed society where sex is magical and sacred. Women go for the taller, lighter-skinned fellow. Malhotra’s journey into adulthood begins like that of most Indian teenagers: Yahoo chat for those early ‘how to talk to girls’ interactions, then moving on to meeting women through websites. It’s so normal, considering internationally hated pick up artists’ books (Niel Strauss et al , who were outed and publicly reviled in the early 2000s), websites and tricks.

Working a routine

All the things that shouldn’t work because they’re so basic. “The big thing Sid does is adapt these scenarios to an Indian context… like when and where they’d work best,” says Besseling, mentioning Malhotra’s malls-over-bars preference. But the PUA not only takes these tricks seriously, he applies considerable intelligence to editing and fitting these scenarios into a local context. You know this because other sample PUAs featured in the book have the intelligence of a brick (albeit a really sexy one).

Malhotra also has his own brand of philanthropy, where he singles out sad and lonely men and sets them on the path to finding their beautiful forevers. And yet, he’s a douchebag, the kind who’ll say anything to get you to sleep with him. Besseling remembers a conversation he had with Malhotra’s Scandinavian model friend (whose take on India’s #1 PUA also appears in the book): “I asked her, are you saying the bar here is so low that just him being polite and well-dressed is enough? So then the problem becomes that everyone’s used to the usual creeps, but now you gotta look out for the polite ones too?”

The problem with Malhotra hitting on a woman is the goal to feed a self-esteem that hangs precariously on reducing women to mere calculations and limited probability. As Besseling sees it, when PUAs do what they do, “It works because that’s how people normally talk to each other, but they just accelerate it to the point where the only goal is to f*** somebody,” he says. “And making that your life is weird, and possibly sad.” Malhotra’s rejection of morality and truth when seducing women into a ‘digit-close’ or an ‘f-close’ (it means what you think it does) might actually be a Stockholm syndrome-type reaction. It’s his way of reacting to the very issues that thwarted him as a bony, dark-skinned, bespectacled boy losing the girl of his dreams to his Hrithik Roshan-looking friend who treats her as badly as he’s treating women now as a PUA. One could say the horribly male-centric social culture we live in demands value judgements not only of women, but also of men. Malhotra, without his dress-to-impress suits and red glasses, is nobody, even in his own book, and perhaps that’s the most poignant part of this story.

Monster in repose

Besseling admits Malhotra’s horrible, but also wants you to consider the PUA to be a human being. “He didn’t grow up in the best place in the world, he’s a striver; he’s ambitious,” says the author. Malhotra comes off as an inherently likeable guy with a very unlikeable hobby: ‘closing’ on women. But the writer inhabits an India the regular PUAs — who haven’t learned to turn on the “western” charm from Neil Strauss books — wouldn’t be allowed in. Think about the Malhotras in the rest of the country: the ones who have found the courage to ask girls out for a ride on their bikes. He’s jostling to be seen and noticed by the India that Besseling lives in. In fact, you’re not even sure if Malhotra can exist at all without battle armour: his dress-to-impress style. Malhotra is Besseling’s monster in repose and you can’t stop wondering about him long after you’ve finished reading. It’s a scary thought that despite everything you read, this PUA is possibly the least terrible thing that comes out from ‘the boys will be boys’ world Indian women struggle to survive in.

Laid in India: Eight Weeks with Bombay’s #1 Pick Up Artist, Penguin India is priced at Rs. 250

The author is a freelance writer

A lot of people won’t bother with it, but will talk s**t about it just because they think the subject is silly, or evil, I did this because I thought it would just be a story… 2000 words… I really wanted him [Sid Malhotra] to fail.

Malhotra is Besseling’s monster in repose; you can’t stop wondering about him long after you’ve finished reading

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 8:13:33 PM |

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