Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men

I’m beginning to think I should have a separate bookshelf for things that people have bought, stopped by my house after bookshopping and accidentally left there. Trisha, if you’re reading this, you left your Little Book on Men at my place a few months ago.

From last week’s column:

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“Men don’t talk about what it means to be a man,” says Gautam Bhan in his introduction to Rahul Roy’s A Little Book on Men. Bhan acknowledges, rightly, that the reason discussions of gender are dominated by discussions of women is a function of history. Men have been the mainstream for so long that we rarely think about how people are socialised into being men, and what masculinity means.

And yet, these are questions that are becoming more and more crucial. In India, the social position of women has been changing drastically over the last couple of decades. What does this mean for our collective understanding of masculinity? To what extent is masculine behaviour a result of biology and how much of it is learned? What are the institutions through which we come to our ideas of what masculinity entails?

A Little Book on Men brings together some of these questions. Rahul Roy is a maker of documentary films, and the book uses a variety of media – poetry and prose, quotes from academics, posters (of both the filmy and the “ideal boy” variety) and collage. In addition, there are illustrations throughout “in black, white and gray” by Anupama Chatterjee and Sherna Dastur. A series of interviews with a group of young men is rendered in comic format, with the photographs arranged in panels and overlaid with text. The cover page has a border made up of pictures of boys of different identities; “Christian”, “Gujarati”, “Bengali”, “Kerala Boy”.

Over and over Roy makes the point that there is no single unified idea of masculinity, and that there are alternative models that prize such ideas as non-violence. In one section he discusses the potential of “female masculinities”; this is accompanied by a poster of “Great Men Of India” that includes Indira Gandhi and Rani Lakshmi Bai.

Yet if there is a greater diversity within masculinities than might at first seem to be the case, it’s also true that some of their more common manifestations are a bit alarming. As Roy notes, masculinities “have been identified as a rather toxic part of our social life”. A collage early in the book juxtaposes newspaper headlines with a patchwork of images. Most of the headlines seem connected to violence – violence against women, violence against dalits, religious violence, naxalite violence. The images in the background are of fireworks boxes, action figures, toy guns. Roy points out that this is because men are the principal actors in a violent society.

But as a woman, and particularly after a spate of recent news stories, I’m bound to pay attention to men’s attitudes towards gender. The back cover of Roy’s book suggests “fewer rapes” as a goal for which it might be necessary for men to change. The young men (Aman, Munna, Tony and Ravi) whom the book engages in conversation have trouble talking to girls and worry about satisfying future partners in bed, but they also believe that women say no when they mean yes, and seriously discuss whether or not they will have to beat their future wives to keep them in order. One of the headlines at the beginning of the book had already stated that close to 1 in 5 married women has experienced domestic violence.

The unusual format of A Little Book on Men allows the book to address a broader spectrum of issues than it might have otherwise, but it doesn’t allow for any of them to be entered into with great depth. This is understandable; it’s not an academic work (or not wholly one) and doesn’t claim to lay out a framework for masculinity studies as a discipline. What it does do, and do quite well, is to highlight the need for this area of study, and offer some useful potential starting points.

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One Comment to “Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men

  1. Excellently written! And consider it a gift.

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