‘Silence! The Court is in Session’ : A Strong Social Commentary
Vijay Tendulkar is known for his concern for burning social problems and anomalies of Indian society and mindset. Silence! The Court is in Session is one of his most famous and widely appreciated plays. A group of actors are enacting a mock-drama, actually a mock trial of Ms Benare. The pettiness of conversation among actors suggests that drama-activity has cheapened itself quite a lot in recent times in India. There is no seriousness, no gravity, and no mutual respect among actors. Drama is basically an intellectual activity. It needs committed people. It needs talented and serious people. But here we find that the actors busy jeering at each other. They want to expose and humiliate each other. Their way of ‘passing time’ is cheap indeed.
|The problem with Leela Benare is that she is too much of a woman. She is sexually alive. She needs to fulfill her desires. And above everything else, she is not ashamed of her instincts.
During the first half of the play, Benare is able to outsmart them. She is not caught in their net. Her voice is not throttled. But the later half of the play witnesses a mock trial of Benare that is actually a trial of the whole female race in this country. It shows our hypocrisy, our double standards regarding men and women. Benare is accused of cheap conduct, of wooing men, of fulfilling her bodily needs and so on and so forth. But the intellectual, the absent university professor, Damle who is equally a part of the bad conduct, is not at all held responsible. The very fact that he does not turn up speaks for his sense of responsibility towards this stained woman, Benare.
Kumud Mehta writes well, ‘The door latch has long since fallen into place. The group has by now safely insulated itself. What began as a game has evolved into a hunt. Benare is the quarry and the group, accuser and judge, rolled into one. The sentence meted out to her is savage: the infant in her womb must be destroyed; she must lose her teaching job, her only source of livelihood. There is no mention of the intellectual who abandoned her, the absent Damle.
Having created this situation, the playwright seems to have had no other option except to allow Benare her say. Her inner frame stirs a little to communicate to us what she knows about men who profess love but, in fact, only hunger for the flesh.’ (VI)
Society is at its best, most natural and relaxed ground censoring ‘bad’ women as though there existed ‘bad’ women without ‘bad’ men. The whole responsibility of morally upright behaviour is bulldozed on women. Men are, by nature, considered to be willful, wild, childish, innocent and mischievous. Their sins are no sins at all. The society has a very light, parental, and pampering sort of attitude when it comes to sexual offences of men. In case of women, the iron rod gets hot and hotter. No punishment is actually enough for such a woman. There is no respite, no shade, and no soothing cushion for a sinning woman. She must be stained and abandoned. Her femininity, her needs, her very existence must be ignored, or rather destroyed. She must be cornered and brutally killed - both in physical and psychological senses.
The play is about the pathetic position of women in the male-dominated Indian world. All philanthropic assumptions of human nature have been thoroughly butchered. The play poignantly portrays the plight, the ponderings, predicaments and problems of a middle class Indian woman. Society as a force is hostile to individual instincts as well as dignity. The very system of justice is gender-biased.
Leela Benare is an actress in an amateur drama troupe. The beginning of her exploitation begins with her uncle who had exploited her sexually in her teen age. The question of marrying her did not arise for him. To top the torture, even her own mother fails to understand her and support her. But Benare shows guts. She starts her life all over again, studies and finally settles into a teaching job. As a teacher, she comes in contact with Prof. Damle whom she considers quite intelligent, and academically bright. Though married, the Professor exploits her sexually and naturally refuses to marry her. As she is pregnant with the Professor’s child, she is desperate to find a way to escape social wrath and humiliation. She requests two of her colleagues at the drama company to marry her. But obviously enough, they are more smart. They also refuse to attach their names with her. The bitter experiences of life embitter her tongue like anything. Like the playwright himself, Benare is also very vocal, very open and frank in her attack on male chauvinism and false concepts of masculinity. To pay her back in the same coin, the actors plan to expose and humiliate her through a mock trial. She gets into the trap. Once the trial begins, there is no shelter for poor Benare. She is labeled by all dirty adjectives. Prof. Damle has been spared the iron rod. It is Benare who is accused of immorality, sin, promiscuity, over-sexuality and so on and so forth. The verdict dismisses her from her school job, orders for abortion, and blackens Leela Benare’s name forever.
The problem with Leela Benare is that she is too much of a woman. She is sexually alive. She needs to fulfill her desires. And above everything else, she is not ashamed of her instincts. She is not submissive. She does not fit into the wrapper society has so meticulously prepared for its women over centuries of patriarchal thinking. She too could have carried out all her sexual escapades secretly and would have maintained a damsel-like, falsely innocent demeanor. But she does not do it. She does something and accepts it, ‘My life is my own – I haven’t sold it to anyone for a job! My will is my own. My wishes are my own. No one can kill those – no one.’ (SC 58)
The society cannot forgive such candid attitudes. Benare feels that it is not she who is defiling the noble teaching profession; it is people like hypocritical Damle who do not deserve to be called teachers. They may or may not be great scholars but their actual conduct is worm-like, cheap and animal-like. They do not have the courage to accept an act they have performed; they cannot bear the responsibility attached to romantic liaisons. They are cowards. For them, women are just flesh. Women are to be used, stained forever and then thrown away. The significant presence in the play is the absence of Damle. It is as though the woman has got pregnant all by herself; the male counterpart has no role, no responsibility in the matter.
The play exactly describes middle class mentality and its pettiness. The theatre members are a bored, frustrated, and repressed lot. Their attitude towards their fellow beings is hostile, malicious, and spiteful. They are mediocre and the bond of mediocrity gets very strong in the presence of an antagonistical force named Leela Benare. She is lively. She ignores society and its trivial, hypocritical norms. This is enough to isolate her from the rest of the lot. She is targeted and finally defeated.
The President of the drama group is Mr. Kashikar. He is always seen with his wife. The duo of this husband-wife reminds one of Mamapapa in Anita Desai’s ‘Fasting, Feasting’. The couple is a super hypocrite, leading a false life that is devoid of any meaning. Tendulkar brings out the hollowness of their life so well. Mr. Kashikar buys flowers for wife. Mrs. Kashikar buys shirts for husband. They make a constant show of fondness in public. Their perpetual show of love becomes distasteful and repulsive. Mr. Kashikar, a male chauvinist, does not let the wife speak at all. Whenever she tries to give an opinion, hubby dear promptly shuts her up. But the problem is that Benare ruthlessly unravels their pettiness before their own eyes. She is very direct in her words. She plainly tells that they have adopted a boy in order to lessen the monotony of their lives. They have deprived that child of a separate identity and maturity. What Benare says is true and therefore it is bitter. Once the play within the play (the mock trial) begins, Tendulkar brilliantly dissects and shows the sick psyche of urban middle class society in India. The double standards are sickening. On one hand, there is this woman who is trying to hold her head high in the face of social humiliation. On the other hand, there are these sadistic members of the drama company whose only pleasure lies in exposing, torturing and laughing at the cornered woman.
Each artist represents an unfulfilled dream. Boredom pervades their lives. Sukhatme is quite inefficient as a lawyer. Mr. And Mrs. Kashikar are childless.Ponkshe fails to become a scientist. Karnik is a failure as an actor. Rokde does not have an identity of his own. This petty lot finds in Benare a suitable enemy. But amongst themselves even, they do not have anything but hatred for each other. Every uttering has a dual meaning for them. Even innocent remarks are taken as sexually loaded ones. These perverted people want to mentally replay the sexual encounters of Benare. They want to derive pleasure out of this crooked means. Playing with anyone’s emotions, or peeping into the private affairs of a person – these things are quite common and accepted for them.
The behavioral case that society has created for a woman is very congested, tight, suffocating and rigid. A woman must not be free. She must not laugh loudly. She must not enjoy life. Mrs. Kashikar, in particular, is very harsh on Benare, ‘That’s what happens these days when you get everything without marrying. They just want comfort. Just look at the way she behaves. I don’t like to say anything since she’s one of us. Should there be no limit to how freely a woman can behave with a woman? An unmarried woman? Look how loudly she laughs! How she sings, dances, cracks jokes! And wandering alone with how many men, day in and day out!’ (SC 99-100)
The inherent mentality behind these words has been shapes by centuries of patriarchy wherein pleasure is considered to be the sole domain of males. A woman who enjoys sex is something odd and dirty. Women are either ‘devies’ or devils. The society does not accept women as normal human beings who have vices as well as well virtues.
The very word ‘life’ gives a pang of joy. To live is life. To sing, to feel, to experiment, to enjoy, to dance, to breathe, to travel, to know, to explore – all this is life. But when you do all this, the society labels you as ‘evil’ and gives a verdict that hangs you. This is the paradox of life- to live and not to live – ‘Life is like this. Life is so and so. Life is such and such. Life is a book that goes ripping into pieces. Life is a poisonous snake that bites itself. Life is a betrayal. Life is a fraud. Life is a drug. Life is drudgery. Life is a something that’s nothing or a nothing that’s something… Milord, life is a dreadful thing. Life must be hanged… Life is not worthy of life. Hold an enquiry against life. Sack it from its job.’ (SC116)
At a deeper level, the play is a comment on lack of individual importance in life, the meaninglessness of life, and the absurdity of various human situations. In philosophical terms, this play is a blow to all those who seek meaning out of this mundane, bizarre, ordinary human existence. To live is to be ‘exuberant’ and ‘exuberant’ one is not allowed to be. How often we meet parents who teach their children to laugh mildly. Everyone is scared of being wild. And wildness is part and parcel of human nature. Socializing in this sense means living coyly and submissively. Life becomes death. The society compels one to live less and less. It forces one to live not life but death itself. This sort of life gives birth to all sorts of anomalies. We see abnormal people all around with ‘so sweet’ faces but complex, pervert’s minds.
‘These are the mortal remains of some cultured men of twentieth century. See their faces – how ferocious they look. Their lips are full of lovely worn out phrases! And their bellies are full of unsatisfied desires.’ (SC 117)
How true these comments are for contemporary men! Every man is a wolf wrapped in the skin of a lamb. He wants his ‘pound of flesh’. For him, every woman is virtually her body – bones, flesh, curves! A woman is not identified with her intellect, her ability, her intelligence, her courage or knowledge. A woman, whosoever she may be, is just her body. Even women themselves have internalized this vision about themselves. They see their own selves as bodies. That is why they are afraid and ashamed of old age, wrinkles and while hairs. They view themselves primarily as sex objects. This is what patriarchy has done to women – poisoned their self-perception beyond repair.
Leela Benare is mercifully different. But difference and deviation are things Indian society does not give to its women. So Leela Benare pays the price of being different.
Vijay Tendulkar. 1995. ‘Five Plays’. Delhi: OUP.
Vijay Tendulkar. 2002. ‘Silence!The Court is in Session’. Delhi: OUP.