In India, marriage and children often mark the end of an individual’s journey through life. In her terrific memoir Manspotting (published by Speaking Tiger), Ritu Bhatia, a microbiologist by training, takes as the starting point the end of her marriage in her mid-thirties: “Like most other Indian women of my generation, I’d made a jailbreak marriage, moving directly from my father’s home to my husband’s.”
The rapidly transforming dating landscape of a newly neon Delhi forms the backdrop of this story of the personal awakening of a single mother: “Everyone seemed to be bumbling along, making up new moves. A sliding morality crept in, making it hard to attribute any significance to emotional and sexual intimacy.”
Bhatia changes houses and neighbourhoods, attends PTA meetings at her son’s school, switches careers (from book club to bridal magazine to agony aunt to health columnist) and introduces us to a conveyor belt of Delhi men.
Manspotting has plenty of reflective passages about the entrenched conservatism of family, friends and society: ‘I’ve never understood why married people aren’t sanctioned to pursue independent friendships with the opposite sex. Establishing a fake camaraderie with the husband or wife of an ex-flame appears to be the only socially acceptable way to keep up the connection.’
The first house she rents on her own has to be justified with a lie supplied by the property agent: ‘Husband is in the Gulf”, otherwise the landlord wouldn’t agree. The landlord himself spends his days managing a dry-cleaning business and his evenings: ‘standing at the gate and staring at the street,’ a very Delhi past time.
As Barista opens shop at the turn of the century, Bhatia plunges into the coffee shop culture. She trains her guns on South Delhi, one man at a time: “Despite all the hype about the evolution of men and the emergence of the ‘new age male’, the truth was nothing much had changed”.
And the men keep coming: the one who believes that there’s nothing in the world that a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi won’t fix; Mr Muscle, who ‘confirmed my opinion that sexiness has more to do with the brain, than the body’; boho types with no set routines; those who live with their parents (they “appeared abnormally attached to, and simultaneously antagonistic towards them” ; the hunt and conquer Bollywood hero kinds; the laser gun equipped ‘face doctor’; married men; divorced men with children (“step motherhood was off my agenda”).
The book is littered with memorably funny encounters. There is Samir, the richie rich prototype who Bhatia meets at a Siddhartha Mukherjee book launch, and whose house boasts of Anjolie Ela Menons, an iSymphonic Massage chair and a 72” TV he carted from Hong Kong to Delhi so he could watch Pretty Woman. To puncture his ego, Bhatia insists on Sula as he opens a bottle of imported chardonnay.
Bhatia is a remarkably perceptive writer. There’s a wiseness to her writing even when she is discussing self-help books. Writing about the close relationship of Indian men with their parents, she says: ‘Their attachment to their parents isn’t always altruistic, though; there are properties to be inherited, and desi boys will go to great lengths to ensure that they don’t lose out on anything.”
She argues with a female colleague when she says about men: “How come these guys assume they can f—k whoever they want and get away with it.” To which Bhatia responds: “What about sexual freedom? How can we be at par with men we sleep with, unless we exercise the same choice as them… attribute as little or as much meaning to the sexual act as they do.”
As the book ends, it finds Bhatia in a less conflicted state of mind; she enjoys baking a good cupcake, cultivates a terrace garden, spends as week meditating at Osho’s commune and re-reads all of Anita Brookner. At a massage therapy workshop in remote Goa she finds herself “handling a bunch of bare-bodied men with utter disdain.”
Manspotting is a no-holds-barred account of one woman’s path to self-realisation and the consummate ugliness of the New Delhi male. Bhatia’s no nonsense prose floats like a bird feather, stings like a queen bee.
(The writer is the author of House Spirit: Drinking in India)