The Ugliness of the Indian Male is an uneven collection of assorted essays—journalistic and academic—written by Mukul Kesavan from time to time. A trained historian, an avid reader, cinema and cricket connoisseur and political commentator, Mukul Kesavan’s essays bear an imprint of his varied interest. In fact his interest areas underline the very organization of this book: the four sections of the book are appropriately titled looking, reading, travelling and politics, in abject isomorphism with his felicity and forte. The very first sentence of the ‘Introduction’ substantiates the conjecture and prepares the reader, ‘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.’
Reading a book of essays could be a taxing exercise: more so when one has so much to look at/ for, wade through and comprehend with the added apprehension of cryptic harangues cropping up every now and then. Yet the credit goes to the writer (or perhaps to the title) that the first associative reference/image that strikes the reader’s mind, while s/he ‘looks’ at the title and absorbs the first declarative sentence of the first essay, is the Sergio Leone directed Western: ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, released in the US in December 1967 and perhaps hitting the subcontinent shores about the same time when the writer, being a Stephenian, was gunning for ‘Bhumikas’ rather than a Rajesh Khanna movie. On the other hand the rest of the nation, during the seventies, indulged wholeheartedly in typical ‘unrefracted ways’ to establish Rajesh Khanna as the first superstar of Bollywood.
As we look through, almost spellbound at the first clip, the other eight essays of the first section in a process of panning covers the first informative undergraduate understanding to the tracing of the last insightful under ‘Roots of Hindi Cinema’. Yet the icing on the cake, strangely or may be ironically enough is an almost non-filmy essay that explores nuances of ‘hygiene’ as it considers John Abraham and former Pakistan President Musharraf in one breath. Thus despite its digs at the physiognomic gestures and antics of the Indian male, and the author’s verbal retort at the end that they are always paired off with good looking women, the fluid beauty of this short essay thrusts and encrypts itself at the title page itself. Ugliness indeed carries potential propositions of being the flag bearer or sometimes the flag itself. It could very much be mentioned as an aside that the odd essay in this section is the ‘Peoples’ Princess’ i.e. Deathwatch Diana, but one could very well turn a blind eye towards this sterile rendering.
As looking can be a ‘sport’ one has to be sportive enough to read through the ‘readings’ provided for in the next section, two in verse and five in prose—the only exception being the essay, ‘The Times of America?’ After all we, i.e., the English speaking class need to do riyaaz and what better way to have an accompaniment in tanpura which as the author suggests is nothing but the English daily.
Travel one must and while travelling from Ayodhya to Egypt and topping it up with Brooklyn when one encounters a literary ‘icon’ like Amitava Ghosh a simple recount in itself becomes an engrossing trail/tale. The section on travel is indeed engrossing but one expects more from an essay on Istanbul, certainly not traversing a distance half the length of Delhi’s Rajpath and to rest content at that. Dear writer, for an Arabian Night’s tale one must go on and on.
Shaw once said that he hated feeling at home while being away from it. Therefore Politics (i.e., the last section) which we feel so much ‘at home with’ strikes certainly a jarring note. Imagine being immersed in a medieval ‘Hamam’ in Istambul and after the massage you are compelled to indulge in communal calisthenics. Certainly you won’t accept the ‘proposition’ yet one must if one has to and read on. In politics, the fourth section, the numerical other half of the book is preceded by a terse verse titled ‘Heads and Heights’ where an encounter with one renowned ‘Reinhold Messner’ with ‘Everest alone’ (pronounced Eve—rest) brings the reader back on level plain. However apart from the initial promise of the first essay ‘My Emergency’ the rest is nothing but casual humdrum of an OPD ward.
If we take the liberty of borrowing the critical tropes from the initial referent, i.e., the film ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, the classification of essays in the book in terms of significance would not be difficult. The theme of the film is composed by Ennio Morricone, whose distinctive original compositions, containing gunfire, whistling, and yodelling permeate the film. The main theme, resembling the howling of a coyote, is a two-note melody that is a frequent motif, and is used for the three main characters, with a different instrument used for each one: flute for Blondie, ocarina for Angel Eyes and human voices for Tuco. There are three main characters in the film: Clint Eastwood as Blondie: The Good, a subdued, cocksure bounty hunter who competes with Tuco and Angel Eyes to find the buried gold in the middle of the two warring factions of the American Civil War. Blondie and Tuco have an ambivalent partnership: Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes: The Bad, a ruthless, unfeeling and sociopathic mercenary named thus (Sentenza in the Italian version) who kills anyone in his path, Eli Wallach as Tuco: The Ugly, Tuco Benedito Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, a comical, oafish, fast talking bandit who is wanted by the authorities.
The three main characters all contain autobiographical elements of Leone. In an interview he said, ‘(Sentenza) has no spirit, he’s a professional in the most banal sense of the term. Like a robot. This isn’t the case with the other two. On the methodical and careful side of my character, I’d be nearer Blondie: but my most profound sympathy always goes towards the Tuco side. . . He can be touching with all that tenderness and all that wounded humanity.’
Thus we could say that ‘The Ugliness of the Indian Male’ aptly describes the acts of reading and politicking and in the same vain his Goodness draws on looking and travelling. And if travelling entails a lot of looking, politicking too involves lots of [mis]reading. The ambivalent range within which the essays could be categorized oscillate between the Good and the Ugly, i.e., between the clear notes of the flute and reassuring human voices. We can extend the extrapolation still further and borrow words from Sergio Leone’s confession: thus the Good essays are ‘methodical’ and ‘carefully’ crafted whereas the Ugly ones are ‘touching with all that tenderness and all that wounded humanity’.
We can indulge in a little word play ourselves and read the opening lines of the third stanza of the initial verse titled Men at Work as: Sad cowboy trapped in a Weastern?
Ashutosh Mohan is with the Department of English, Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur, Rajasthan.