By Nisha Susan
Originally published on 31 March 2016.
I grew up around Particular Men. I am sure you did too. ‘Particular’ is the word they sometimes used to describe themselves. But mostly it was the word that women used to explain their behaviour. “Your father is so particular about what you wear.” “My husband is very particular about meal timings.” Often they were particular about the temperature of food. Some were particular about a single spoon or plate they ate in. They were particular about the exact ratio of milk and water in the coffee and spoke with great bitterness and fluency when oppressed by a coffee that tasted different.
The particularness of men was explained to me as a child in a manner that encouraged me to think that this was a good thing, an elevated sensitivity, a more evolved aesthetics, a finer palate. Imagine having a father/uncle/grandfather who was not particular. How barbaric would that be. How unlucky I’d be. The manner in which this was described also made it seem that the particularness was an unusual and special thing to our households. Elsewhere, it was implied, was darkness. Elsewhere, I imagined, were men who didn’t care about the important things. I occasionally heard mockery of a man who ate whatever was put in front of him.
I left home and the company of particular men when I was in my late teens. I also lost the gift of hunted-animal alertness that living in such households gives you. You wake up already convinced that you’ve forgotten something important. You spend more hours of the day on your toes than Misty Copeland. You know that all meals will be marred by the one thing you didn’t work hard enough on. You know that you will always mess up the best day by saying something stupid. You know that when asked, you will forget things you knew as well as you knew your name. You know that some days, when faced by the contempt of particular men, you are no longer sure of your name. On the other hand, your gratitude on the days you’re told you have not messed up is so deep and so rich, you wonder how you could live with less exacting standards. Those are the gifts I lost when I left home.
Later, occasional encounters with particular men didn’t make me react the same way. It must have been the loss of the gift. An otherwise kind boyfriend told me every now and then about ways in which I could improve myself to match the standards (that he was trying to acquire rapidly). I bid him ta-ta. I was an insufferable 20-something. But I also suffered deeply on the rare occasions I hung out with family where men bravely resisted change and remained particular. I ladled out rice and sambhar to uncles, all the while channelling a Russian soldier who has to choose between dying on the Eastern Front or being sent to Siberia for desertion.
In the last month or two, I have spent time with friends and family who have less ramshackle domestic arrangements than I do. When I was in the middle of a bout of flu, a young male relative who was visiting remarked, “You don’t have any children and your house is so messy. What would you do if you did?”
I snapped and said something about getting a wife like he did, knowing well that he hadn’t kept house in years and is the first man I know to actually forget how to light a gas stove. But it rankled. And rankled. And I wondered why I hadn’t found an insult from the same paradigm to deliver to him: “You have two children and how come you still earn so little?” That would be cruel, you think. So did I. But he didn’t make this remark about the messy house to my husband. And I wished that I had hit him where it hurt. Because he certainly hit me where I’d been trained to hurt.
Since then I’ve also heard women friends talk sometimes with dejection and sometimes with rage about how their husbands are particular that children should be brought up without ‘outsiders’, a.k.a. paid childcare. And hence they’ve been stuck in lonely houses in lonely cities, without an adult to speak to for years, till their husbands felt particular about which school their child should go to. I’ve heard stories of women hiding their own or their child’s illness from their husbands because illness would be a sign that someone messed up, someone didn’t follow the rules. I’ve heard of the husband who is away on work for months on end who comes home and tries to tell the wife (who works long hours outside the house and at home raising their children) that perhaps she should be stricter with the domestic help. That perhaps she doesn’t know how to microwave rice quite right. That perhaps she is not scolding their son enough. That perhaps she is scolding him too much.
And as I listened I remembered the particular men I had grown up around and how I had once imagined that their lofty demands meant they knew something I didn’t. Now when I hear these conversations I think of the charts that hang in the loos of bars and coffee-shops indicating when they were last cleaned. And in the business of running a household and looking after children and looking after the elderly, in tracking the unpaid labour, both physical and emotional, men seem to be carrying around charts all the time. Tick. Cross. Tick. Cross. Tick. Or I Will Be Very Cross.
I wonder what would happen in these households if the women decided to be particular. It’s hard to imagine that chart. What ephemeral, universally understood pressure exists on the men of our households, except perhaps to bring home a salary? And if by chance he doesn’t, it clearly behoves women to make tea quietly, walk softly and tell the children to be silent for the next year because Daddy is in a bad mood.
It struck me recently that the bad moods of my adult male relatives look strikingly similar to the bad moods of my toddler relatives. They both make a very loud fuss if they can’t drink from a particular cup. Their faces flush with blood and they screech when things don’t taste quite the way they want it, at the temperature they want it. In the glory days we’ve all known particular men and babies who threw plates and other objects that were never meant to fly.
It’s astonishing how much a Particular Man resembles a general brat.