Kiran (name changed) grew up with a lot of curiosity about love, relationships and sex. “I experienced attraction very young, maybe third or fourth grade. It was often very strong, and I wanted to understand what I was feeling.” The only time he caught a glimpse of these things was in Bollywood movies. But living in a small town in Uttar Pradesh in the 90s, Kiran’s parents were strict and didn’t let him watch movies. So he would sneak out after class with his friends to go to the cinema. He distinctly remembers that scene in DDLJ where the hero waves the heroine’s bra in her face in an attempt to seduce her. “I thought this was how you tell a girl you like her! I didn’t understand consent.” Most people around Kiran didn’t. He recalls how the older boys in his school would follow girls home, whistle at them and harass them. This seemed normal to him, it even seemed romantic in comparison to what he saw at home.
“My parents fought a lot. They would yell and curse at each other, sometimes throw things at each other. It made me scared,” says Kiran. His parents disliked each other, and it was obvious. That’s why he accepted the ‘romance’ showed in movies so happily, because at least the hero claimed to like the heroine. “My house felt like a nightmare, and what they showed in the movies felt like a dream. I thought the stalking was playful and cute, it was not like the screaming in my house. It never occured to me that both are wrong. I was always sad as a child, I needed some idea of romance to make me happy.”
It was when he was 15, that his ideas began to change. One day his sister came back from tuition in tears, and refused to tell their parents anything. She finally confided in Kiran that two men had stalked her on the way back from her evening tuition class. They were drunk, tried to grope her and followed her on their motorbike. “That was the first time I slowly realised what women go through,” he says. “I’m really glad she confided in me. I was at that age when I wanted a girlfriend, and if I hadn’t heard what my sister went through, I might’ve stalked or harassed a girl too.”
But even with this realisation, it was hard to have a healthy attitude towards women and relationships. He noticed one of his older cousins had been following women on a motorbike and saying lewd things to them. When Kiran confronted him about it, his cousin said: ‘Well these girls roam around all dressed up, if they look pretty, I can’t control myself, na?” It was around the same time that Kiran was introduced to pornography by the same cousin, who rented it frequently. “Look, I’m not saying it’s totally bad to watch porn,” Kiran explains, “but the problem is, at that age I had no female friends. Where I grew up it was totally forbidden for boys and girls to talk. And even if we spoke, it was never spoke about love or sex.” As a teenager, Kiran only learnt about women and female sexuality through porn. “Some of that porn was bad, it was degrading. And that was the only exposure I had to women in intimate settings, it became very easy to look at women as objects.”
It was only when Kiran went to Delhi for college that he made female friends. “Some of them were very vocal and open minded, they spoke about everything. At first it made it me nervous.” Fortunately for Kiran, he was curious and open to learn. He took an active effort to understand new concepts. He attended talks and lectures about feminism, and workshops on consent. “Sometimes it was scary. I felt like everything I grew up with was falling apart. And I also realised how harmful my childhood was. And I felt sad that the other men in my life- my cousin, my father, my childhood friends, would never learn these things.”
Going to college, and finally getting into a relationship made him realise that love is complicated. “It’s not like the movies at all. Stalking is easy, actually sitting down and understanding a person is hard. Respecting them for their choices is hard.” He understood how important it is to see one’s partner as an equal, without which it’s impossible to have a real conversation. “I wanted to talk to my girlfriend. The mistake most men make is that they just talk at their girlfriends. They try to get the upper hand, and then that’s not a conversation anymore.” Even sex, he came to realise, was not like porn at all. Kiran was amused by how much more talking, communicating, nervousness and clumsiness was involved in sex than was ever shown porn.
Looking back on it, he wishes that he knew some of these things earlier in life. He hopes for a future where men and women have friendships at a young age, so that see each other as human and understand each other’s problems. “The other gender shouldn’t be a mystery, just human. Equal humans.” Finally he says, “I’m not perfect. I still have many things to unlearn. My childhood taught me, and so many other men very unhealthy things about women. And I’m still recovering from that.”