When I go to the gym during the women-only hours, the last person I want to see is a man. But irony is a stand-up comedian who laughs at me from the stadium, and I, a powerless member in the audience.

I watch as the comedian places the prop of a man in the middle of the stretching area. The man won’t budge. We look at each other through the mirrors in front of us. I don’t ask him to move. I do my warm-up standing at the edge of the mat, close enough to collide into the elliptical nearby when I was doing some jumping jacks. My sports bra cannot hide my humility as the male gaze stands too close, in a plank position, facing me.

Do men feel this humiliation? In her novel, The Anger of Saintly Men, Anubha Yadav attempts to answer this question through the stories of three brothers: Saurabh, Anu, and Vicky.

Saurabh, or Sonu as his parents and brothers call him, is the eldest, and when Yadav writes from the perspective of her character’s younger self, a childish innocence creeps through the form. This naivete of someone Sonu’s age becomes apparent when you encounter his older and mature perspective in the chapters that follow.

“As we walked home, Anju and Bhagyashree seemed to look quite alike. I felt a tingle in my lund. Anju and Rinky whispered into each other’s shoulders and giggled. Every few minutes, Anju’s eyes met mine. I looked away every time. Now and then, she would put her hair behind her ear and whisper something to Rinky. Every whisper made my heart pound faster.”

Man enough?

As a young boy, Sonu struggles against the man in the flour mill. Yadav writes this experience of child abuse through a conscious voice aware of what’s happening, but shame restricts Sonu. When his cousin endures a similar fate, his mother tells him, “Go and fix him. Are you not her elder brother?”

Sonu, forced to grow old too soon, resorts to a performative solution. He leaves home with a knife, strolls out, runs to make himself pant, wets his hair to appear sweaty, and rips off a part of his shirt, all to arrive at home and say: “He said sorry and was crying.” Yadav picks apart the pieces of what it means for a boy to become an Indian man, and she does this as a woman.

She shifts between perspectives, often writing from a third-person point of view, and allows the reader to access the misogyny that men don’t often admit to. One of the stories – which age with the characters – introduces Sonu as Saurabh, a teenager who spies on his friend Malik’s father and his mistress, accompanying Malik and Tokas.

On their way to the mistress’s home, Malik’s bike zips across the atta chakki shop. Yadav reduces Saurabh’s trigger to a single dialogue: “We should come back and beat this old man”. His friends can’t hear him amidst the noise made by the bike, and he doesn’t bring it up again either.

Masculinity demands revenge, and Indian masculinity, with its dollop of honour, mandates it. Yadav amplifies this concerning trait of the Indian society, where the weight of izzat bruises not just a man’s ego but also his relationship with the women around him.

A woman’s testimony against a man holds little value in an Indian household, but a man’s testimony against his own is paramount, and Yadav expedites a peek into the lives of other men in the story. Readers encounter the brothers through the men in their lives. Yadav utilises hearsay as a form of storytelling, neutralising the gendered stereotypes that accompany the act of gossiping.

“Pitaji and I searched for him for five days on the same motorbike. On our way home on the first day, Pitaji insisted we visit Saurabh Singh and Nitin Malik. I knew Saurabh and Tokas hadn’t been in touch since school days, and Malik had left for Canada after his father’s suicide. Pitaji seemed surprised by the news. ‘Acha? They don’t even talk now?’ he confirmed.

‘Saurabh was a good boy,’ he sighed.”

Asset stripping

While the gaze stands as erect as Saurabh’s phallus when he has sex with a dog – Yadav’s language explicates this with nonchalance, unembellished, telling it like it is – it crumbles when Mukesh, a character designed to expose Saurabh’s friend, Tokas, to the reader, comes into the picture. The purpose of his marriage recede like a hairline of an old man.

Mukesh shares the embarrassment of many women: unmarried, divorced, and left behind. But what separates him from them is a mother who has two sons and no daughters. A man’s mother will almost always tell him: “What was there not to like in you?” after a failure.

Yadav straitjackets how women respond to women, and I can’t help but think of the instructor at my gym who says nothing to the man who exercises during women-only hours, despite being the co-owner of the place. Her fiction tacitly acknowledges this gendered panorama of the world through the way Saurabh’s mother recalls his cousin Anju’s visit home.

“Thank god she has gone, what a burden the girl was, always prancing around with her chest out, looking for new prey like a jungle cat. Who knows what happened at the chakki? Thank god I only have boys.”

Anju is a testament to the slut-shaming and victim-blaming that stalks the body of every woman. Although Saurabh’s mother asks a “man” in the family to fight the abuser, she doesn’t believe the victim. They fight for the silence of those involved, not for justice but to sustain their reputation. Trauma, along with dishonour, steeps itself into Anju’s days, and the abuser remains unscathed.

Although clunky in some bits, Yadav’s dialogue strips the Indian family of its biggest pretension of an asset: prestige. The lines flow from a cohesive understanding of language, tone and power structures that exist between the characters.

But more importantly, Yadav’s writing reeks of the blatant male perspective. She resists the idea that the burden of masculinity is self-imposed, teasing out ways women preserve this weight of expectations. Her characters are angry, flawed and nuanced, much like every other Indian man. Yadav’s fiction forces the reader to burrow beneath the surface and see the dynamics that nurture this anger. It demands that I ask the man in the gym to leave.

The Anger of Saintly Men

The Anger of Saintly Men, Anubha Yadav, Bee Books.