The very idea of being a man in today’s world is a highly contested space. After the reckoning with a ‘crisis of masculinity’, older ideas of manliness are getting unraveled and debunked at a furious pace, while newer ideas haven’t found credible tropes and archetypes yet. In such a period of flux, how does a man go about (re)defining himself? What are the new ideas and myths that he seeks; what are the attendant anxieties and tensions that he grapples with?
These were some of the questions that we began to interrogate during a 2018 study around emergent cultures of masculinity. As part of the study, we sought to interrogate the lived reality in India. And so, along with writer and editor Pooja Pande, we decided to delve into the new and old spaces where there is a keen construction of maleness and masculinity. In the immersive conversations with men in these spaces, we discovered the contradictions, confusions, aspirations and fears – that fuel the process of making the new man in India.
Culled from our interviews is this descriptive, conversational piece full of mood, in which Pooja draws a nuanced connection between three very facets of this new male voice, in three different gatherings of men: gamers in their dens, bikers in their adda, and pehelwaans in their akhara.
In response to the murmurs and inklings of a new voice around us (the one that was declaring at parties, ‘Man, women are the future’), we set out on a quest to gauge its tenor. Was this the new voice of the new man? Was this the new voice of the same old man? Was evolution finally kicking in, because what do you do when your female counterparts – the so-called weaker sex, second sex, fairer sex – seem to have surpassed you?
This wasn’t just a plain crisis of masculinity, claiming wills and lives in its wake and its toxic displays of power; this was a whole new reckoning, bubbling under, coming forth. Ready to shine, just like the women.
Our quest found us scouting places and spaces where this voice was forming expression. As we tried to shape its contours for ourselves, the voice kept changing – it was certain and then uncertain, finding its own ground – and we followed the echoes through the galis and lanes of what is perhaps the most masculine city of all: Delhi.
From a bylane in Shadipur Depot, home to a few first generation and next-gen gamers, to an akhaara in Okhla, full of sweaty, muscled men, to a dhaba close to the Ridge, where a few good men hang out on Enfields – we bring you vignettes of the New Man and his Voice. Listen up.
“Miro to Day Star.”
The large-sized microphone - that hangs above a formidable-looking unit comprising wires and computers and hard drives and wires and speakers and wires - looks like the presiding deity over this mysterious paraphernalia of equipment. Someone will arrive shortly, surely, and croon a soft, desperate prayer into it.
And he does.
His name is Romit and he is a gamer. When he walks in to “do comms” over a round of CSGO, playing his best friend Sagar – the Day Star to his Miro – he is at an altar of sorts. This is not simply being in the zone, this is next-level shit. “I am the most anti-social person you’ll meet in real life, and the most social during gaming,” he says, by way of intro.
Romit, 22, took to gaming the same way a 90’s kid took to online chatting, with similar results too – blind dates. “I met an online friend recently, from Chandigarh, and when we first met each other, I was like, ‘Holy shit, you’re tall!’ And he was like, ‘You talk a lot on Discord, but in real life, you’re shy!’. We were both weirded out…”
This is the good kind of weirding out; Romit and Sagar face enough of the bad kinds in their offline lives to know when shit is real. They are students of Engineering, to start with, and if the irrelevance of that stream isn’t clear already (here factually, and here a bit more poetically), Sagar sums it up, “The course we are taught goes way back to the ancient times. I’ll tell you the reality because I am the senior here – yes, he is my junior – so the thing is, what the market wants is never taught to us, okay? I am in my 4th year and now they’ve introduced Android! Anyway in 4th year no one comes to college. Most of the guys have internships, so they are out. Then most of them are searching for jobs, so they are out.”
All day through college, if he’s in college, Sagar fantasises about being back home and putting on his Day Star cape. But why does he even bother living a half-life? His response isn’t startling in the least, because in India, not even being underground will guarantee you freedom from family ties. We could be bang in the middle of a bubbling-under sub-culture in Delhi’s armpit (also known as Shadipur Depot ka padosi), but nobody can deny that we’re being served perfectly spiced masala home fries cooked up by the gamer’s mom, specifically for this interview. So let’s not kid ourselves. Says Sagar, “Ab yeh toh Papa chaahte hain ki stable job ho, fixed place ho. Etc. etc.” His time on the console is limited, tracked intensely by his family – 9 p.m. curfew followed religiously, “It’s the time Papa’s back home. Mummy toh mic par hi bolne lag jayengi ki Papa ke aane ka time ho gaya, bandh kar do.” I keep telling her, ‘Mummy, mic toh band karne do’.”
Romit’s dad semi-corners us, just as my Uber finally figures out where the damn mandir landmark is, to politely ask, “Is there a future in gaming?” I want to tell him that I need to Google Pewdiepie before I can answer that, but I fake an all-knowing air instead, doing my best to put Uncle’s worries at ease. I want Miro to win (in) this goddamn world so bad.
Inside the cave, the boys are devising strategies with the oldest among them – Jatin, 26, who missed the gaming boat, he says, because “the closest place I could go game in, when I was their age was… China” – to actually figure out a gaming championship. Maybe if they keep it local? The Ultimate Shadipur Depot Gaming Battle.
They might just wing it.
“Now, they don’t ask. Not even my mother. Gharwaalon ko pata hai, yeh toh aise hi hain.”
Umang, 29, is talking about his life as a biker. He’s part of a tightly-knit brotherhood that’s hanging out a couple of hours’ drive away - and a few worlds apart - from where Romit and his gang practice a daily version of the boys-to-men life. Amidst endless cigarettes and chai, they take us through what makes their chosen lifestyles special – how it’s not all “bike chalaya, daaru peeya, maal maara, aur so gaya”.
The India Bull Riders is a 10-year-old biking club comprising 3,000 members, spread across 11 cities, with an age-spectrum that offers you the Indian male specie, in all his glory (or not) - from the 21-year-old mama’s boy to the 47-year-old balding Papa. An intricate network of passionate bikers that applies all the management mantras to keep things together (“it’s not corporate ya, it’s very chill”), and offers chicken-soup-for-the-soul mantras like a winning formula. Think chapter heads and positions’ hierarchies for former, and a killer do-good vibe for the latter (“khud thand mein paani lene jaao, tab pata chalti hai respect us aadmi ki jo aapko paani serve karta hai”).
30-something Abid tells us how he plays killjoy at work when the younger boys in the office ooh and aah around him and his life-path, “I say, ‘Listen dude, when we go on a biking trip, we carry solar lamps, so we can distribute them in villages where there is no electricity’.” He brushes away Easy Rider stereotypes easily, “This one trip we did, we met all these school-going children who had no stationery. So, the next time we went there, pencil boxes baantey humne bachche logon mein, school jaa kar.”
Theirs is a to-die-for-through-thick-and-thin sort of brotherhood – the kind of osmotic value-sharing that in its sisterhood counterpart would yield an alignment of lunar cycles. As Abid puts it, “You don’t have to say everything out loud for them to understand what's going in the other person’s head. That’s the idea, that’s what makes it successful. Everybody gets together well and understands each other. If one person draws a line, I might not draw the line, so that’s the difference he needs to understand - that boss, I don’t need to cross that line now. So that’s the understanding you have after a while, when you are riding together. You see, it’s more important to understand what the other person is feeling - whether he’s dizzy, whether he’s able to ride or not, if he’s sleepy or not sleepy…” While I stifle a temptation to go ‘Aww’ out loud, I anticipate those ‘senti-pussy’ type loving abuses coming his way from fellow male riders. But not one of them even bats an eyelid. The women around – wives and girlfriends and one fiancée – catch my eye for just a knowing nano-second, and look away.
Meet the New Age Man. He’s on an all-heart drive as he navigates the new world, looking for signposts that scream ‘real’.
“Sultan dekhi hai?”
I am careful not to use this as my ice-breaker, it’s too much of a clichéd password here at Guru Jasram akhara, just off Okhla, where I am amidst a sea of muscled men. A bunch of 19-somethings, with the odd 20-something or two thrown in, all broad torsos and biceps, surround me in a semi-circle, and yet manage to stay three paces away as if the note-taker in my hand might explode any second now. But they’re the ones who bring it up, so we’re good. After an early morning – think 4 a.m. – spent jogging and doing rounds of dand pelna, followed by an entire afternoon spent consuming litres of milk, ghee and nuts crushed with their own hands, the boys ask me – “Sultan dekhi hai?”
Dreading the ‘bhai rocks’ cliché, I listen in on a gleefully narrated kissa that ends with a pleasantly surprising punchline instead: “Salman ko pachhaad diya bhai ne.” They’re not talking about the bhai, but Vikram Behal or Vikram pehelwan, Guru Jasram akhara’s star wrestler and the choreographer of Sultan’s dangal scenes. “Apne Vikram bhai”.
Bhai is quite the operative word though. “Abhi samajh lo ye mere bhai jaisa hai”, “Yeh banda naa, mere bhai jaisa hai”, “Samjho bhai hi hai…”, these phrases are peppered generously across my transcripts for this immersion – many a story either ended or begun with this refrain.
The akhara, semi-hidden behind a bus stop and 10 minutes away from a buzzing nightspot, as the crow flies (if the crow’s a Scorpio looking for blood on a Delhi street), is a sacred space. The presence of Guru Jasram himself – 102, his sense and sensibilities super-sharp – extolling the virtues of “saiyyam (self-control)”, likening sleeping around to a greedy boy who wants to taste too many fruits (only to end up sick in an intricately-narrated morality tale), is only partly the reason. 50-odd boys from Meerut, Mewat, Mathura, Bailya, Palwal, and even deeper in the heartland, have made this their home – they live, eat, sleep, bond, share jokes and chortles and sessions of “mann halka karna” right here. “We’re all away from our real families, and we become each other’s families”.
Community is strong with this New Age Man. He is carving out a legacy for his parents, his family, his gaon and kasbah – he takes them along in the building of an identity that demands so much. His dreams and desires to be the next big wrestler are deeply woven into all of it. “Gaon mein aise bolte hain na, falaane ka ladka, falaane gaon ka, Dilli padh raha hai pehelwani. (This is how they speak back home, ‘So and so’s boy, from so and so village, he’s learning wrestling in Delhi)”. And the dreams are huge. “Waise ghar se sab yahin soch kar aate hain, ki Olympics khelna hai. (Everybody leaves home nursing dreams of competing at the Olympics).”
One among them takes flight every other weekend, I learn – Arun is a bouncer at a local nightclub, their neighbourly underground scene that is home to metro trains and bars. He is also the only one who shares with us the precious fact that he has a girlfriend – “she’s a wrestler too”. As I make my exit back into the city I’m more familiar with, he says, almost as if reading my mind, “Come for a drink to the place I work? I can totally get you in. Jagah ka naam hai Flying Saucer.”
“No stag entry though”, he adds knowingly.
(Pooja Pande is a writer and editor by profession. A selection of her writing and editing work can be read here.)