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Fraternity foretold

As boys become men in India, the friends they make are caste and class clones of themselves. Just as their unions are discreetly brokered, their male friendships are foretold

Mukul Kesavan Published 07.04.24, 08:36 AM
Representational image

Representational image Sourced by the Telegraph

The friends that middle class Indian men make through their lives are nearly always other men. Their women friends tend to be the wives or partners of their male friends, friends-in-law. Metropolitan Indian men try not to think of their friends’ wives as bhabhis because that’s what provincial men do, men whose non-family relationships are organised around metaphors borrowed from kinship. Being modern means choosing one’s relationships unconstrained by kinship, faith, caste and country. Creating a social world outside of kinship is a form of self-determination, a rejection of the imperium of the family. This is hard to do when the word for our connection with other people is ‘relationship’ and, yet, it is one of the founding conceits of individualism and modernity.

Liberalism idealises friendship by seeing it as an island of free will in a world where the individual is otherwise assimilated or pressed into group identities. E.M. Forster’s take on friendship is the grandest example of this: “...[i]f I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” We can run variations on this theme by replacing “country” with religion, class, caste or family.


(It isn’t clear if gender can be added to this list. If a woman were to defend her trans friend’s right to use a women’s only space, her defence might be construed by some feminists as a betrayal of women, a form of self-hatred rather than self-determination. Some years ago, a desi writer stood up for a man accused of sexual harassment and invoked Forster to dignify this defence of his friend. It didn’t resonate in the way that he expected it to perhaps because the country he was bravely betraying in the cause of friendship was the imagined community of the woke, a thinly populated watan at the best of times.)

The heroic liberal ideal of friendship is hard to realise anywhere. In India, it is nearly impossible. The Indian middle class is raised in communities and institutions that are homogenous. Its neighbourhoods are frequently organised around solidarities of caste and religious community. Its young attend schools that are, in their enrolment, upper-caste and Hindu. These are often single-sex institutions.

A middle-class boy’s friends are effectively chosen for him because they are filtered through institutions that reflect the priorities of a patriarchal and hierarchical ruling class. As a generalisation this is true of other countries and cultures. WASPs find their friends in selective schools and colleges ringfenced by fees. Boys from the shires find theirs in public schools and Oxbridge. But as Louis Dumont showed more than half a century ago, only in India are hierarchy and exclusion seen as virtuous ways of ordering the world.

As boys become men in India, and make their way through professional and corporate careers, the friends they make are caste and class clones of themselves. Just as their unions are discreetly brokered so that free will and suitability meet in the mandap, their male friendships are foretold. The mantra that turns this sliver of clones into a simulacrum of metropolitan society is merit. The fact of not being ‘category’ students makes them global citizens, forged in the fire of competition, Satya Nadellas and Sundar Pichais in embryo. Ironically, being privileged and upper-caste
and ineligible for reservation turn them into self-made men, tempered by deprivation.

To say that Indian men are homosocial is to say that their relationships outside of marriage are principally with other men. Again, this used to be true of Western societies. Sex-segregated schools and universities, men’s only clubs, guilds and professional bodies run solely by men, traditionally male vocations like the military ensured that shared experience and nostalgia, the bonds of friendship, weren’t directly available to women. Their friendships with other women were necessarily mediated through their male relatives and the very notion of platonic friendship between the sexes was suspect in a normatively heterosexual world. It’s only over the last hundred years that the common membership of public spaces, institutions and professions produced the institutional conditions for friendship to develop and be
sustained in the West between men and women.

Superficially, similar changes have occurred in India. As a former lecturer, I can testify to the critical mass of women in Indian universities, both as students and as faculty. There are few sights more reassuring than young men and women sharing tea, cigarettes, conversation and class notes casually. But I suspect that the collegiality of university life is an interlude rather than an ongoing condition. The reason for this is that the near-total absence of non-marital intermingling in desi society makes friendship across the sexes a rare, charged business. For men to treat women as friends, they need to set sexual desire aside in favour of other forms of camaraderie. The sexual deprivation experienced by Indian men in their everyday lives makes this hard for them to do.

The Garrick Club in London was in the news recently when The Guardian revealed that some of Britain’s most senior civil servants, judges and politicians were members of a club that barred women from becoming members. Embarrassed, some members resigned their memberships, and the club initiated a process likely to end in the admission of women. A private club in the Western world is entitled to deny women the courtesy of fellowship but it runs the risk of not being taken seriously.

In India, the exclusion of others from private and public spaces is so routine that it is hard to provoke real outrage over any individual instance. In a society where it is culturally reasonable to exclude women from the sanctum of a temple or a dargah, where inter-faith marriage can be criminalised, the rarity of platonic friendship between men and women shouldn’t surprise anyone. In addas, coffee houses, party cells, shakhas and locker rooms, it is precisely the absence of women that is the condition of male camaraderie. The rarity of friendship between men and women in India is a clue to a larger truth: friendship in India is best understood as a form of savarna freemasonry.

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