I’m 19, razor thin, restless of mind, but overwhelmingly quiet. It has been a year since my father left town on a transfer, leaving mom behind to the hapless task of raising a bitter, confrontational boy. My maternal grandfather has just died. Three days after his last rites have been performed, I arrive at his home, after appearing for an exam. Every face I encounter is somber, there is soreness in each eye. The women look distinctly bedraggled, lifeless. The men, all of them, are absent, either physically or emotionally. I see mom through the curtains that separate men from the women, sitting in a corner, surrounded by her sisters, blank and weak. My stomach suddenly collapses on me. I feel this surge, a wet force behind my eyes. My mind is a confused tangle of emotions over what is expected of me. I turn around and place myself in the huddle of men, somehow managing not to break into tears.
For at least 25 years of my life, I did not shed a tear. Not that I was clinically recording the fact, but, as far as memory serves right, I simply refused to give in whenever a situation arose — be it a death in the family, breakups, academic failures or even the sheer, physical pain of injury. Often my ideological tussles with dad, which I eventually lost, left me broken. Emotionally overwhelmed, I resorted to anger, even to insults, but never to the slow eloquence of wet-eyed stutters. To me, they were a mark of weakness, a “feminine” side that, like most men, I was raised to disown.
Masculinity means many things to many men. In my late teens, I interpreted it as the necessity to disagree or to hold a contrarian view. If dad looked west, I looked east merely because I felt I had the choice to do so. Defeats, whether physical or mental, at that age, can be jarring. Judgement is what a boy, in a crowd of hyper-masculine men, fears the most. I decided I would rather be alone than be judged, tying up with it my earliest ideas of dignity and self-respect. I made sure that while I did not gain in height, I did not lose anything in the eyes of those watching me.
The men that I came across, inside or outside the home, exhibited an equal aversion to appearing vulnerable. They wanted to be strong, they believed themselves to be strong and they dismissed anything else as a sign of weakness. Auraton ki Tarah roya matt karo (Don’t cry like a woman) — is a refrain that was both an insult and an injury to the likes of us.
Years later, I realized, there was a vacuum behind each stubborn face. A vacuum, it was espoused, women were marked to fill. Six years from the day I hid from my mother in broad daylight in a room in Pune, I broke into tears over a minor disagreement with a woman. I was tired of the charade, embarrassed too. For 25 years, I had taught myself to believe that the other side of the wall was where all the “real” men gathered. If you found yourself on the wrong side, as I did myself now, I would be earmarked as a pushover, considered either weak or feminine, or both.
I promised myself it was a one-off, never to be repeated — a warning, so to speak. But it was difficult to live up to that promise. I found myself breaking down more often, a lot more than expected. I started weeping as I watched movies, I cried when I longed for home and I sobbed my heart out when I failed to understand what was happening to me. It was like a dam had burst within.
Most men that boys look up to as role models are strong, stubborn characters, who radiate a kind of stony emotional strength. But what does it serve? All my life, growing up, I looked at dad and my uncles, as these incredibly sturdy men, who never wavered at moments of distress. But were they really impervious to grief and sorrow? Who were they, really, when they were alone? Did I know them? I wonder if they hid in washrooms and sobbed quietly or shed a drop in the pall of television-lit rooms when no one was looking. I wouldn’t think any less of them now if they did.
Two years ago, when my maternal grandmother died, I returned home to find my mother sobbing. This time, I did not turn my back on her. I hugged her and we wept together.