How do you ensure you never fall into the friend zone again? How do you dress to impress without spending a lot on clothes? How do you get rid of ‘approach anxiety’? These are questions that worry men on the single’s scene, but are never addressed. At least, that’s the belief that runs the business for Kshitij Sehrawat, 26-year-old founder of Lifestyle, a coaching programme for men to attract women they like and “live the life they want”.

This, at a time when service providers like Tinder and Bumble are doing a lot of the backend work while movements like ‘Me Too’ have pulled the guard up further for the Indian woman. But Sehrawat and a few others, inspired by the global pick-up artist (PUA) market, have become the answer to Indian men seeking to strike a balance between attracting a woman and not seeming dangerous.

“For most of us this is a legitimate challenge,” says Chennai-based mechanical engineer Rakshit*, 23, who signed up for Sehrawat’s boot camp earlier this year, after he read American journalist Neil Strauss’ popular non-fiction book, ‘The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists’. “Getting a woman’s attention is gratifying to the ego, but it’s also about bringing out your best self. I studied in a Marathi-medium school, wasn’t very popular as a student and had been an introvert for years. The boot camp helped me deal with my social anxiety,” says Rakshit who, on Day 1 of the camp, befriended a girl at a club and continued to hang out with her for many months.

Canadian author Dave Besseling spent eight weeks shadowing India’s self-proclaimed number one pick-up artist Sid Malhotra who, he says, chooses to remain anonymous. It resulted in his 2016 book, ‘Laid in India: Eight Weeks with Bombay‘s #1 Pickup Artist’. “I wanted to see how this ‘Western’ idea of courting translated to a country like India, where arranged marriage is still a thing, and where sex before that bond is still taboo, at least on paper,” says Besseling.

The writer observes that what separated India from “the West” in this regard was not what these men wanted to do, but the culture that constrained them. “There was an interesting confluence, represented by Sid, of a culture at large, an upbringing where sex was seen as shameful and linked to family, the village-to-city aspect, and when mobile technology comes into it, there was suddenly a new avenue,” he says. Sid himself, says Besseling, grew up in a small town in a small family and escaped.

New-age PUAs maintain that instead of exhibiting bravado and spewing pick-up lines to get a woman, they curate activities focused on enabling self-esteem and honest expression — tell a woman the first thing you notice about her that you like, and find common interests so the connection sustains. They are trained through free seminars or threeday-long boot camps priced at ₹20,000 or more, and try out what they have learned at public spaces like malls and night clubs.

“I’ve seen guys hanging around the dance floor unable to strike up a conversation with women. They’ve seen me talk to girls, get their numbers or even go on to have amazing relationships. I am all for approaching a woman in a public place but, as part of my training, I insist that they back off immediately if they sense the slightest discomfort in her. But if you never give it a shot, you will never know what your chances are,” says Sehrawat.

These coaches say they’ve got men aged 18 to 40 signing up. “Many have skewed notions cultivated by popular culture — that women flock to men with money and this has resulted in a generation of guys who lack social skills and confidence,” says Sehrawat.

Anupam*, an entrepreneur from Gurgaon, had a complex most of his growing-up years as he was overweight. “I signed up for the camp on impulse, and learned to handle rejection while building on my strengths,” says the 22-year-old who met his girlfriend at a coffee shop, post the boot camp, and asked her out.

A lot of these issues men face today are a consequence of controlling parenting that is often the norm in India, say experts. They also point out that traditionally in India, the concept of engaging with the opposite gender happens at a much later age for men. “A large part of social anxiety is not knowing how to talk to the opposite gender. In many ways, this kind of training builds that skill in men,” says psychiatrist Shefali Batra. “But does it help them find long-standing, enduring relationships? Perhaps, not. This requires respecting your potential partner, her space and choices, while working on your own self-esteem and choices. Simply wooing a woman one evening need not translate into a sustained, healthy relationship.”

* some names have been changed

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