A Men's Day Recommendation
Issue #84: Nikhil Taneja on The Seen and The Unseen
Belated Happy Men’s Day to all the amazing men who read this newsletter:
A gentle reminder that you reinstate my faith in MANkind, literally.
I want to share a podcast episode this week that is, in my opinion, the best crash course on how gender stereotypes have affected not just women, but also the way the world sees men, and the way men see themselves.
It is a conversation between two men I am proud and privileged to call my friends: Nikhil Taneja and Amit Varma - who released their whopping 7.5-hour-long conversation last week in an episode that was aptly titled “The Loneliness of the Indian Man”:
(I will paste this link below again, if you would like to keep reading for now.)
Who is Nikhil?
I met Nikhil at NIT Kurukshetra where we were both pursuing our B.Techs, and he was one year my junior. Since then, I have watched and admired Nikhil’s career choices and life choices and become a bonafide fan.
Here is just a glimpse of this trajectory from his professional profile:
Nikhil Taneja is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, writer, producer, storyteller, teacher, public speaker, and mental health advocate. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Yuvaa, a purpose-driven youth media, research, and impact organization that works on creating socially conscious content and starting meaningful conversations among and about Indian youth, particularly on mental health and gender. He has traveled with Yuvaa to over 30 Indian cities and over 100 campuses to talk on storytelling, mental health, and gender sensitivity.
He is clearly a very accomplished individual, but what is even better is that he is one of the kindest, sweetest, most humble people I know. Every conversation I have with Nikhil leaves me wishing I had recorded it. I am glad that Amit decided to right that wrong.
Their conversation had just so many beautiful, wonderful, heartwarming moments that just a few minutes into the chat, I decided that I will share its highlights in my Men’s Day edition of Womaning today.
Let’s get into it!
Fathers and sons
The father-son relationship is easily the one that defines most men’s definition of what it means to be a man.
In response to Amit’s very first question about his roots, Nikhil talks about his relationship with his father, and the raw honesty of what he says is awe-inspiring.
Nikhil says that his mother and his maasi (mother’s sister) as the two strong caregiving figures in his life. Of his father, he says:
“On the other hand, with my father, (my relationship) was mostly resentment. I was just really angry with him that he was not there for me. I would see some of my other friends playing cricket with their fathers, or hanging out with them. And my father had no time for us… (He) used to be very angry, which I feel like most fathers are I suppose.
Now that I have spoken to hundreds of thousands of kids in India, I think that is the pattern: Father is equal to angry.
So, I was just angry with my father, like I think all young men in our country are. And I wanted to be the… absolute opposite of him in every possible way. I decided I am going to be the best husband, I am going to be the best son, I am going to be the best brother, I am going to be the best caretaker of our home… the absolute opposite of everything he had been.”
This felt like the most succinct and accurate summary of how boys become men in our country. I think that this anger that Nikhil speaks about - which is passed from father to son - is behind so much needless misery and pain in the world for people of all genders.
The healing power of empathy
Later in the conversation, Nikhil brings what he said about his relationship with his father full circle as he talks about how - with time and therapy - he has come to a place of forgiveness and empathy for his father:
“Much later in life, I have looked back and thought… he had grown up without a (support) system, which then made him so angry at his own life… He just didn't have the emotional quotient that my mother had. And I, earlier, used to blame him for it. But after a lot of therapy, I realized that, it's not his fault either, is it?
I was very angry with my father for many, many, many, many years. Now I'm not. Now, I empathize, now I understand, now I feel bad for the way that I have treated him as a son, even though I am still angry at the way he treated my mother.
Everybody has come from the same societal conditioning and… you need to have empathy. Empathy is not easy. It is a responsibility. It is tough. It is a burden, sometimes. But if you don't have it, then…you are never going to go beyond anger into love, into compassion, into togetherness.”
Men’s identities have been reduced to numbers
Another insight that this conversation throws up, again and again, is how patriarchy has hurt - not only women - but also the boys that men once were.
At one point, Amit reads out this beautiful excerpt from one of Nikhil’s articles, where he says:
“It is tragic that we live in a world where - even as patriarchy benefits men - it first oppresses the boys they once were. The boys who could have grown up - not necessarily to be engineers or doctors or MBAs - but perhaps poets and artists and dancers if they were allowed to be. The boys who could have grown up - not necessarily to constantly and continually work for money - but perhaps be present fathers and husbands. The boys who could have grown up - without a stigma against feeling vulnerable, punishing any perceived weakness through violence - but perhaps be kinder and gentler to the world around and to themselves.”
In response, Nikhil speaks so beautifully about men, and how their identities are reduced to numbers and achievements by the world:
“I would never think of gender as my identity. Like, when you ask a woman ‘What is your identity?’, she will say ‘Woman’. (This is) because every day of her life, she is reminded that ‘you are a woman’ through the way our systems are structured.
But men are not.
Men never say, ‘I am a man’ as their identity.
It has always been their designation: I am a CEO. Or I am an engineer. I am the owner of these houses. Or, I have this much property.
Numbers would define your identity.
Even as a young man… your worth is reduced to numbers.
It is about how many marks you got, how many trophies you won, how many extra curriculars you participated in.
Everything is monetizable. Everything has to have a worth attached to it.
You can't even have a hobby… Like, instead of reading this, why don't you read your school textbooks, because that's the way you will get more marks? Instead of playing this sport, why don't you take part in this competition?
So even a hobby needed to be something that is in service of a victory or an achievement.
How many of these achievements you have was what would define you as a man.
Then salaries became a thing. Then packages, CTCs. Then the number of houses that you have, the number of cars you have… everything, everything.
We've just been reduced to numbers as identities, right?
And we don't think about that, how it is just normalized.”
Bollywood and Manli-hood
Nikhil has worked for years in the entertainment industry - including at Hindustan Times, MTV, and Yashraj Films. So obviously, his take on Bollywood and its impact on masculinity was a Masterclass.
In the podcast, Nikhil traces the trajectory of men in Bollywood: starting from the angry young man, Vijay - to the romantic hero, Rahul - to the self-discovering manchild coming of age, Sid - to Ayushmann Khurana discovering his male privilege in a string of movies - to, most recently, regressive misogynistic movies with a larger-than-life hero who saves the day becoming the latest ‘success formula’ in Bollywood, taking us several decades behind in this journey.
I loved this part where Nikhil questions why ‘female-led films’ is even a term that exists in Bollywood:
“Why do you have films which are called ‘female-led films’ in our country?
It is a female-led film because the premise of Indian films is that there will be a ‘hero’. And the moment you don't have a ‘hero’, you have to warn the audience that there is no hero in this film. In this film, a woman is leading it, and women are not ‘heroes’ in the minds of our filmmakers or the Bollywood industry at large, right?
A man is a ‘hero’, so ‘heroine’ means someone who is going to dance and be saved, but otherwise you are a ‘woman-led film’.
So can you imagine - even the nomenclature of how we talk about (films), the vocabulary we use when we talk about cinema, and the people who act in films (speaks volumes).”
Perhaps the most moving part of this 7.5 hour marathon of moving moments is where Nikhil gets really raw and personal, and talks about his own anxiety. He highlights that anxiety and depression are not just things that happen to people during difficult times, even the most outwardly successful people might be going through them.
He talks about how - at the peak of his career and professional success - small things like a cab getting late, or a person saying ‘hi’ instead of ‘hey’ had the potential to push him into thought spirals of anxiety.
“It was unbearable for me. I would have trouble breathing. I would have trouble getting off my bed on certain days. I would have what I realized later were panic attacks where you're just frozen for 20 minutes. You feel like you're having a heart attack and it is just your brain refusing to give signals to your body that it is okay to get up. You think, “What is the point? Everything sucks. Everything is terrible terrible terrible.”
I would sweat a lot. I would constantly be sweating. I was constantly be (thinking), “Things are going to go wrong”. Even now, I know when I am getting anxious because I sweat, my heart starts pacing. So these were the symbols.
My wife, Daisy, used to think that it might have something to do with my heart. She said, “You get it checked. Maybe it is a cholesterol issue.”
She noticed what I wasn't even able to notice. When you are in it, you are not able to have that perspective. She was the first person to notice and say, “I think something is going on with you. Why are you so tense all the time? Why are you sweating so much? You should go to a doctor.”
When I went to a doctor, he said “Your heart is fine, you have anxiety.”
“Okay, what does that mean?”
So first they gave me pills, but I also wanted to figure - before I take pills - is there another alternate? I mean, pills work for a lot of people. I am just someone who wants to first see if there is another way, and then might be okay with pills also.
So that's when therapy was suggested to me. It took me, I think, two more months after that point to actually go to therapy.
Because I was like, “I can't go to therapy. I am a man. If I go to therapy, that means I have to admit that something is broken in me. And I am not comfortable with the idea that I'm broken and need to be fixed. I am fine. So many people go through all kinds of shit. Can't I overcome these little things?”
But it wasn't little! It was unbearable. (Eventually) I literally had to quit my job and take six months off, leave everything, take a sabbatical in my life - before I was able to feel better… But it was very very hard that… unfortunately we don't even have the vocabulary of mental health in our country in regional languages, or even in Hindi.
What do you say when you have depression or anxiety? There is no colloquial terms for it. There is ‘Maanasik Swasthya’ which is mental health. But no one says ‘how is your maanasik swasthya?’ That's not something you talk about, right?
Depression… there is no word for it. There are clinical terms, maybe, but no colloquial terms. Sadness-upsetness-depression is a spectrum and there is no way of communicating how (you feel).
It is so difficult to have conversations about mental health in our homes in our families because your parents don't have terms for it and they think of it as a foreign thing. The moment you hear ‘mental’, the first thing people think is ‘psycho’. The second thing is ‘mental hospital’.
I mean, can you imagine, it is so tragic? Last to last year, when Sushant Singh Rajput passed away, our country concocted a narrative of conspiracy in his death - because we were unwilling to accept that he could have died by suicide. Because ‘how can someone successful want to do that? There has to be something nasty behind it.’
But Robin Williams has also done that, unfortunately. There are a lot of other folks who have spoken about it or attempted it or done it, because mental health can happen to anybody. Issues can happen to anybody. It doesn't matter if you are at a low in your life or at a high point in your life. You can have depression you can have anxiety.
And it is okay.
You can go and get it treated. You can go to a doctor. It is the same thing that you go to a doctor when you have a cold. Now, you might go to find out whether it's a cold or it's covid - it could be a cold spectrum, right? In the same way, when you are having trouble with your mind, sometimes you just have to get a checkup to see whether it is, just a little tension, or a little stress, or burnout, or is it clinical depression / clinical anxiety. And there are ways of overcoming it.
But you need to be comfortable with having the conversation first which - in our country, in our society, in our families - we are so afraid of. On the (Yuvaa) road
show, so many kids have said to me that ‘I I harm myself because I told my parents I want therapy but they are saying you are not mental. So then I need my pain to go away. So I harm myself.’
These are the kinds of things you are hearing in this country.
It is tough, but as I said, the more we talk about it, the more normal it will be. The more normal it will be, the more unafraid we will be.”
There is just so much incredible beauty in every word Nikhil says in this podcast.
He talks about the panic attack it had, arguably on one of the highest points of his career, and how that led him to therapy.
He also about how this therapy forced him to come face-to-face with his identity as a man, and how it was affecting his life choices.
He talks about women finding the language and communities of support in one another, but how men are still struggling to catch up because of the lack of these communities of unconditional support around them.
He talks about why so many dads are angry and alcoholic.
He talks about the power of vulnerability, empathy, and kindness, and about men saying ‘I love you’ to each other the way women do.
He talks about how stories are the way to us seeing each other beyond the labels social media tries so hard to slap on our foreheads.
He talks about the power of selfishness over sacrifice as the edifice of Indian families.
He questions why we say ‘badon ki izzat karo’ (respect your elders) and not ‘sabki izzat karo, sabse pyaar karo’ (Respect everyone, love everyone).
He shares how he was bullied as a child and how that difficult phase led him to discovering the power of stories.
I don’t want to spoil any more of it than I already have. Suffice to say, no newsletter can do justice to the behemoth of beauty that is this podcast, and you simply have to listen to it to find the pearls that might have the potential to change your life.
Some related links
The website of Nikhil’s company, Yuvaa
Big thank you for the incredible and powerful messages that mothers and primary caregivers have been sending me since last week’s call for stories. A gentle reminder to please fill in the survey here if you haven’t already.
Here is a piece I wrote last year, on men’s day, featuring some stories of stay-at-home-dads who are breaking gender stereotypes, one dirty diaper at a time.
And once you are done listening to Nikhil’s episode, here is my conversation with Amit on the same show - if you haven’t heard it already.
Much love and Happy Men’s Day again,