In the sensual Meghdoot, a rain-cloud is a Yaksha’s love messenger. But the cloud is carrying the Yaksha’s message to a woman who is already his mate. How had the Yaksha wooed her? Kalidas omits to tell us; it was probably arranged.Courtship, attracting women towards them, is one new problem that modernity is bringing to Indian men.
Mixed signals: Find your own way of convincing a woman to ‘go out’ with you. Dinodia
Jobs are opening up to millions of young people across India who are leaving traditional professions, or farming, and becoming office workers. They are equipped for this work because they have learnt English, a new language: Most of them are the first speakers of it in their families. When they come to the office, they are trained to execute tasks; they are instructed to improve themselves through the process of evaluation. There are seniors, and managers, in the office who have done the work before and tell them how to be more effective.
They become individuals in the Western sense; they are judged by what they do and not who they are, as their fathers would be in their communities.
They encounter office hierarchy and Indians instinctively know how to address someone above their station, and below.
But they are not equipped to court women, whom they now begin meeting outside their social circle. They know how to talk to women within that circle of family and relations; in that circle everyone has their standing; what tone to assume and what is permissible is quite clear.
Now their circle of feminine company expands; it includes women who are new acquaintances or strangers. In the Indian office, casual relationships are as they would be in the West. A man must approach a woman without his identity as the son of, or brother of, someone the girl knows. He must speak to her as a man.
But what do you say to an attractive woman you have just met? What is appropriate behaviour and how does one calibrate the steps that take a conversation about traffic towards romance? How do you “ask her out”—a phrase that comes easily to a few, and sounds natural in English, but has no translation in any of our languages?
There is no instruction on how to approach a woman you do not know—“cold-calling”, to use the language of the office—and get her to engage with you. There is no culture that one can fit into: Each of us must find his own way.
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Indian men view women in a particular way. We expect them to be docile, and we do not yet know how to approach them as individuals in a more civilized way. The single woman in the Indian bar will have a terrible time because men will place her immediately.
Evolution has made woman a better judge of character than man. He is the perennial suitor, sensing for opportunity in every woman; she must assess whether or not she wants to let a man in. It is the woman who decides whether or not to mate. He must finesse his petitioning, but in a culture that is transforming, he is an amateur at this craft and must learn. Courtship and its dance is new to a society where the notion of the individual itself is new.
We can see this in the relationships advice columns of language newspapers.
In a situation where he must attract an unknown woman, the Indian man will show his crudeness through what is called eve-teasing.
He’s actually trying what he thinks is romance: The aim is to get her to turn and acknowledge him, not for her to walk away. But that’s what she does, because he’s an irritant. Though he is rarely successful with this technique, he persists with it in his frustration, and the thrill that she’s helpless to prevent his lewdness.
The problem is cultural, of course. One indicator of this is that despite being the land of Kama Sutra—which few have read—India’s languages have no polite word for sex.
Drawing-room conversation on the subject is couched in allusion. The urban middle classes lean on English to express themselves, but cannot do it in their mother tongue. The Hindi word for it is sambhog, which means “mutual delight” (a definition many Indian women will raise their eyebrows at).
When it advertises contraception, the government of India clears its throat and mumbles yon-sambandh. This is a phrase that only the government uses. It translates as “relationship with vagina”.
I moved to the city for my first office job in my mid-20s, and my idea of making an impression on a woman at a party was to demonstrate my wit and brilliance by putting her down. I saw little action of course, and it took a while to understand the rules of the game.
In the small town, wooing someone meant showing off how rich you were. As I recall, that worked—for those who had money. But in the city I learnt that it was possible to attract a woman using only words, which cost nothing (which was important); and I learnt that technique was involved in romancing women (still learning that).
Millions are learning and will be thinking of this problem and wondering what to do this Monday when “she” will be at the office.
My heart goes out to them, trying to find their way in a new world, armed with so little, and to the lovely women at the receiving end of their stumbling and fumbling.
The ones that come after them will be better at this, as the culture settles in over time. But for now, we must learn how to become individuals.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
Write to Aakar at firstname.lastname@example.org