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The secondary market

The sex lives of India’s Power Uncles reveals a crisis of small heartedness. But problems of inequality, destitution, conflict and cultures of lovelessness—which they have the power to fix—need bold, large hearts

A famine of feeling, courage and connection is upon many of us Uncles and Aunties of privilege.(Illustration by Sarnath Banerjee)

By Shrayana Bhattacharya

LAST PUBLISHED 09.02.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

In the winter of 2023, I relentlessly stared at my phone, waiting for a 58-year-old posh man to read my WhatsApp messages. These missives were amateurish works of infatuation, oscillating between clever and caustic via cute. I alliterated a lot. The blue ticks that affirmed his glance at my crush-addled words would not confer any significant satisfaction, they would merely legitimate a climate of longing. One afternoon, as I jumped up in jubilation after receiving an upside-down smiley from him—the emoji accompanied a joke about his own “degrees of uncle-ness"—I realised that the phrase WhatsApp Uncle no longer meant to me what it implied in our wider culture.

Through most of 2022 and 2023, I had raged against the mansplaining monopolies and casual tyrannies enjoyed by Indian Uncles of privilege, prestige and power. Now, I had fallen for one. My personal life had become a casualty of my research; I had encountered this man as I tried to study elite middle-aged masculinity in our cities. Having worked hard to exile myself from the heteronormative hell of my 20s and 30s, abandoning all need to prove my sexual eligibility in the primary mating market full of unmarried mards with far too many dards, I had unknowingly tumbled into a secretive secondary market of married men and divorcees approaching their 60s.

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My interest in the mental models of upper-caste-upper-class middle-aged men arose from the control they seemed to exercise on the lives and livelihoods of everyone around me. In 2022, I had asked 75 women and 45 men—from home-based artisans in Udaipur to office clerks in Mumbai—to enlist the gender, age, education and caste of people who made critical decisions that shaped their lives in the Indian economy: where they worked, how much they earned, where they lived, the rents they paid. When it came to pay and job prospects, through the labyrinth of managers and sub-managers, we traced the decision trail on recruitment, compensation or promotions all the way to the key nodes of power. The median response was overwhelmingly male with a few female foot soldiers, middle-aged (42-63 years), upper-caste and belonging to an elite institution (IIM, IIT, St Stephens, posh schools or Ivy League business degrees). These answers seem unsurprising in a country where women and vulnerable groups struggle to find a meaningful seat at the economic decision-making table. Female representation on corporate boards remains at 18% in India.

Closer home, I heard stories of how a famous Uncle surmised that a Nobel laureate endorsed my book (Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, Harper Collins, 2021) because he liked the way I looked. The idea that a serious man could take a book anchored on female fun and pleasure seriously is unimaginable in high-brow Uncledom.

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These lofty queries and petty grouses of my life collided in 2022 and spurred my investigation into the “Indian Uncle"—a term establishing the authority of older males in Indian socioeconomic life, one that also doubles up as nomenclature used to assign the conservative purgatory occupied by a subset of middling middle-aged men in the country.

I started by writing to alumni associations of elite schools and old boys’ associations, hoping to interview cohorts of men born between 1958-78. I requested a few captains of industry I met through my book events to introduce me to their friends as well.

The results of the first round of interviews were disastrous. Of the 48 men who agreed to meet me, 15 thought we were on dates, five thought I was keen to work for them. Unlike my previous research experience with interviewing women, everyone was very eager to meet repeatedly and chat. But none seemed to believe that I genuinely wanted to recruit them as respondents for my research. They were too elite to be studied or surveyed. And ironically, while 20 eventually agreed to follow-up interviews, the majority refused to accord any seriousness to my project about why privileged men can’t take those unlike themselves seriously. Three mentioned how they were used to being solicited for sex or CVs when women sought meetings. “The book or article is just an excuse," one revealed after apologising for the confusion.

The men I interviewed were supposed to explain how they understood the labour market, how they established ideas of “high value" and “excellence" in pricing and rewarding the labours of others in the economy and their own workplaces. Instead, through multiple meetings, those who chose to talk to me always ended up offering lectures on the market for votes or mates. My questions and data on wage gaps seemed to bore or offend them.

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Everyone acknowledged the problem of social identities in the labour market but hated solutions in equal measure. Irrespective of their political leanings, most despised welfare programmes as wasteful, affirmative action as misguided and yet they were muted on government support for big business. Cartoonish cliches circled us—the poor were lazy because of transfers, educated women were parasites feasting off the carcasses of men thanks to “female-friendly laws" against dowry and sexual harassment, the feminism of attractive women was different from that espoused by unattractive ones, more working women would lead to higher divorce rates and a flailing Hindu society. Half of those I interviewed seriously followed spiritual leaders to tackle the routinised rationality demanded by their professional ambitions. The combination of old gurus and older grudges meant that all worrying events in our news cycle were wished away by emotional pleas for the higher “spiritual good of the nation".

They knew that conflict and hate were on the rise but felt they had limited room to impact norms. The fear of surveillance and political retribution was described the same way women I had interviewed in my previous book would talk about abusive husbands—it always happened to someone else. At the same time, there was genuine excitement at being on the right angle of India’s K-shaped recovery.

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These men were not blind; they understood the pulse of our economy better than any economist I knew. Rural consumption and savings were low; companies selling luxury cars were enjoying stronger demand than those retailing snacks, soaps or bulbs in villages. However, they placed their faith in our “fundamentals". A few muttered anti-Muslim sentiments, yet loved Saudi and Gulf money. None of my respondents seemed like rabid bigots. They were simply opportunistic cliches of accumulation, protecting their turf, entranced by the great time they were having at the stock market.

Soon, a few of these men invited me to meet their larger social circle. It was common for them to host dinner gatherings featuring some prized professor or achiever who was invariably provoked to criticise or applaud the state of Indian democracy. Much of this happened between Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Men in Mumbai were the most handsome and affable, “market libertarians, social liberals" dressed in smartly cut linens, their weekend lifestyles radiated tropical modernism. They could hold conversations and their drinks. Bengaluru was Brahmin-Bania brutalism to the core, fitness “zones" were a popular topic of conversation, alcohol consumption was as spare as women’s participation. The Delhi crowd operated from their boozy Punjabi baroque prisons. Self-congratulation and self-surveillance framed the scene, majority were obsessively following their sleep cycles, heart rates and politicians.

 

India's elite uncles are opportunistic cliches of accumulation, protecting their turf, entranced by the great time they were having at the stock market. (Illustration by Sarnath Banerjee)

At their most drunk, some of the attendees would become belligerent with dogma, triggered by every utterance as an attack on their ego. They spoke in spurious certainties, reducing all human beings and phenomena around them into some silly model they invented. Each wanted to be a professor, turned on by nothing more than a rapturous audience of fellow men. New money critiqued old money in aggressively air-conditioned rooms. Sweaty aspirant money showed up to kowtow to new money. They thought they were fashioning an irreverent capacious intellectual space. But any outsider travelling through their world could see the corporate and political bootlicking for what it was. Most of these men were too servile and conservative to have any animal spirits in them. Very few would upset convention or status quo through the influence they asserted in their respective sectors, I knew the real economy was doomed to stasis. Their sex lives seemed to offer an invitation for defiance.

My favourite follow-up encounter from such a gathering involved interviewing a retired government officer in his late 60s. When he had his hair and vitality, the gentleman lived in a glamourous bubble full of cigarette smoke and witty careerist women. Saddled with an arranged marriage and fatherhood in his 20s, and the professional rat race in his 30s, his 40s were littered with till-the-next posting-do-us-part love affairs conducted in the accommodation his government post offered to him. His love affairs were usually shorter than his tenure in any sarkari position. “I had a wife and she lived in our hometown; I wanted a girlfriend."

The quest for girlfriends was hardly new or disguised, although not as ubiquitous as the gossip made it seem. A few of my respondents openly confessed to their infidelity, an air of sexual licentiousness lurking beneath the façade of sanskari values. Extramarital affairs helped make the catastrophe of their ordinary domestic lives seem bearable. Many of these men experienced ageing as nothing but the steady erosion of sexual possibilities. CCTV cameras and audio-recorders used to track nannies and children featured heavily in affairs being caught out. Mumbai marriages were more likely to see formal separations, Delhi men never leave their wives. I was told that the pooled assets and increasing social capital conferred by monogamous marriage ensured that divorce was rare. Often, the performance of monogamy seemed more vital than its practice—replete with the public displays of couple goals, couple hashtags, couple friends; all those coupled holidays hiding deeply decoupled lives. One woman confessed that she spoke to her husband more at parties and public events than at home.

The pressure to enact and sustain this performative monogamy was less acute in those who had absorbed less of the US or had started experimenting with infidelity before American TV shows globalised and standardised pair-bonding rituals in English-speaking India. The arrangements seemed to work for some and cause lovesick jealousy in others. Scanning the room and spotting mothers who looked exactly like their teenage daughters, the taut shiny faces, all that visible effort to remain alluring, watching plates of marvelous food being ignored, the obsessive surveillance of waistlines and glow-ups, it was clear that bad cosmetic jobs were the real jobs crisis amongst the elite. In vanity, there was equality—many of the men were as permanently preoccupied with the project of being as permanently desirable as the women in the crowd.

Second marriages are described as hope triumphing over experience. The secondary market thrives on ennui chasing butterflies. Some men had grown out of their marriages, others perpetually sought younger lovers to divert themselves from the dreary stability offered by their successful careers and loving wives. A final set had married women much younger than themselves, but marriage “aged my wife" said one man to me. Marriage seemed to render his wife matronly, as sexless as cucumber without gin.

I was introduced to my revisionist WhatsApp Uncle—a 58-year-old divorced playboy living in Colaba, Mumbai—for an interview. A leader in his field professionally, he retained an umeedvaar cadre of hopeful 30 and 40-somethings as part of a rotating set of sexual companions desperately desirous to be labelled his girlfriend. I could see the lure of such a man; a lonely marriage had taught him to be gentle to the world; his ex-wife and teenage daughter had trained him to speak womanhood; his fear of cardiac disease led to yoga and gym routines; his professional success meant that he was not anxiously seeking validation, status, caregivers or housekeepers; he was salt and pepper heaven; that rare creature in contemporary anglicised India who thinks of his intimate life as a space of engagement, not entertainment. In encountering him, I felt like I had encountered the last generation of grown-up Indian men. While he was clearly unable to fully detach from the power games of sexual accumulation in the straight mating scene, his erotic or emotional interests were loving and less power hungry thanks to years of sexual validation. “My cadre is stable and happy, not too many changes on the bench. That’s why it is tough to commit to one person." He was vulnerable and attendant too, as age implied his partners may never be as satisfied by him relative to younger men. The man had exercised courage to walk away from a safe suffocating marriage: “Years of a farcical marriage followed by the separation sucked so much energy from me that I have very little left to rage against the world". His honesty and self-possession were diametrically opposite to the mating market I confronted, full of boys cosplaying at maturity and adulthood in their 40s, their sexual mores doused in aggressive porn, fearful of taking romantic risks or living life anyway different from an American teenager or Wall Street cliché. My generation of 40-something successful bachelors felt like an army of Raja betas, outraging or trailblazing their way past the trauma of never feeling alpha enough.

Every straight single woman in her 40s has figured herself out; she is no longer willing to dilute herself for love. (Illustration: Sarnath Banerjee)

By now, every straight single woman in her 40s I knew had figured herself out. She had been through therapy, she had scoured the farthest regions of op-eds, podcasts and YouTube for laughter and self-understanding, she had found guidance in bell hooks, Esther Perel, Amia Srinivasan, Manju Kapur, K. R. Meera and the good old classics. She had scrutinised her sexual preferences—who, how, what she desired—with rhapsodic frenzy. She was no longer willing to dilute herself for love. Straight single men contending with their 40s, on the other hand, were far too comfortable, out on too many dates, spinning too many discs, playing too many games, to ask themselves any rigorous questions about their romantic lives.

When said playboy made his pass at me—one I had been warned to expect—I was intrigued. Tired of having to find dull men interesting in my everyday life, yet yearning for easy conversation and intimacy, a part of me wanted to be taken care of, to be dominated by the right man in the right way. My empowerment had started to exhaust me. Sadly, between a few short periods of intimacy and longer periods of waiting by WhatsApp, I realised I was too proud to be part of a sexual carousel, not interested in being the One but not interested in being an Option either. Certainly, there are relational spaces in between. But I was too lazy and self-aware to expend labour and energy in forging those. The pragmatism required for polyamory felt as tedious and boring as a prototypical Indian marriage, all those emotional permutations and combinations invariably asking us to treat each other as fast-moving consumer goods. I am too lumpy and bumpy to be a contortionist in my love life. And so, I returned to myself, a romantic in recovery, I had other projects to tackle. He was comfortable with my decision to walk away, we moved on to discussing his life history soon enough. Once, in a fit of passive-aggression, he joked and said, “you are as scared as those chota dil Uncles you hate"; he may have had half a point. Both parties aspired to be understood, both had sadly felt somewhat used in the other’s self-preserving social experiments. We were all playing it safe.

Large problems—inequality, destitution, conflict, cultures of lovelessness—need bold and large hearts. My first year of conversations with several power-Uncles left me frightened at the crisis of small heartedness to which our elite has succumbed. A crisis where sexual assault victims being beaten or stripped naked on the streets has no impact, but a cynical scripted speech by a preferred politician can elicit strong emotions. Unable to make unsafe choices; unwilling to empathise with those unlike us; keeping up appearances through social arrangements that drain us, we numb ourselves to global or domestic conflicts by the various goodies of sex, spectacle and commerce. A famine of feeling, courage and connection is upon many of us Uncles and Aunties of privilege. We pile up against each other, tied together by the escalating loneliness of being a person in an increasingly impersonable world we have helped design by our everyday little acts of inaction. The secondary market—flooded with the derivatives of our old desires—doesn’t operate through pleasure or oversexed libidos, it thrives on our cumulative alienation and tactical silences.

Shrayana Bhattacharya is an economist and author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women And The Search For Intimacy And Independence, which was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Award 2023 (English).

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