With a title like The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions and an opening paragraph that reads,
Every English-speaking Indian man between twenty-five and sixty has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to, and the curse of communalism… Why did a bunch of grown men in the late twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries write about the same movies, novels, journeys, and riots? Why Naipaul? Why not nature? Or Napier? Or the nadeswaram? Why Bachchan? And not Burma? Or Bhojpuri? And, most weirdly, why pogroms and chauvinism? Why not programmes on television?
you’d expect author Mukul Kesavan’s own attempt at the four things he posits as integral to the Indian English-speaking male experience to be a fairly caustic effort. And so it is. Surprisingly, Ugliness is also a collection of essays that’s oddly sympathetic to and gentle in its understanding of the very subjects that he lampoons with such elan. It’s eclectic in its scope, interesting in its ideas, often hilarious in its wit, and occasionally uncomfortable in its truths.
The opening essays, for example, in which he meditates upon the Indian man’s ability to pull hot chicks while grabbing his junk on street corners, mining for boogers in public with “little oinking sounds of pleasure” and a generally careless disregard for all matters of appearance, are written in a style that takes no prisoners. And yet, they’re written as part of a series that explores a readily apparent truth: Indian film is populated by incredibly beautiful women who routinely fall for unfortunate-looking men… and this is just how we like it. What really made me appreciate that passage, more than its well-deployed snark (of which there is plenty), was that Kesavan managed to leave an essentially depressing idea on a lovely little note about gender relations.
It is a neat trick he deploys often.
Following the “Ugliness” chapters is one on sport in which he discusses the difficulty of finding a team to cheer on. Buried in witticisms about the sorry state of English cricket and the virtual invisibility of Indian sportsmanship, is a light exploration of race resentment that shouldn’t be comfortable reading.
In his chapter about Georgette Heyer (wherein he categorizes her as a “cloven-footed alien”), a gentle melancholy permeates the recognition of an anti-Semitic subplot in The Grand Sophy. It’s a rare moment of unlooked-for clarity that strikes close to the heart of any reader, especially those of a post-colonial bent who’ve long had to grapple with their love and affection for the work of various racists.
He’s equally adept in the use of whimsy, as in the case of a 1996 visit to the Ram Janmabhoomi. An insightful chapter about votebank politics in Uttar Pradesh that’s still relevant today for those who wish to understand why the Congress is so thoroughly screwed in the home state of its dynasty, it ends on a farcical note when Kesavan and his friend are “chased” back to Lucknow by L.K. Advani shouting political inanities in “a pink carriage with a pink loudspeaker”. I laughed out loud.
In between the fun and games, he talks about the newspaper business and the role of English in “translating the chaos of vernacular life”; the alien-ness of a rural India whose “title deeds were all in urban lockers”; the Madrasi man’s uncomplicated love of dance that embarrasses the more inhibited North Indian man; and a quite wonderful little passage on Istanbul and colonialism that notes almost in passing that relics are created when “things stop belonging to the worlds that made them” – a fate that has yet to befall the Sultanahmet but should be familiar to Indians.
Towards the end of the book, where the longer essays reside, he presents a chapter called “A New History of Indian Nationalism” that reads like a handy and intriguing companion piece to longer works on the same (it originally appeared in the book Contemporary Perspectives: History and Sociology of South Asia), before winding things up with “Secular Common Sense”, published (in expanded form?) as a book in 2001.
It is here, in its last third, that the one great flaw of Ugliness begins to overwhelm it. As a collection of essays written over a considerable period of time, it’s a book that must have required a fair amount of updating and editing. I can’t speak to the former (the essays mostly stand the test of time), but Kesavan must have blanked on the amount of repetition that pockmarks his book. By the time I finished reading it, I had to wonder if the original title was The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions for People Lacking Comprehension Skills.
On a more general note, it is not to be expected that a book that dares to be this frank and contrary about a variety of subjects Kesavan himself decrees of enormous interest to his presumed reading public will win universal favor. The English-speaking Indian male (and female) who picks up this book will find plenty within its pages to challenge, infuriate, and repudiate. But how can anyone resist at least a peek at a book that includes gems like this ditty from a Parsi play called Indersabha:
Raja hoon main quam ka, Inder mera naam,
Bin pariyon ke deed ke, mujhe nahin araam.
Suno re mere dev re, dil ko nahin karar,
Jaldi mere vaste, sabha karo taiyar.
Takht bichao jagmaga, jaldi se is aan,
Mujhko shab bhar bhaithna, mehfil ke darmyaan.
You’d have to be as humorless as those long ago Hindi playwrights who lost the battle for a paying audience to these cheerful Parsi writers to hate The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.