How Men Talk When Women Aren’t Listening

Social Commentary

How Men Talk When Women Aren’t Listening

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Arey sir, 15 saal ki thi lekin bol nahi sakte they. Khoob maze kiye humne,” (You wouldn’t have known she was 15. We had a lot of fun), said my cab driver.

We were on an unusually rushed journey across state borders. We had started making chit-chat, prophesying the outcome of the elections, contemplating the decay of the universe, when out of nowhere, he chose to tell me a story that I neither expected nor asked for. As far as rites of passage go, men hardly meditate on the font and formatting of their content in order to break the ice, or at least play to the acoustics of its surface. At the point where this man proudly admitted to having had a physical relationship with a minor girl, we were well beyond the ice, but still a good distance from the warmth of friendship. I stayed silent.

A month on, what troubles me more about the episode than the possible reason for the man’s disclosure, or his pride in it, is my inability to have reacted to it.

Men come together for various reasons. Popular culture would have you believe it is alcohol and automobiles. But there is often more. There is sports. There is, at times, the mutually shared idea of male packaging or the body itself. For a tiny minority, it could be things like literature or a yearning to travel.

Men come together for various reasons. Popular culture would have you believe it is alcohol and automobiles. But there is often more.

But nothing unites us men as the unchecked moral vacuum, within the margins of which, the first to fall through are women.

I’ve taken a flight of stairs since that journey with the driver. Each step tells me more about myself than about the person who, as a matter of legality, is a criminal. The abhorrence of his act of confession aside, it is remarkable how repetitive it all feels.

I have been on the other end of numerous conversations featuring a woman on the ropes of either dignity or security. I’ve listened to men tell me with varying degrees of pride, stories of women they intoxicated to take advantage of, women they emotionally manipulated, women they exposed the intimate details of, and women they drove as vehicles of a self-validated lifestyle. A misogyny so embedded and encoded, a patriarchy so rapidly metamorphosing, that its violence can only be understood by looking hard in the mirror.

I looked and looked until I found myself in it.

Not all masculinity is of course toxic. Not everyone is cut from the same fibre. But there is a sense of ease between two men, because they agree on one thing – the treatment of women. In fact, it forms the subtext of the male bond itself. Perhaps, hidden under the couple of hobbies two men share, the glasses they clink over the weekend, the mountains they climb together, is the almost seamless, fold-free surface of the opposite sex.

I can’t help but recall the hundreds of times I have wanted to declare openly, or contemplate freely the immorality or even perversity of something I might have done. But who did I always choose to tell this to? My closest friend, a person who’d immediately write off the decadence, forgive the indignity, or forget the very existence of what I shared. In a way tossing the unease and the questioning of morality into a screaming void, washing myself off of the guilt before even having to face up to it.

For all the women I’ve known, the company they keep is predicated on emotional connections. On the contrary, the “like-mindedness” of two male friends, is nothing but a parlour trick at times, to cover a larger more subtle mesh of interacting masculinity. But it may never manifest in the toxic or the violent. What it manifests as, is a chamber of hostility equally agreed upon, an almost guerrilla antagonism against the women in our lives. Women who haven’t the slightest clue that when two men walk into a bar, the joke is almost always on them.

I remember a cousin once tell me how he beat his girlfriend because she didn’t understand any other language. It pains me now to wonder what kept me from telling him he was wrong, criminally wrong. I have sat at desks in offices and tables in bars around which men carve the status quo their way. “Ladki ko team mein lete hi kyun hain. Inse kuch hota toh hai nahi,” said a senior colleague at the IT firm I used to work at.

Not all masculinity is of course toxic. Not everyone is cut from the same fibre.

I, like most other men, remained docile to the violation of each of these excesses. I retreat either to the banner of equality I like to publicly raise, or the comfort of being secretly in agreement.

Beneath the “bro-code” expletives that TV and film have us up to our throats with, inside the clouded chamber of these extraordinarily lubricated knots and links, sits the patriarch in all of us. Even inside the most moderate of men and the most liberal of politics, even when we speak about gender equality and fighting for women’s rights. The worst part is, we do not even realise this. We defy the gravitating effect of guilt and introspection by confiding in those who’d only drive us away from it, who’ll let us be the worst of us in exchange for a similar transaction.

When the cab driver told me the lascivious details of something that I would have publicly raged at, I sat quietly, not joining in but not declaring my exclusion either. The tightrope of morality couldn’t be more ambiguous in application and clearer in its derivation. Publicly, we are many things we are not. Personally, this man probably sought a safe expanse of land to unload his guilt on. He probably saw me  as a man off of whose docile and limp conscience he could bounce his guilt, knowing he’d receive nothing in return.

Because that is the thing with men. They don’t want to be corrected. They just want be told they will be right the next time.