‘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’, says Mukul Kesavan. Like many of the insightful comments for which his historically informed and provocative journalism has become so widely admired, this deliberately large statement may even be true.
What is certainly true is that Kesavan’s hugely entertaining writings on these subjects crackle with cerebral wit, sparky phrases, and memorable lines like no one else’s. A historian by profession, Kesavan is distinct from his tribe because his prose ploughs a lonely furrow: it is always accessible, jargon-shunning, aphoristic, and uncommonly elegant. The present collection of his essays is a distillation of his thoughts—outrageously funny, profoundly cosmopolitan, and devotedly ‘pseudo-secular’ all at once—on some of the central concerns of our time.
‘Some years ago I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of Hindi film heroines and the ugliness of Hindi film heroes. After researching the matter I concluded that the explanation was straightforward: leading men in Hindi films were ugly because they were Indian men and Indian men were measurably uglier than Indian women ... While my observation was accurate and the data I had gathered reliable, I made the mistake of attributing the ugliness of the Indian male to nature. I know now that Indian men aren’t born ugly: they achieve ugliness through practice. It is their habits and routines that make them ugly. If I was to be schematic, I’d argue that Indian men are ugly on account of the three Hs: hygiene, hair, and horrible habits ... Why are Indian men like this? How do they achieve the bullet-proof unselfconsciousness that allows them to be so abandonedly ugly? I think it comes from a sense of entitlement that’s hard-wired into every male child that grows up in an Indian household. That, and the not unimportant fact that, despite the way they look, they’re always paired off with good-looking women.’
Mukul Kesavan is a historian, novelist, journalist, conversationalist, polemicist, cricket writer, and television personality well known in India.