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Murderous Men: A Transnational Analysis of Domestic Violence, “Toxic” Masculinity and Patriarchy in India and the United States

(Trigger warning: This article begins by quoting a long suicide note.)

Sandeep’s Suicide Note:[1]

“Everyone ignored what I had to say. Happiness was nearby, yet I couldn’t grasp it.
The fear that lingered within me eventually took hold, and I fell into deep depression.
In the days leading up to today, I was experiencing micro explosions in my heart and mind.
Today is the day of the ultimate explosion that will destroy this entire household.
I am not to be blamed. I am being punished by my god.
If I refused this marriage, my society would’ve made my life miserable.
It seems that my parents had birthed me just to get me married.
Yet they didn’t see of the deep pain within my heart that has come to define my existence.
This entire tragedy is the result of my silence and fear.
I am guilty of betraying everyone who was friendly towards me and showed me compassion.
My greatest betrayal is that of my sister living in Canada, upon whom I’m bestowing such an immense hurt.

After today, she will shudder whenever she hears the name of this village, Nathuwalla.
I’m leaving her with no one to turn to who can console her in this time of grief.
I’m murdering my family members because they wouldn’t be able to bear this pain within me.
My grandparents are already helpless, my parents would’ve become paralyzed by this hurt.
This is why I can’t leave them alive.
I’m murdering my other sister and my niece because they too were existing on our family emotional support, because my brother-in-law has surrendered his life to drugs.
This addiction has already plunged my sister into depths of sadness, any additional tragedies would’ve driven her mad.
And what about my innocent, sweet niece?
Everyone’s lives are tied to mine, and I did not want to leave them with any additional grief.
I am particularly guilty of my Canada-based sister: ‘Oh sister, what could I have done? I have lost the battle with this life. We must’ve been cursed by some holy man for mistreating him. Someone in our previous generation must’ve displaced a holy man from his land, and now we are enduring the result of his curse.’

I want to inform the entire world that if a man chooses to remain unmarried, that decision is based on a reason; a reason that cannot be shared easily.
A man is entitled to his own desires and wishes.
It is not necessary that every man is cut out for a married life.
In other countries no one is concerned about your marital status.
The decision is left up to the individual.
This is his private life, he is not indebted to his society.
Parents must understand that just because you’ve birthed your child (a son or a daughter), that child is not your slave.
This society should also be held partially accountable for my action today.
But I am primarily to blame.
My family and my relatives had no insight into my mental state.
Everything that has transpired today is the result of my silence.
This is the bitter truth of my life.
Many others like me have lived their lives in silence, never revealing their true desire to society.
Perhaps they have access to a reservoir of deeper knowledge that has allowed them to exist like this.
Many have been able to channel their silence into more creative mediums to make this world more tolerable.
Every man has access to their third eye that opens up to insight, knowledge and greater understanding of the future.
Perhaps you might laugh at my words. I too once dismissed them out of naivety.
I always had a premonition of this impending nightmare, and the destruction my future would bring, like a ruthless dictator hell-bent on carnage.

 This society will label me as “namard” (unmanly).
This is the only way they can make sense of my action.
But why am I or my parents to be blamed for these innate truths about my life, which I have no power to change? How can one subvert god’s will?
After reading these words everyone will ridicule me.
This is the only way my society can make sense of my life.
When your god has forsaken you and your luck has run out, what you are witnessing today is the only outcome.
Today’s outcome will be the scariest our village will experience in its recent memory.
And I am the root cause of this entire tragedy.

 Today I brought my sister back to my village.
Today I took my grandfather to the optometrist.
Today I visited my extended kin, who are dearest to our hearts.
Today I accompanied my brother for a celebratory drink.
Today I asked my parents to cook meat for dinner.
While they obliged, I retrieved my revolver.
They had no clue of my impending betrayal.
Today I spoke to my fiancé over the phone.
I told her that I would bring my family over to her house in the morning.
From my fiancé, I beg for forgiveness. I am your greatest perpetrator.
But I am helpless. I cannot bear the thought of destroying your life by marrying you.

 I am not a man, I am an animal.
No one wants to abandon this world
My god gave me everything (family, property, wealth), except my true happiness.
I have been living my life like a corpse.

 Seasons will change, years will pass.
We will never set foot in this home again.
I am guilty of leaving my sister and my aunt (in Canada) with such an immense hurt.
If they were here, I would’ve murdered them as well to spare them the pain.
We cannot escape the curse that has befallen us.
I can no longer inhabit this filthy body, so I am destroying it in today’s fire.”

– Sandeep Singh (aka: Sunny)

Making Sense of Senseless Violence:

On the morning of Saturday August 3rd 2019, residents of Nathuwala Garbi, a small village located in Moga district of Punjab, woke up to news of a gruesome tragedy. Overnight Sandeep Singh, a 28-year-old son of a prominent landowning household had gunned down his family of six, following which he took his own life. Sandeep’s 80-year-old grandfather, who was shot in the face but ended up surviving, called the village sarpanch (village head) for help, and the latter notified the police of the murder-suicide.

As details surrounding this incident came into focus, and Sandeep’s handwritten suicide note was discovered, the regional and national media reported the incident in a vastly different manner. Much of the regional-Punjabi language media focused their reportage on Sandeep’s “unstable mental state,” attributing his actions to a generations-old land-related dispute which, as Sandeep suspects in his suicide note, invited a “curse of some holy man” onto the family, after his family disturbed the holy man’s tomb that once sat on their land. Reports in national English-language media attributed Sandeep’s actions to the relentless pressure he felt to marry a woman arranged by his family. Rumours circulated via WhatsApp and word-of-mouth, suspecting Sandeep of being ‘impotent’, ‘homosexual’, a ‘psychopath’ and/or being ‘addicted to drugs’. The Punjab Police focused its investigation largely on tracking down the real owners of the murder weapon, the revolver that Sandeep had obtained illegally (he confesses to stealing the revolver in his suicide note). As residents of Nathuwala Garbi tried to make sense of these desperate morsels of information that might shed some light on Sandeep’s actions, a general attitude of shock and confusion emerged. Despite the existence of the suicide note, time and time again the tragedy was dubbed incomprehensible, frequently with the caveat that Sandeep belonged to a “well-off” family that was not experiencing any “financial issues.”  Sandeep Singh was repeatedly referred to as a “disturbed young man.”

By translating and reproducing a transcript of Sandeep’s handwritten suicide note (nearly in its entirety),[2] I do not wish to re-report this story. Nor do I want to call into question the efficacy of the regional and national media’s reportage of this gruesome tragedy. Rather than focusing on minute details of this story, Sandeep’s mental state, his refusal to get married and the supposed curse that haunted his family, I invite readers to take a step back and consider Sandeep’s actions and reasons cited within his suicide note in their entirety. A cursory discursive analysis of Sandeep’s last words paints a portrait of a man struggling to negotiate his own emotional and intimate desires against conflicting expectations placed upon him by his society and his family. By trying to understand this tragedy on a more aggregate level, my hope is that we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of violence, gender relations and the development of masculinity in Indian and Punjabi society. Whereas the circumstances surrounding this particular case of murder-suicide might render it “senseless” or “incomprehensible” to the public precisely because it was carried out by a privileged young man growing up in a landed household, similar cases of domestic disputes that culminate in intra-family violence or even murder of a family member are a common feature of everyday life in Punjab and elsewhere in India. Women and Dalit people are the most frequent victims of such violence that results from challenging patriarchal kinship structures and related institutions, including monogamous heteronormative arranged marriage.

On the day Nathuwalla’s residents learned of the murder-suicide that transpired within their village, the world’s attention was fixated on yet another set of shooting-murders undertaken by two young men, one in El Paso (Texas) and other in Dayton (Ohio) that claimed the lives of 22 people in Texas and 9 in Ohio. As reported in the North American news media, the Texas shooter who was arrested by the police, was motivated by racial animosity and xenophobia towards immigrants. The Ohio shooter, a 24-year-old named Connor Betts who was killed in the encounter with the police, did not seem to have any clear motive for going on a shooting rampage. Curiously, in the Dayton mass shooting, like the Nathuwalla incident, one of the first targets of his murderous rampage was the shooter’s own sibling. Like Sandeep Singh, Connor Betts (as well as the El Paso shooter) were repeatedly referred to in the news media as “disturbed young men.”

Despite the fact that these two incidents (in Nathuwala Garbi and in Dayton) occurred on the opposite sides of the world, is it possible for us to look at these two acts of violence, committed by two men in their mid-20s who came from fairly middle-class privileged backgrounds, through the same framework of patriarchal violence? Shortly after the Dayton incident, news reportage uncovered further revelations (and speculations) about Connor’s mental state, his bullish behaviour at high school, the blatant misogyny and the violent nature of his social media posts along with a history of physical threats against his fellow students.[3] Even though Connor’s exact motivations for going on a shooting rampage and murdering his younger sibling (reported in most media outlets as “Megan Betts”) remain unknown, in the days following the incident, reports also surfaced that Connor’s younger sibling identified as a transgender man, preferred the name Jordan Cofer and used he/him pronouns.[4] While there is no direct evidence suggesting that Cofer’s murder was a transphobic hate crime, we cannot rule out domestic and intra-family violence as a possible motivation behind Connor Betts’s killing spree that terrorised Dayton, less than 24 hours after Sandeep had gunned down his entire family in Nathuwala Garbi.

Murderous Masculinities:

Examining these two massacres that took place within hours of each other side by side, domestic and intra-family violence seems to emerge as the unifying theme that connects the two disparate acts of violence. Another common factor shared by the two otherwise seemingly isolated incidents includes the fact that both incidents were carried out by young men growing up in patriarchal societies where men (like them) are the beneficiaries of racial/caste privilege and male supremacy. In fact, patriarchal masculinity is the common thread that ties these two acts of violence to each other and to similar incidents of domestic or intra-family violence, where victims are frequently women and minorities. Multiple studies point to an undeniable correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings carried out by men like Connor Betts in the United States.[5] In India, similar patterns of domestic and intra-family violence and murders, including ones that are labelled “honour killings,” are easy to find, albeit with a lot fewer cases of the kind of mass shootings that are made possible by the ready availability of firearms and assault weapons in the United States. Given the infrequency of mass shooting in India, Sandeep Singh’s shooting rampage, which claimed the lives of six people (including himself), grabbed immediate news headlines.

Having established these cursory linkages between gender development, domestic violence and mass murder on a transnational level, I want to pursue this line of inquiry even further by asking: do Sandeep Singh and Connor Betts share any other characteristics in common aside from their common motivation to murder their family members? Did their upbringing as men in their respective patriarchal societies have any bearing on their decision to go on a killing spree? Did their privileged position in society as men enable them to conceive of and undertake such gruesome acts of violence with little regard for the consequences of their actions? In the absence of a suicide note from Connor Betts, there is a limit to what we can speculate about his motivations. In Sandeep Singh’s case however, the details in his suicide note do shed some light on his motivations for murdering his family and reveal important distinctions between the two incidents, and how the two men might have conceived of their masculinity and sense of power differently.

As these correlations between gender development, physical violence and mass shootings come into sharper relief, the term “toxic masculinity” has become a staple of public discourse used to characterise men like Connor Betts, and even Sandeep Singh. Increasingly referenced within North American and Indian news media when reporting on men who behave badly, the term “toxic masculinity” describes men who embody a stereotypical heterosexual masculine ideology (and attitudes) of suppressing emotions, maintaining an impenetrable exteriority and deploying violence to assert power and dominance.[6] Given that the formation of heterosexual masculinities, both Indian and North American, often entail violent processes that include bullying, teasing, physical abuse and gendered humiliation associated with the demonstration of any emotions,[7] there is no doubt that both Sandeep Singh and Connor Betts were tainted by a culture of hegemonic or toxic masculinity that is partially to be blamed for their violent actions. However, there are distinctions between masculine development and notions of masculinity in the two (Indian and North American) cultures that are seminal to understanding how Sandeep Singh and Connor Betts might have been confronted with two very different sets of circumstances when it came to developing their notions of what it means to be a man in their respective social milieus.

In his most recent book, Angry White Men examining the lives of white heterosexual men like Connor Betts, sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that these men who grow up in working class families with limited educational and employment opportunities have resorted to a sense of “aggrieved entitlement.”[8] Kimmel describes this form of resentment shared by many of the mass shooters as “the sense that those benefits to which you believed yourself entitled have been snatched away from you by unseen forces larger and more powerful.”  He goes on to connect the shortcomings and the lack of fulfillment of the American Dream to the radicalisation of white men, who, like Connor Betts, turn to violence to express their anger and resentment against their families and community. In this way, the notion of what it means to be man, particularly a white man in North America, is constructed through very individualised (one-on-one) sets of interactions that men have, within their peer-groups at school, with women they are romantically interested in and through the different kinds of media representations they consume via films, televisions, music and social media.[9] In addition to male superiority, North American masculinity is equally constructed through the continued reinforcement of existing racial hierarchies where white men have traditionally enjoyed being on top. As Kimmel and others have observed, the nature of working-class white male resentment is rooted just as much in the gradual reshaping of the patriarchal power structures as well as these racial hierarchies upon which the United States was founded, as more and more women and people from minority groups surpass working-class white men in educational and professional achievement.

For a young man like Connor Betts to grow up with a sense of patriarchal and racial entitlement, and then go on a shooting rampage when that entitlement is taken away from him poses the question of who ought to be held responsible for his actions? His parents? His peers? His educators? Or society at large? If men like Connor Betts have crossed a certain threshold of socially acceptable behaviour that might classify them as “toxic,” are there processes and interventions by which they can “detox”? What would this entail? I do not have an expedient solution to this problem, though my assessment as a feminist scholar of gender and sexuality studies is that any prescription for addressing this form of white male anger must include a deeper understanding and familiarity with human differences. It would require for young white men like Connor Betts, who often grow up in racially and politically homogenous communities to have more interactions with women and people from minority groups and those with differing political affiliations in ways that promote mutual respect and understanding, and not fear and resentment. However, labelling Connor Betts’ actions as merely a manifestation of “toxic masculinity” ignores the ways in which racial resentment and racial superiority might have partially motivated Betts’ violent actions as it certainly was the case in El Paso where the shooter left behind a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto that unequivocally points to racial prejudice and xenophobia as the primary motives behind his violent rampage.

The construction of Indian masculinity, particularly Punjabi masculinity, differs significantly from the North American model. As sociologist Radhika Chopra notes, Punjabi masculinity is developed and reinforced within peer-groups whose settings are often public (the street or the school), as well as along patrilineal axes within the domestic setting of the home, or in the field, passed down from father to son.[10] Young Indian men grow up experiencing certain levels of power and privilege belonging to particular caste and class subgroups in a society that is deeply stratified into carefully-policed class social categories. While violence is one outcome of the frustration that men experience when they feel less powerful due to the shortcoming in the promises of patriarchy, similar to their North American counterparts, violence is also used to maintain patriarchal kinship and caste status quo while reinforcing its institutions (like monogamous heterosexual arranged marriage) that infuses patriarchy with its power.[11] Characterising the kind of patriarchal violence commonly enacted by Indian men (intra-family violence, honour killings, caste or religion-based lynching, and even gang rape) as a consequence of “toxic masculinity culture” obscures the power dynamics that are at play within these incidents, and distracts us from understanding how violence within these scenarios is used to reconstitute or reinforce existing social hierarchies. I am not asserting that Indian men, like their North American counterparts, are immune to the kinds of peer-influenced behaviours and dominant ideology that might produce them as toxically masculine. However, by characterising the violence Indian men enact upon women and other men as the manifestation of toxic masculinity alone ignores the ways in which, within the South Asian context, patriarchal boundary policing is far more potent of a motivator of violence than any sense of resentment that Indian men might feel because of unfulfilled promises of patriarchy. Rather, unlike their North American counterparts, Indian men are much more constrained by the fairly robust institution of patriarchy kinship (and caste supremacy) that while giving them power over women and minority groups, simultaneously limits their life-choices, in terms of who they can love, marry and spend the rest of their lives with. And in some cases, like that of Sandeep Singh, violence becomes the misguided and tragic manifestation of the resentment and frustrations against the limitations of patriarchy and its related institutions (mainly arranged marriage), and how these institutions shaped his intimate and personal desires.

In Conclusion:

Young Indians across urban and rural areas are growing up in a vastly different landscape of adolescent development that privileges individual aspirations and goals over the sense of familial obligation, communal well-being and self-sacrifice that was a prominent feature in the lives of their parents growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, the expectation for Indians to enter into and remain in a marriage, usually in one arranged by their families, remains constant. According to the 2001 census, nearly 82% of Indian men and women report being married, while only 14 % of men and 4% of women report having never married.[12] Marriage is one of the most important cultural institutions in India that also supports a lucrative industry worth 40 billion US dollars.[13] In unpacking how marital policies regulate existing gender norms, Srimati Basu points out, “…marriage is depicted as a pillar of nationalist stability, a necessary refuge, or an incipient site of violence. ‘Protection of women,’ which looms large as the grounds of debate, carries a range of valences: protecting women from change, protecting women through marriage, protecting women against violence within marriage, protecting women from coerced marriage, or protecting certain women from other women’s modernizing whims,”[14] in this way, “gendered entitlements in marriage are constituted through these negotiations, with marital dissolution as a site for working our identity, rights, property, and nation” (2015: 36).[15]

As I have discovered in my research among Punjabi men, this foreclosure of agency in regards to choosing whom to marry and what kind of life one desires to live has led to routine upheavals that result in marital discord, familial ostracism, children blaming their parents for their personal shortcomings, domestic violence and occasionally an act of murder-suicide that shocks the entire village. Despite the exceptional circumstances surrounding the Nathuwala Garbi incident, violence associated with marriage, along with other intimate choices available to young Indians, is surprisingly common. The punishment for female family members who transgress patriarchal kinship structures and caste and religious boundaries in choosing whom to marry can result in fatal consequences for them. However, these acts of domestic violence and intra-family killings are often lumped (usually by international news media) into the amorphous phenomenon of “honour killings,” giving them a veneer of a problem specific to the Global South.[16] Should we also consider Sandeep’s murder-suicide through this fraught framework of “honour killings,” given that the motivations behind honour killings and intra-family violence are similar – restoration-of/escape-from patriarchal kinship structures and institutions that supply it with its power, mainly the institution of arranged marriage? Sandeep’s suicide note further alludes to the ways in which the social and the intimate within Punjabi society and marital norms are inexorably interconnected, as he dreads, “if I refused this marriage, my society would’ve made my life miserable. It seems that my parents had birthed me just to get me married.” While one can argue that Sandeep Singh too is the victim of patriarchy, particularly of the demands of compulsory heterosexuality that are placed upon Indian men vis-à-vis the institution of arranged marriage, we cannot overlook the fact that those he murdered are the greater casualties of patriarchal violence that he, as the male head-of-household enacted upon his family members in a manner emblematic of what otherwise might be reported by the Indian and international media as “honour killings.”[17]

As feminist scholars have repeatedly noted, within the Indian context, gender and caste hierarchies are often upheld on a societal level through a spectre of shame and violent punishment that seeps down into the domestic space of the family, and finally into our intimate relationships, shaping Indians’ desires and life choices.[18]  Meanwhile, the accelerated circulation of media representations that depict diverse sexual identities and family models as well as non-traditional gender roles in relationships via television and the Internet, are profoundly reshaping the kind of lives young Indians want to live. Circulation of pornography via mobile technology platforms such as WhatsApp, especially in the absence of comprehensive sexuality education or familial guidance about sex and sexuality is significantly shaping how young Indians develop their understandings of sex and sexuality. The sense of shame and disappointment implied within Sandeep Singh’s suicide note (describing his emotional and presumably sexual desires as animalistic and his body as “filthy”) points to Punjab being a deeply prudish society enmeshed in a culture of denial, refusing to acknowledge the existence of sex and sexual desires beyond those whose end goal is reproduction. Perhaps India’s Victorian-era notions of morality coupled with puritan attitudes towards sex and sexuality that fuels the kind of self-loathing and the sense of repulsion with one’s own body, which Sandeep Singh believed he could only escape by destroying himself and his entire family, is colonialism’s greatest legacy.

Undoubtedly, Sandeep Singh (as well as Connor Betts) suffered from depression and was experiencing mental health challenges that went undiagnosed and untreated. However, reading Sandeep Singh’s rather poetic suicide note, it is difficult to simply conclude (as many media reports of the incident have done) that the fears of a supposed curse and/or hesitation regarding being married to a woman he did not wish to marry led him to commit such a heinous crime. Nor can we attribute Sandeep Singh and Connor Betts’ murderous instincts to “toxic masculinity” alone, which functions to reproduce the spectre of the unpredictable “disturbed young men,” rendering these routine incidents of violence as “senseless.” While these two similar incidents of violence that took place within hours of each other on opposite ends of the world bring up similar questions regarding masculine development, with the desire to prevent future tragedies like these, examining both as a manifestation of a “toxic” masculine culture alone obscures the ways in which the two are culturally specific and symptoms of greater gender, caste and racial inequalities and related institutions whose operations vary from one culture to another. Examining the two acts of violence side-by-side through a framework of transnational gender and feminist studies, however, reveals that motivations behind masculine violence are surprisingly similar. Far from senseless or even culturally-specific (as it is often referred to when about “honour-killings”) violence against women and minorities is deployed strategically as a way of reinforcing and regulating existing power dynamics, whether it is upper-caste male supremacy in India or white male supremacy in the United States.

Mardistan (Macholand) by Harjant Gill (2014) from Harjant Gill on Vimeo.

Acknowledgements:

The author would like to thank Kulwinder Harshai for his invaluable guidance and feedback in the development of this essay

 

[1] Excerpts from Sandeep Singh’s suicide note (translated from Punjabi by the author)

[2] Segments of the note were omitted to conceal personal identifying information

[3] https://heavy.com/news/2019/08/connor-betts/

[4] https://splinternews.com/friends-say-that-sibling-murdered-by-dayton-shooter-was-1837035664

[5] https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/06/domestic-violence-misogyny-incels-mass-shootings/

[6] https://xyonline.net/content/toxic-masculinity-primer-and-commentary

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html

and https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/indias-culture-of-toxic-masculinity/article29262252.ece

[7] See Pascoe, CJ. 2007 Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. University of California Press. Also see Harjant Gill’s Mardistan/Macholand (2014): https://vimeo.com/120182667 (Public Service Broadcasting Trust)

[8] See Kimmel, Michael. 2013 Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Nation Books

[9] See Pascoe, CJ. 2007 Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. University of California Press.

[10] Chopra, Radhika. 2004 “Encountering Masculinity: An Ethnographer’s Dilemma.” In South Asian Masculinities: Context of Change, Sites of Continuity. Radhika Chopra, Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella, eds. Pp. 36-59. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.

[11] https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/indias-culture-of-toxic-masculinity/

[12] Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India, “Marital Status by Age and Sex,” Census of India 2001.

[13] https://www.cnbctv18.com/retail/the-recession-proof-big-fast-indian-wedding-just-got-more-corporatised-1012991.htm

[14] Original emphasis by the author.

[15] See Basu, Srimati. 2015 The Trouble with Marriage: Feminist Confront Law and Violence in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[16] See Grewal, Inderpal. 2013 “Outsourcing Patriarchy: Feminist Encounters, Transnational Mediations and the Crime of ‘Honor Killings.’” In International Feminist Journal of Politics, 15(1)

[17] No mention of honour killings was ever made in any of the news media coverage of this particular incident.

[18] See Menon, Nivedita, ed. 2007. Sexualities. Women Unlimited

All Images: Harjant Gill

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Article written by:

Harjant Gill is an associate professor of anthropology at Towson University. His research examines the intersections of masculinity, modernity, transnational migration and popular culture in India. Gill is also an award-winning filmmaker and has made several ethnographic films, including Mardistan/Macholand, that have screened at international film festivals and on television channels worldwide including BBC, Doordarshan (Indian National TV) and PBS. Funded by the Performing Arts fellowship by American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) and the Fulbright-Nehru Research Award, Gill is currently living in New Delhi while developing an eight-part immersive virtual reality web-series on Indian masculinities titled “Tales from Macholand.” His website is HarjantGill.com.

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