Very few books this year will set your brain ticking as fast as the voluble essays of Mukul Kesavan’s The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions. Kesavan, a historian by training and one of our sharpest columnists, has shown that he is equally at home on what might be called the holy trinity of Indian public discourse: cricket, cinema and politics. His essays on cricket appeared in a separate collection, Men in White, in the first half of this year, and the pungent, driving essays of Ugliness round off his investigation of our most pressing realities.

New age: The metrosexual man doesn’t figure in Kesavan’s purview of Indian men.

In the early sections of Ugliness, the tempo is more relaxed, the range of subjects more eclectic. Kesavan declares his disdain for Indian documentaries, asserts that the Indian male is not only born ugly, but hones that trait through regular practice (on which more later), and explores Hindi cinema’s love affair with the Urdu language and world view. He can be seen attending a political rally in Uttar Pradesh, looking at statues in Chennai, enjoying a junket in Australia, bathing in Istanbul. It is only in the last section of the book, “Politics", that his tone rises to a kind of slog overs crescendo, with a constellation of high-octane arguments about the distinctive colour and character of Indian secularism and nationalism.

Kesavan’s argument runs something like this. Indian secularism is not only highly unusual (all its neighbouring states privilege one religious community or another), it is also confused, to its disadvantage, with the Western version of that practice. The origins of Indian secularism lie not in the battle to separate the church from the state, as in the West, but in our anti-colonial national movement, and in particular the strategies forged by the Indian National Congress.

The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Proportions: Black Kite, 302 pages, Rs395.

Unlike the other provincial political bodies that sprung up in India in the late 19th century, the Congress, from the very beginning, was self-consciously and pluralistically “national"—of a mind to represent all the classes, religions and communities of India on the common plank of anti-colonialism. “The uniqueness of Congress’s nationalism," writes Kesavan, “is its near-complete freedom from mystical and mystifying notions such as blood, soil, or national essence which are the stock-in-trade of narrower patriotisms."

Even if the Congress’ pluralist definition of nationalism was strategic in the beginning —designed to bring the largest number on board in a Noah’s Ark kind of way—it became something like a reflex over 60 years of the independence struggle. Thus it was that, despite the horrors of partition, India did not go down the road of being a Hindu nation. Our secular constitution, in Kesavan’s telling, enshrined this liberal and hospitable nationalism in law. Because we don’t fully appreciate the ingenuity of the Congress’ construction of nationalism, argues Kesavan, we tend to confuse it with the more pedestrian, majoritarian ideas of nationalism that have forged nations around the world.

Paradoxically, it is this race-and-religion conception of nationalism—which we bypassed—that is now advocated by a powerful force in Indian politics: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies. Although many secular Indians are horrified when their friends and family members support what they see as the bigotry of BJP, the fact is that BJP supporters never think of themselves as communal, only as nationalist.

“Instead of reflexively denying the BJP’s claim to nationalism," Kesavan argues, “secularists should ratify this claim enthusiastically. They should then distinguish it from the nationalism of Gandhi and the freedom struggle, and encourage an undecided public to study the self-destruction that BJP-like chauvinisms wreaked on countries misguided enough to harbour them"—in neighbouring Sri Lanka, for example, where an aggressive Sinhalese majority and an embattled Tamil minority have been locked in a murderous conflict for decades. The day Indians accept that those in the majority deserve to have their beliefs and sensibilities deferred to by the rest—the prevailing climate in the rest of South Asia—our marvellous pluralist experiment will have foundered. “Invisibly, we shall have become another country"—that is the ringing close of Kesavan’s book.

The density of Kesavan’s engagement with these questions and the sophistication of his responses is perhaps intentionally absent in his irreverent title-essay. “Some years ago, I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of Hindi film heroines and the ugliness of Hindi film heroes," he writes. The explanation for this is simple: Indian women are radically better looking than Indian men. Indian women are, to Kesavan’s eye, “delicate and vivid"; Indian men “coarse, dull, and squab-like". Their native ugliness is accentuated by their deficiencies of hygiene (nose-picking, crotch-scratching), hair (moustache-wearing, nose- and ear-hair growing) and other assorted personal and sartorial habits.

Kesavan has set up a slanging match here: Responses to these assertions are likely to depend on whether the reader is a man (no!) or a woman (yay!). As for myself, I can only attest from personal experience that Indian women are not the angels Kesavan makes them out to be —maybe those of his generation were—even if they are more fastidious than men on the body hair removal score.

In fact, if the ugliness of the Indian male resided only in the list drawn up by Kesavan, Indian women might actually be quite happy to have them, since some of these deficiencies are surface-only and can be reversed with a little grooming, and since Indian women too have grave defects of their own (which, for reasons of space, we can’t go into right now). But Kesavan’s jocular survey of surfaces and appearances, his refusal—for a change—to probe any deeper, makes for a sly variation in a first-rate collection of essays.

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