When I was twelve, I hadn’t learnt the lessons of gender yet. I wasn’t even aware that something called puberty existed. I had been taunted by people when I was a child for having a somewhat ‘feminine’ body language. As I grew up a little, I subtly understood that a lot of things that I do don’t seem fitting for a growing boy to like.
I indulged too much in romantic movies and mushy plot-lines on TV series. But that seemed pretty harmless. I perhaps enjoyed listening to the kind of songs that girls tend to like (nobody really told me that, but I had this gnawing feeling inside). The larger part of the problem perhaps was that I did not do the kind of things that boys in their growing age are supposed to do. I wasn’t involved enough in sports. Cricket and football have always been the death of me. I would always shy away from the peril of exhausting myself on the field. Where was the fun in that, exactly?
But the taunts and remarks I had received were always subtle. I never actually felt bad about myself until the day that the boys in seventh standard class suddenly became rowdy, rugged and abusive. They would jeer and mock me on my face and I could not even pretend that I did not listen.
I never really understood what was the problem. So I had a taste that typically boys do not have. Did it really matter so much? The bullying became so bad that I actively tried to change the way I walk and talk, but it didn’t seem like something one could change.
A few years later I was in a different school, and now a teenager. By now I had learnt some lessons.
Foremost was the implicit, unsaid and pervasive realization that boys my age must not reveal their weakness at any cost. For society is only going to use that against you.
A boy’s struggle with patriarchy is always a lone struggle. It’s not something out of which one could make a political movement.
I never again experienced the kind of bullying that had broken me when I was twelve; but something died in me before I ever had a chance to grow up.
I actually believed that a person’s past does not matter much, and that we can make the most of ourselves in our present moment. But I was socially crippled, and I realize that only now when I look back at my younger self.
I could never really talk to people around me with any sense of being at par with them. All my attempts at socializing were subconsciously driven by a hope of getting accepted. As much willing as I was to move on, something basic in my ‘self’ had altered. Loss of self-worth can be a very disabling experience, and when you are fourteen you may not even realize that for all your optimism, you have become too fragile from within. I don’t remember the day exactly when I started to channelize my isolation and fear into a desperate urge to excel in studies.
I always thought that I am actually weaving dreams about college.
Now I feel that I have always subconsciously invented dreams of myself doing something amazing in the future because that was my escape and coping mechanism to deal with the fact that I really did not have anything to look up to in my present. What I was actually seeking was a space where my past would not haunt me in the form of manifested inhibitions in my speech and behavior that would always cut me apart from any possibility of forging a meaningful friendship.
Some truths become visible only in hindsight. Had I consciously known back then that patriarchy had damaged me from within, I wouldn’t have been able to live and survive within my delusions and fancies. It is extremely difficult to live with the fact that you are alone and have nobody to relate to. Once you become acutely aware of your isolation, it can get really hard to use your hobbies and interests as a distraction.
I had more disappointing experiences in life post the age of twelve, and there came a time when I lost hope that life holds any meaning in itself. In my moments of delirium I often pondered upon my childhood memories and photographs.
I used to be a cheerful kid with innocent eyes. My eyes look dead to me in all my teenage pictures though.
We are taught consistently that by believing in ourselves we can outdo every challenge. Some experiences are so debilitating however, that the pain of carrying their emotional baggage can really make you question the worth of your living.
Later in life, there were several moments, days and months at times when I felt severe bouts of depression. It was hard for me to believe that my past shocks and disappointments could be taking a toll on me in the present moment because I actually believed that I had come a long way. Though at times, a long way can get you back at square one.
I have always felt that my story is my own, because boys who bullied me in the past, and the boys who intuitively scared me whenever I came in their vicinity during my childhood, would surely never understand who I am or what I think.
But lately I’ve begun to feel that signs of emotional oppression caused by the toxic norms of masculinity are lurking everywhere, we just do not see them. I think every boy instinctively knows that he needs to suppress his emotional self to pass the test of manliness in a culture obsessed with strength and prowess.
The news of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide shook me, not just because I admired him, but because he seemed exactly to be the kind of man that society approves of. Charming, carefree, and resilient.
That day I thought of watching one of his films. I watched it for around an hour, and it seemed pretty likeable, but this time, when I knew that this guy who is playing a carefree, risk-loving hero on screen is now dead because he was probably suffocated with a kind of emotional pain that he could not take, I just could not watch him in the role of a typical heterosexual, masculine lover.
The film I was watching had certain basic elements that are very characteristic of the kind of entertainment we as a culture collectively indulge in. Guy likes girl. Girl is confused. Girl is unable to sort her feelings. Guy acts somewhat like a bad-boy, but a charming, adorable and forgivable bad boy. Girl is facing some emotional difficulties. Guy is standing next to her like a boulder, willing to engulf her pain and her insecurities.
I did not feel like watching it, not because there seemed something inherently problematic with the plot. It was a pretty sweet, romantic story. But I felt a kind of suffocation I had often felt as a child. The depictions of male characters in love-stories was never something that satisfied me. I did not have a problem with the fact that the man essentially had to be the saviour of the heroine. What was stifling was that none of the male protagonists in popular culture were ever shown to have the kind of emotional complexity that the heroine possessed. She could be brave and vulnerable within the same self.
Guys however, are always projected as uni-dimensional creatures with limited psychological abilities to feel and experience emotions. I always related to the heroine way more than the hero when I saw or read love-stories in my childhood.
As I grew up I just convinced myself that I am different in my needs and expectations, and I need not enforce my views upon the world. Perhaps men are presented as stoic and unflinching because they are biologically built that way. I am only some sort of an exception, perhaps.
But here was this guy in front of me, playing a character that did not give a dime about life’s problems and was perfectly adept at wooing a girl with his charm. How could I see him like that when I knew that he had succumbed to pain in reality?
The films we see teach us how to love, and love for men has always been a project. An object to win. A channel into which they can project their self-worth and prowess. Love as an emotional indulgence is a luxury that boys are subconsciously socialized quite early to believe and see only as a womanly affair, in which they have no business meddling.
Perhaps films are part of the problem, for they accentuate this cultural script of masculinity where the guy’s job is primarily to woo, entertain, and come off as a lively chap who can carry the struggles of life happily on his shoulders and wave them off.
Emotional complexity is denied to the boys and men in the films we see and the stories we read. Perhaps much before the same denial occurs in real life. By the time a child is twelve, he knows it subconsciously, even if he doesn’t have the vocabulary to articulate, that the male way of loving is to chase the girl. Who pays to watch the hero battling with trauma or withering under a heartbreak? For boys don’t cry.