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HindustanTimes Sat,20 Dec 2014
It's time to break the ice
Omair Ahmad, Hindustan Times
Delhi, May 26, 2013
First Published: 16:12 IST(26/5/2013)
Last Updated: 01:38 IST(27/5/2013)

A couple of weeks ago, my cousin exclaimed to me in frustration, "What is wrong with these men today? Why can't they speak? How do they expect to win over a woman if all they do is sit around like a lump of lard?"

He had been chaperoning his sister-in-law for those most Indian of things: marriage meetings - in which the men and women of suitable age are supposed to scope each other out under the eyes of the respective families. I have more than a little sympathy for the man in question.

When confronted by the combined stares of your own family, another family, and a woman, what is a guy to say? Especially when throughout our lives we are taught not to talk to girls, that such interactions are dangerous, immoral or just plain wrong.

'Good' boys are supposed to keep their eyes downcast, and when asked a direct question, are supposed to mumble. I have spent so many years lowering my gaze that pretty much the first - and often the last - thing I notice about a woman is her footwear. This form of non-communication may have worked a generation or so ago, when most people were married at a very young age, and according to family preference rather than their own. There was no real choice, and you had at least two families and the whole society invested in making such relationships work. I still find it hard to believe that this led to happiness. Nevertheless even if these rules worked for the Indians that came before us, they do not work today. Women are increasingly financially independent, and families are often nuclear families. The only way to make it work is by talking to each other.

And yet the moral guardians of our culture are intent on keeping us trapped in the institutions of the past, often through threats and intimidation - whether it is the police, the khap panchayats, or frustrated young men with nothing better to do on Valentine's Day. If boys risk being beaten up by goons if they address a girl, how are they to learn to communicate?

We all know, or think we know, what to do about men who behave badly - the rapists, the molesters and the stalkers - but criminals make up only a small part of society, even if that part seems distressingly large these days. We can come up with laws, with institutional and infrastructural 'fixes' that make society and state safer for women, but what 'fix' can we come up with for the vast majority of men who just don't know how to talk to women, or even feel the need to do so?

I recall once reading something along the lines that, "Violence is the refuge of those who cannot argue their point of view through words."

It makes me wonder how many people we surrender to violence when we discourage them from talking.

Down the road from my office are the headquarters of the National Skills Development Council, a public-private initiative that seeks to train young Indians for the jobs of the future. It is one of the wisest moves that our government and corporates have come up with in a long while, and I hope it succeeds. It makes me think, not unseriously, whether we are ignoring the elephant in the room - the skills needed to talk to each other. Maybe a National Wooing Council is also needed, the public-private partnership we have all been waiting for.

Omair Ahmad is the author of Jimmy the Terrorist and The Kingdom at the Centre of the World. He currently works with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation's South Asia office, Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal


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