Breaking the Mould

Masculinity and the family in contemporary Indian fiction

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Areeb Ahmad Illustrations by Shagnik Chakraborty
30 April, 2024

AT THE LAUNCH OF HIS LATEST BOOK, Sakina’s Kiss, Vivek Shanbhag said that masculinity “is like water. A hairline crack is enough for it to seep in and be all over the place.” It is true that it would have been a lost battle to try and single out the parts of the novel—translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur—that address masculinity in isolation from the rest of its themes, the concept being too slippery and omnipresent to isolate without being contrived. The narrative, which revolves around a middle-class married couple, Viji and Venkataramana, begins with people repeatedly showing up to their Bengaluru apartment and inquiring, suspiciously, about their daughter, Rekha, who is out of town. Venkataramana, the first-person narrator, is livid at their appearance.

I cannot stand such groups of boys. They roam around aimlessly instead of studying and waste their parents’ money. They have no respect for elders or for rules and are a menace to society. The sight of them always sets off a small fury within me: the defiant way they carry themselves, those T-shirts and pointy hairstyles, their apathetic expressions. But when I try and put a finger on why I should feel that way, I cannot come up with a definite reason and it leaves me flustered.

Despite Viji’s reaction being calmer, Venkataramana decides that, although he is content to defer to his wife and daughter on most things with no bearing on “the real world,” in this instance, “as the man of the house, it was my duty to step forward and take care of it.” This declaration, on which the first chapter ends, sets the tone for what follows—ominous, because these visitors signal trouble on the horizon, but also contradictory, because the more the novel ventures into the narrator’s inner world, his insecurities and habits, the more the notion of his unshakeable authority is unravelled.

Reading Sakina’s Kiss as well as other writing published over the last five years illuminates how recent fiction has introspected on the ways in which generation gaps, globalisation, changing social mores and political shifts, gender norms and roles, caste and class all contribute to the shaping of masculinity and family dynamics. Half the Night is Gone by Amitabha Bagchi is a treatise on brotherhood and estrangement. Anubha Yadav’s The Anger of Saintly Men, the story of three brothers growing up in north India in the 1990s, explores how young boys are moulded into men in the Indian household. Aruni Kashyap’s short story “His Father’s Disease” revolves around a mother’s despair at her son’s queerness, which she sees as being a legacy of her husband. My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, a triptych of novellas, follows a young doctor as he “negotiates love and sexuality, his need for companionship, and the burdens of familial expectation.” Fern Road Boy by Angshu Dasgupta follows the coming-of-age journey of a young boy who struggles to replicate the ways of masculinity around him.