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cover for "dilli ki galiyan' by amrita pritam, beside a picture of amrita pritam
CategoriesMasculinities and SexualityReview

MeToo, Masculinity and Amrita Pritam

I began conducting workshops to address sexual harassment on university campuses and professional workplaces about a year ago. Somewhere along the way, the space of the workshop became a charged zone of confrontational conundrums, deeply affected by the conversations that the MeToo movement had launched across the cultural landscape. I came across men of varying demographics and socio-political worldviews in these sessions – some of whom were frustrated and even offended at being asked to consider that their sexual partners possessed preferences and pleasures of their own. However, quite apart from the archetypes of “toxic” and “macho” Kabir Singhs, I also came across men who thought of themselves as “considerate” who were just as confused, if not outright aghast, as to how to express their desires when masculinity itself seemed to have caused so much violence and hurt to women.

I would like to think that this “confusion” that men are left to grapple with, while welcome, has always already existed for many of us. This “confusion” has in fact, been the root of a lot of violence and hurt, precisely because dominant culture has offered a singular paradigm for masculinity. A paradigm that is “toxic” because it is hegemonic, in that, it rules out the possibility of a masculine spectrum, disallowing a range of people who identify as men to express themselves in a manner of their choosing. Perhaps then, what should prove helpful in all of this confusion is recognising that masculinity has been imbued with a diversity of lived experiences. What can it mean to look at some of these and push them into contemporary discourse? What does it mean for men to be better listeners? What does it mean for men to sexually and personally relate to others in a way that is not obsessed with protection for the sake of honour and righteousness, but for the sake of relating, itself?

While there have been recent responses to these questions, cultures of masculinity remain stuck in an atomistic conception of redemption, asking men to be “better”, instead of risking fluidity as an answer. Therefore I turn to a little known novel by Amrita Pritam, Dilli ki Galiyaan (The Lanes of Delhi), to offer a way of reading and picturing men that invokes care rather than hurt, love rather than violence, affect rather than stoicism. In reading a text by a woman writer therefore, I flip the sociological gaze on masculinity. I try and employ the lens of a story that is chiefly concerned with producing a space where a woman can articulate her aspirations.

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Dilli ki Galiyaan is centred on the life of Kamini, a columnist for a newspaper based in Delhi. While it seems to be written around the 1970s, the novel is closer to our own times: Kamini writes about the perils of intensive urbanisation and “development” by highlighting the woes of those who are left behind in the great project of nation-building. The trajectory of her professional career also serves as an overarching frame for her personal desires and aspirations. These inform her interaction with the men in her life, opening up possibilities to see how her relationship with the space of the city is always already gendered.

The novel begins with locating Kamini in the home she grew up in – the third storey of a building in Daryaganj – with her father as a single parent. The absence of a mother however, does not connote an absence of the space of maternal affect. Instead, Kamini looks to her father for care and support time and again. While she is still studying in college for instance, she meets a man named Sunil with whom she develops a close bond, but one that is often left inarticulate for all of Sunil’s elusiveness. After he finally disappears from her life, Kamini is mostly disappointed, studying with people who “… would speak words of friendship and love as if they were in a hurry to express all that they knew about these words.” Instead, Kamini was searching for people who could “… take these words down to the depths of their heart, and then remain silent” – people such as the ones she came across in her father’s writings. This disappointment and distance takes a literal significance in the next chapter. Kamini moves to the very outskirts of the city with her father. Even while she takes a job as a journalist, she plays the role of an observer-critic, as someone who is a part of this city but also removed from its pulse and people.

The alienation that Kamini feels from the city-space and its publics gets personified in the figure of Jagir Singh. A poet who is appreciated somewhat ambiguously even amongst his closest friends, Jagir Singh is introduced to us for the first time on his way for an interview with Kamini, who is planning to write a piece about contemporary poets in Delhi. We are told later that Kamini does not release this piece for “… she could not quite understand his poetry”. However, Jagir Singh begins to drive over to Kamini’s house, forcing conversation with her father. He starts dropping by her bus stop, offering to drop Kamini to work. She tolerates his company to some extent, even as he volunteers to recite some more of his poetry. (Kamini admits to the reader that she still does not understand it.) Jagir Singh’s increasing number of appearances at her home leave Kamini a bit perturbed, till she reaches a point of irritation and acute discomfort, demanding that he leave.

Jagir Singh does not make an appearance in Kamini’s life after this point, but becomes a looming presence in everything she does, leading to a general sense of disgust and anger Kamini begins to feel for the city. The sociologist Fran Tonkiss might call this dread a “fear of space”, considering that women’s cognitive maps of the city and their everyday spatial stories are frequently organised around ideas of safety and danger. While Kamini does not exhibit “fear” as much as “disappointment”, Jagir Singh’s intermittent interferences in her life hinder her from experiencing the city as intimately as she used to.

At a time when we’re finally hearing stories of male entitlement being called out, refusal has become the touchstone for differentiating between toxic and acceptable masculinities. But relationships can prove toxic in multiple ways. While Jagir Singh’s inability to accept Kamini’s refusal makes his presence in her life poisonous, Kamini’s reluctant acceptance of Sunil’s sudden disappearance from her life leaves her with a sense of festering loneliness. Thankfully, however, these are not the only two contours through which she experiences the city. In her relationship with Nasir, a visual artist, Kamini finds another possible model of masculinity, one that does not react to refusal with inconsiderate violence, but instead, patience and acceptance.

The first time Kamini and Nasir meet for an interview, the visit is presented to us through Nasir’s point of view, as if the text hardly considers Kamini’s presence in his studio as anything out of the ordinary. It is when Nasir finally reads Kamini’s review of his work that he recalls the interview carefully – the pointed questions Kamini had asked him, the careful attention she had paid to his canvases, and the way she concluded their meeting: clicking his photograph, training the lens on the artist who would portray women models in his paintings. In her review Kamini writes:

The artist has captured women from multiple perspectives in his work … today we see this artist paint subjects such as: ‘woman with a flower’, ‘woman with a comb’, ‘woman with a bangle’… and we shall wait for the day when this artist shall portray: ‘a woman with a mind’”.

Afterwards, Nasir visits Kamini on reading another one of her columns and shares some of his new work – he has begun to sketch cartoons filled with social satire and commentary for another newspaper. Kamini reciprocates later, on reading another one of his cartoons, by sharing a recent column she wrote: a critique of a ruthless system which is turning increasingly hostile towards human rights (haq). In one of these exchanges, Nasir and Kamini reach a level of shared intimacy that Kamini is hesitant to encourage any further. She does not name Sunil but indicates that her desires are still fixated on someone else. Nasir replies that he understands.

Their friendship continues amid a commotion of public slander caused due to Jagir Singh and company, who go to journalistic and intellectual gatherings and announce that Kamini is the kind of woman who “takes advantage of men” to get famous herself. This campaign turns particularly pernicious, leaving Kamini extremely dispirited. Her disappointment reaches a point of physical lethargy and she cannot get herself to leave her room. At this point, she talks to her father and Nasir – each conversation leaving her a tad bit hopeful, even as she is closely familiar with man’s “animalistic” nature.

In their introduction to a collection of essays on Men and Feminism, Romit Chowdhary and Zaid Al-Baset refer to such a model of caring. To make sure that the relationship between the one caring and the one cared for does not turn into something paternalistic, it is important that the latter acknowledges the involvement of the one caring. This “care reception”, bases the relationship on a sense of mutuality, trust, reciprocity and consent. Kamini for instance, does not care for Nasir’s many tips for her safety, since they cannot shield her from experiencing the truth of the city herself. However, she says that she is touched by them all the same, for she knows she can rely on him. Similarly, her father’s intervention in the situation is not typical – he does not shower unrealistic restrictions on Kamini’s movement. He does not wish to protect her against an evil world, but instead, encourages her to continue writing in the hope of a better one.

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Dilli ki Galiyaan therefore offers us a broader canvas for our desires, than the one afforded by the clear cut binaries of our current debates. The text shows that there will be masculinities that we urgently need to discourage; while men who do not encourage us will continue to exist. In Jagir Singh, Kamini finds a desire she does not wish to reciprocate – a symbol of all that she finds disgusting about her city. In desiring Sunil, she finds herself giving into a reluctant distancing, a toxic condition that will leave her feeling alienated from her own city. In the end, while choosing and embracing Nasir, Kamini says that “… for the first time in my life, I feel as if this land is mine, this country is mine, this city is mine.” His is the kind of masculinity that cares for her to belong somewhere, on her own terms.

It becomes important that in re-looking at masculinities we also scrutinise the dialectical exchange through which something becomes undesirable. If there is something redeemable in being a “man” it can only be gleaned in relation to those whom we have historically overlooked. Pleas for softer masculinities instead, refuse to realise that anything toxic about maleness emerges in our interaction with something that we do not understand. When Kamini refuses him for the first time, Nasir replies by saying: “I understand”. What can it mean to unpack this statement? What can it mean to demand change by demanding that men “understand”?

We cannot challenge the status quo by offering a new paradigm for masculinity to replace a previous one. That approach only opens up an endless cycle of hegemony – it replaces “male” by affixing another – singular – meaning to that identity, leaving the prison of gender unaffected. Violence does not exist by itself but emerges as a consequence of the social scripts we adhere to: “as a man I cannot be undermined”, “as a man I cannot accept refusal”, “as a man I am supposed to set the agenda for this conversation”. It is within the production of these scripts that we may rewrite gender.

Men can let go of such expectations so they may fly and land at the threshold of some ‘other’. Perhaps, this can be the dialogue through which masculinity becomes desirable again? Not to say that being male is necessarily undesirable, but to understand that while being male, we can desire in multiple ways and not just one.

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Ishan works at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University. He occasionally writes on films, literature, sexuality, and masculinity

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