LITERARY REVIEW

The dangling man

GENDER STUDIES

RUMINA SETHI

The dangling man

South Asian Masculinities: Context of Change, Sites of Continuity, edited by Radhika Chopra, Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella, Women Unlimited, p.419, Rs. 600.

AFTER years of theorising what it means to be a woman in a man's world, we have a comprehensive book on masculinity. In spite of the oft-touted nature of the Indian ethos as "patriarchal" and "masculine" in gender criticism, colonial history has always portrayed the Indian or Asian male as effeminate in the face of an aggressive, public-school male culture of the British, exposed clearly in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. In contrast, there exist quasi-masculinities of various types which this book examines in the context of South Asia. The representation of masculinity in South Asian societies takes the forms of the male guru or the family patriarch when we think in terms of ordinary social relations. But in so far as the cultural-political world is concerned, masculinity takes a "hyper male" character, such as that of the god Ram or the iconic heroes of our freedom fighters or even the men on celluloid.

The question this book urges us to pose is: how male is masculinity? Is "masculinity" the sum of male characteristics common to most men? Gender theorising can scorn masculinity to an extent by citing categories of effeminate men or even butch women. In archetypal disdain, Lady Macbeth said famously to her husband: "Are you a man?" and squarely doubted his masculinity with the words: "Yet do I fear thy nature/It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way." But Macbeth, trying to be masculine, could respond, at least in the first Act of the play, "I dare do all that may become a man/ Who dares do more, is none."

Yet, to be masculine is to include the characteristics of the female: the androgynous Father of the Indian nation is an example, as Ashis Nandy elucidated in a classic argument many years ago. So are the renouncer heroes in nationalist fictions such as Raja Rao's Kanthapura and Bankimchandra Chatterjee's Anandamath, who adopt the posture of devotion that is essentially a female trait. They worship, in turn, women goddesses who are powerful male figures — Kenchamma and Kali respectively.

This female posturing can also be related to a subversive strategy by postcolonial men to conceal their murderous "male" intent, and not an obvious indication of their state of being. Clearly, then, as some of the contributors here explain, there is a masculine in relation to the feminine as much as it is "an aspect of relationships between men". The three editors state how "the female and the feminine may fulfil their function as productive of maleness: in the form of mother, as hyper-masculine yet also clearly feminine goddess, as sexual/romantic partner in a normalised heterosexuality, as member of a `weaker sex' in need of male-protection or as subject of (often sexualised) aggression".

This would involve treating "male" and "female" as binary oppositions, readable at a glance, so that the woman's body becomes a site to flaunt male masculinity. Instances abound in our social, political and cultural history where nation mothers, Partition victims, satis or even simple housewives tend to stimulate a role-playing among men to become protectors, devotees and wage earners. Patriarchal male identity needs a submissive female identity as part of itself in order to define itself. The dominant group will always identify itself in relation to the "other" which is an umbrella term for all the minority groups. But it should also be considered that masculinity is linked with hegemonic social pressures to conform to a macho-ism, virility, aggression and power that are mandatory taxonomies for men, the lack of which produces anxiety and insecurity. To live up to being "male, manful, manlike, manly, mannish, virile, bold, brave, gallant, hardy, macho, muscular, powerful, Ramboesque, red-blooded, resolute, robust, stout-hearted, strapping, strong, vigorous, well built" (as the Collins' Thesaurus defines "masculine") would be virtually impossible.

Representations Masculinism is quite possibly, then, a sham, a rhetoric which cannot find approximations in the real world, yet it is built up to enormous proportions. Judith Halberstam has exposed James Bond, the bona-fide male action hero, by making him a symbol of parodied masculinity in the face of his woman boss, the self-assured M. Without his slick suit and the cigarette lighter that turns into a gun, Bond is a vulnerable man.

In terms of male-male relationships, one of the apparent representations of masculinity lies in the affirmation of their heterosexuality. While this may include discussing the secrets of their love life or those of their gay friends, women are strictly kept out of this private space of egalitarian friendship. Radhika Chopra terms this as the yaari circle which is extremely rigid about its inclusions and exclusions. A similar relationship of male bonding is evinced between father and son which is characteristically hierarchical. In depicting associations between men, the book surprisingly does not include queer relations.

Focusing on the margins of cultural formations and investigating the "authenticity" of masculinism, these well-argued essays put the eternal binaries to the acid test in favour of an ambivalence that jeopardises the existence of maleness as a natural growth, an ambivalence that results from an awareness that maleness is riven rather than naturally constituted. Such strategies may serve as the means of surveillance through which the major historical assumption of all times — the overwhelmingly predominant, male/female binary — may be put to rest.