The Impossibility of Being Nora’s Sisters in Marathi Theatre

(Paper presented by Shanta Gokhale at the one-day seminar “Nora’s Sisters” at Symbiosis College, Pune)

Till the seventies Nora was simply Ibsen’s best known female character. She belonged in a play that had been refined by its maker into a consummate work of realistic drama.  As such it had had a worldwide impact. Around the beginning of the 20th century, this world of Ibsen admirers came to include university educated young people in Mumbai to whom the acquisition of the English tongue had opened doors to western literature and drama.

In the seventies, at the height of the women's movement, Nora was removed from the context of her play “The Doll’s House” and turned into a feminist icon. Simultaneously the door that she had walked out of became a symbol of women’s liberation. The woman and the door told women that they no longer needed to look upon marriage as a sacred bond and the husband as the unquestioned lord and master of their lives. Both could be questioned and rejected. In short, the door that let them into their husbands homes could also let them out.

It is with this background in mind that I would like to ask the question, did a real kinship exist between Ibsenian drama and Marathi drama, and between Nora and the female characters of Marathi drama, either in the first phase of the discovery of “The Doll’s House” or later when Nora became a feminist icon? I am not even considering Ibsen’s other female characters except to say that the Indian view of women (or human beings at large) being moralistic, we have no audio visual representation of a character like Hedda Gabler whose behaviour cannot be praised, condemned or justified.

The first discovery of Ibsen in Bombay happened when the reformist movement was well underway. At the centre of the reforms was the woman question. Most of the social evils that the reformists fought against were focused on women. Plays had already been written and staged on some of them. G. B. Deval’s “Sharada”, staged in the last year of the 19th century questioned the practice of marrying young girls who had not even attained puberty to rich old men. The question of women’s education was brought to the stage from the conservative side of theatre with “Stree Shikshan Natika” which showed, by means of exaggerated satire, the harm that would befall society if women were given education. Novels too were being written on every aspect of the position of women in society. Therefore, when western educated young men discovered “The Doll’s House”, they discovered two things simultaneously. Firstly, they discovered a play that made the position of women in marriage a central concern, questioning the nature of marriage and the attitude of fathers and husbands towards their daughters and wives. Secondly they discovered a play that discarded the old device of asides and soliloquies as a means of revealing the workings of a character’s mind, and relied entirely on dialogue and that specific sequence of situations to reveal them before the very eyes of the audience as it were. Events led from one point to the next without the writer’s hand being visible and when the end came it seemed completely inevitable.

Many young people were thrilled with Ibsen’s drama on the page. But only one group decided to put it on the stage. This was Natyamanwantar which roughly translates as theatre for change. One of the group members, Anant Kanekar, even translated “A Doll’s House” as “Gharkul” (little home). The translation was ready; but the group members were not. They balked at the idea of actually performing “Gharkul”. No historian of Marathi drama has been able to put a finger on exactly why this happened. But perhaps one can hazard a guess. Natyamanwantar wanted to change Marathi theatre. The music drama which had held sway over it for fifty years was on its last legs. Younger audiences no longer had the patience to sit through hours of drama lengthened by songs that went on for ever. Nor did their modern outlook allow them to accept men playing the roles of women.

The problem was that though Natyamanwantar wanted to change things, it also wanted to do business. The patronage of young people alone would not have given them sufficient returns. In this light, “A Doll’s House” in faithful translation must have struck them as too bold for the times. Consequently, they made a compromise. They presented an adaptation of Bjornson’s “The Gauntlet” as their first production. One of their members S. V. Vartak adapted it as “Andhalyanchi Shala”, making it more palatable for the regular play-going audience. “The Gauntlet”, we are told, is about the double standards practised in patriarchy—one standard for men and quite the opposite for women. “Andhalyanchi Shala” evades this point. Instead it proposes that human beings are made up of shades of grey. Nobody is pure white or pure black. We have to understand this and be compassionate. It just so happens that the wrongdoers are men and the compassion is shown by the women who forgive them their misdeeds. The big revolution in “Andhalyanchi Shala” did not lie in questioning patriarchy. It lay in the fact that the play was urban, modern as against mythological. 

With Ibsen’s drama having been reduced to taking a woman-centred problem, putting it into a one-act-one-scene structure (earlier plays followed the Shakespearean mode of multiple scenes to an act) minus asides and soliloquies with some attempt at realistic dialogue, many imitations of “A Doll’s House” were spawned. These are best described in the words of the well-known critic, the late Madhav Manohar. He says, “Dramatists without the vaguest clue to why it was inevitable for Nora to leave her home, took to pulling wives out of their homes simply to be with the times. It became a kind of craze—grab a wife, push her out. A wholly new kind of drama was thus inaugurated.”

The attempt to transplant Ibsenian drama in soil whose properties were too different for the new plant to take root, failed on two counts. The playwrights and producers were not bold enough to take on the subjects that made them sit up in Ibsen’s plays. For though the impetus for a new social order was in place, it affected only the veneer of society. The larger majority of the theatre-going public was simply not willing to have such radically new ideas thrust down its throat. Secondly, the general comprehension of the Ibsenian form of drama was superficial and, in a peculiar sense, innocent.

Soon Natyamanwantar fizzled out and finally closed shop. Of the plays imitating “A Doll’s House” that came in the following decade, particular mention must be made of M. G. Rangnekar’s “Kulavadhu” Compared to Nora, the wife in this play is in a position of strength. She becomes a film actress after her husband loses his job. She does very well in the profession and begins to earn high fees. This becomes a thorn in her husband’s side. His male ego is hurt. He becomes possessive and jealous. Unable to bear his tantrums much longer, she decides to leave the house, but not for the big, bad, uncertain world outside. She decides to live with her in-laws in the country where she can continue to be a good daughter-in-law.

Despite this sop, two gentlemen who had seen the first show of the play, lay in wait for Rangnekar to return home to ask him whether the woman would in time return to her husband. It was not a point on which Rangnekar could reassure them because it lay outside the purview of his play. However, seeing how agitated they were, he gave them permission to believe that she might very well return if circumstances allowed. This satisfied them enough for them to leave.



I move on now to the seventies when the women’s movement was in full swing and one could have expected the birth of some sisters for Nora. By which I do not mean the feminist version of women going out in search of self-fulfillment, but confused women, conventional women who become gradually aware of the trap that patriarchal society has laid for them and desperately search for a way out. And succeed.

I will return for a moment here to the late Madhav Manohar who wrote a series of essays under the general title, “Why is Marathi drama stunted?” In dealing with the influence of Ibsen he argues that it harmed rather than helped the growth of Marathi theatre because in Marathi theatre people never really understood its essence. This led to a false start from which it took nearly three-and-a-half decades for the theatre to recover. Manohar sees a silver lining in the seventies. He says, “There is only one playwright today who has absorbed Ibsen in his totality. His name is Vijay Tendulkar. I have already said that anybody who decides to follow in Ibsen’s footsteps must be willing to undergo an ordeal by fire. This young, highly talented young playwright is going to be the first victim of that ordeal.”

With this in mind, you look at Tendulkar’s female characters and realise that nowhere in his plays has he created a woman who takes hold of her own life as Nora does, knowing it is going to be difficult, but also knowing as surely as anything, that it is the only way to “become a human being”. Let us look at Sarita, the protagonist of “Kamala” who comes close in a way to the situation in which Nora finds herself. Having taken her position in her husband’s life for granted, Sarita is suddenly woken up by a question Kamala asks her. Kamala has been “bought” by Sarita’s investigative reporter husband to display at a press conference as proof that women are being sold like cattle in certain parts of the country. Speaking from her own context but also assessing the general situation in this middle-class home, Kamala asks Sarita, “And how much did our owner pay for you?” It is a moment of revelation. Kamala sees her life with her husband from a new perspective. And yet, at the end, when she seems to be on the point of deciding to leave (they do not even have children to complicate the issue) she looks at her husband lying on the sofa with his boots on. He has lost his job and has got drunk. She takes off his boots and stays back.

When questioned about this end which most people thought was not true to where the play was leading, Tendulkar said, middle-class women don’t leave their homes so easily.

Dr Rajeev Naik has written a small play in answer to the question that is often asked about Nora, “Where did she go when she closed the door of her home behind her?” His protagonist has left before the play begins. At the beginning of the play she has come crawling back. It transpires that despite having a job and a place to stay (in themselves the biggest hurdles to women trying to make a life of their own), she finds it difficult to continue by herself. It is never clear why. But when she returns it is to a relationship where the power equation is still entirely in her husband’s favour. Both husband and wife pretend that this is not so. She pretends it is her love for him, the fact that she was missing him that has brought her back. He pretends to believe her and “forgives” her. But the there is another conversation going on while they speak to each other. Each is having a conversation with the self communicated to the audience through brief asides. The asides tell us that both are waiting for their chance to get back at each other—he to show her the claws that he has momentarily sheathed and she to leave him once again.

If Nora’s leaving her home, husband and children struck this playwright as unrealistic, his idea of reality disregards the many women who have been able to make their way in the world without their husbands. After all a woman is as alone when she is a widow or is abandoned as she is when she abandons. All she needs to do is to have conviction enough to overcome the guilt that society tries to burden her with and fend for herself.

Since Tendulkar was identified by Madhav Manohar as the playwright of the future, his women characters hold out special interest for us.

Reading Tendulkar's "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe", "Sakharam Binder", “Gidhade” and "Kamala", you realise that the women characters are all victims Nothing that happens in the course of the plays alters this basic fact. The playwright once said in a lecture, "I could not proceed to write a play unless I saw my characters as real life people, doing things by persons with their own minds, ways and destiny."

("The play is the thing", pg 15): 

"Destiny" is the end to which the combination of a character's nature, socio-familial circumstances and resultant actions drive her. Tendulkar wishes us to see a character's destiny as the result of her psychological constitution as revealed in the play and also our knowledge of the sociological context that drives the character's actions. As we shall soon see, the psychology of the female characters is itself the consequence of the sociological context within which she lives, with very little space for individuality. We cannot see any of Tendulkar's female characters "doing things by themselves". Rather, things are done to them. They proceed from here to do things that fit in with social norms. Ibsen, writing at a time when the lives of women in his country were just as hemmed in by social expectations as Indian women's lives were in Tendulkar's time, created a character like Hedda Gabler, whose psychology was unfathomable and whose reality was to be gauged exclusively within the confines of the play, without significant reference to the outside world. None of Tendulkar's female characters possess this kind of autonomy. His touchstone is reality. But what is reality? It is the slice of life that the playwright has seen. In Tendulkar’s case this reality is limited very much by his class, the Marathi middle-class. However, being a poor struggling man and a journalist in his early years, allowed a greater variety of males to enter his life than females. Take for instance the crude, rapacious family in "Gidhade". Tendulkar says: "The central character of the play was born out of my past. During my unstable years I was looking for accommodation. Ramakant was the name of the landlord who gave me a place. 

In another statement he reveals that the abusive language of the family was not part of his own, his family's or his friends' vocabulary. He had heard it used during a traumatic time in his life when he had to rescue his alcoholic brother from the streets, gutters and liquor dens that he frequented.

When the controversy around "Sakharam Binder" blew up and people accused Tendulkar of creating unbelievable characters and situations purely for the sake of sensation, he recorded Sakharam's origins: "I never met a man like him. But I was once told about a man who was a binder in a printing press in a small town and lived a strange kind of life. He did not marry but was on the lookout for a woman who was thrown out by her husband whom he brought home and stayed with till one of the two got fed up of the other. Then he reached her where she wanted to go; gave her a pair of sarees, some money and little things she would need. Then he would start his search for a fresh destitute married woman anew. This was all I was told. ...It was not possible to go and meet him. But something in him intrigued me. Caught my imagination. "

Except in the case of one of his plays, "Mitrachi Goshta", Tendulkar does not refer anywhere to having met or heard of any woman who triggered his imagination and became a character in his play. As a result, he creates generic middle-class women whose reality is limited to the sociological construct within which they live. The exception to this rule is Champa in "Sakharam Binder". But she too is generic. She belongs to the type of voluptuous ) does not belong to this type, but to another type--the voluptuous woman who knowingly arouses men sexually. Sakharam and his friend Dawood both drool at the first sight of her. Her husband describes her exclusively in terms of the physical attributes that make her sexually desirable: "Champi is lovely,” he says. “Big buttocks like this, big tits like this..." She might look and sound as though she is empowered, she has as little agency as the meeker Laxmi whom Sakharam had brought home before her and who later becomes a powerhouse of human will.

When Tendulkar asserts in the lecture which I have cited above that he did not create his characters, but was led "into the thick of their lives" by the characters themselves, he is taking pains to underline his role as an observer of what he calls “real life”.  In this real life, women are sexually oppressed. There is not a single instance of any one of his women characters expressing sexual desire as a natural human instinct. Even for his male characters sex has more to do with power play than pleasure. It is within this context that I will look at some of Tendulkar’s female characters to see whether he could be bracketed with Ibsen in trying to create a new although not unbelievable woman through his plays, or whether he was merely content to point a reproachful finger at society without allowing his women characters to rise against it in an effective way. 

Leela Benare, the protagonist of Shantata Court Chalu Ahe, has been a school teacher for several years. Tendulkar does not tell us her age; but other characters guess her age as being 32 or34. She has loved twice and been betrayed by both men. Benare was 14 years old the first time. The second time is a recent occurrence. Her lover is a married man and is, like her, a member of the group that performs mock trials for people's edification. He is absent from the present show.

Benare herself is put on a supposedly mock trial to fill time before the real show begins. Her colleagues claim it is a game. However, the revelations made in the course of the game come painfully near the truth of her situation. Their vicious attacks on her break her spirit completely. When the judge gives her ten seconds to say whatever she wishes to in her defence, she remains silent. Tendulkar had ended the play this way. Silence can be seen as an eloquent form of protest. The director Arvind Deshpande persuaded him to write a final speech for Benare. Tendulkar wrote a monologue. It is not heard by her colleagues because she continues to be still with her head laid down on her hands. She will return to this position at the end of the speech to indicate that what the audience has heard are her innermost thoughts. This was Tendulkar’s compromise. Deshpande got a speech at the end while Tendulkar hid under the pretext that it wasn’t a speech at all but an internal monologue.

Benare's life has been unconventional. She is a single woman in a society that makes marriage the most important event in anybody’s life, an event that validates life itself. Benare’s first lover was her uncle. After he betrayed her and her family blamed her entirely for what had happened, she attempted suicide. This is what she says about the affair, hiding her face in terror, pleading for understanding:

"I accept that I sinned. I loved my mother's brother. But in the strict discipline of my home, he was the only man who was near me when my body was blossoming. He flattered my blossoming day in and day out. He pampered me. How was I to know that if the man with whom my whole being was aching to unite, whose mere presence made life worth living, if this man was my uncle, then my desire was sinful? Please, I was only 14 then. I swear on my mother that I didn't even know what sin meant. I wanted to marry him....but everybody including my mother opposed me. And my man turned tail."

Her young age and the new sensations of a growing body, become Benare's excuse for giving in to its demands at that time. But with the lesson that affair has taught her, she thinks she is safe from making the same mistake. But she is wrong.

"I loved once again, as an adult, intensely. I thought this was different. It was a fully conscious love, for an incomparable intellect. It was not love at all. It was devotion. But I was making the same mistake. My body became the offering for this meeting of minds. My intellectual god took the offering and went his way. He hadn't wanted my heart and my devotion at all. He was no god. He was an ordinary man who lived in the body and for the body."

The body fills her with revulsion. Yet, she reminds herself "that it was the body that gave you a moment of exquisite beauty, divine satiation. It was the body that transported you, in one magical moment, beyond itself to the highest summit, the abode of ethereal beings."

The language of these confessions belongs to the literature of romance. That is where Benare's view of love comes from, not from life. She accepts her body only by default. It produces momentary highs; but what matters more is something called "pure" love which occurs between minds, unsullied by the body. This idea falls in line with conservative opinion that sees sex as dangerous to the health of the family and, by extension, to the health of society. In this system of belief, motherhood becomes the apotheosis of 'pure' love. It sanctifies the physical act that led to it. Motherhood is the ultimate reward of the female body of which it is the true and only function. This view is expressed in the last lines of Benare's monologue:

"Now the body holds the witness to that moment--a tender, tender shoot....I want to keep this body now for him. Only for him." Again, like all conventional mothers-to-be, the child she dreams of is a son. However, her nurturing body alone will not suffice to give the child a bright future. "He must have a father that he can claim as his own,” Benare says. “He must have a home, security...he must have social prestige." This conviction has allowed her to humiliate herself more than her cruel colleagues can by asking every man of her acquaintance whether he will marry her and give her child his name.

This play was staged in 1968.  In 1992 came a play that undid some of the harm that such a depiction of a woman had done. The protagonist of “Char Chaughi”, written by Prashant Dalvi, has also been a teacher and had a relationship with a married man. She has had three daughters by him and brought them up single-handed. There has been much pain for her and for them in the situation, but they have found their way to cope with a lesser or greater degree of dignity and self-respect. None of these four women struck the middle-class audience as unbelievable. Was this the result of changed times? Or was it the result of the playwright having met a greater variety of women than Tendulkar had? 

Laxmi and Champa

The contract that Sakharam Binder makes with his women is straightforward. He elaborates on it as soon as the women enter his house. He first describes the topography of the house. Then he lays down the rules for the woman's behaviour in harsh words. But when he comes to the sexual part of the bargain, his language becomes suddenly coy, probably in deference to the sensibilities of Tendulkar's audience. "And now the last thing," he says. "You will have to live here as a wife. The sensible should know what that means."

The sexual act, if it happens at all, is not referred to till the incident of the ant. The scene with the ant, a male, is loaded with sexual inuendo. 

"You rascal, trying to fool me are you? I threw you out but back you've come again. You want to eat everyday eh? You won't get anything now. Didn't I say no? Don't look at me like that. Get away. Go on. Go away I said. He's all over the body, the pest. I'm telling you, don't you dare come near me. (Begins to giggle like she is being tickled) Don't for god's sake. Watch out now. If you climb on to my lap I'll give you a clout. Get away from me, the sticky pest. You're not going to get a thing today. Why do you trouble me everyday? Get off my body first. (She continues to giggle)

Her laughter turns Sakharam on. Every time he wants to have sex with her, he makes her laugh. Sex with Laxmi is not the fulfilment of a natural urge for Sakharam, but the fulfilment of a fantasy in which Laxmi has no say and no pleasure. 

In contrast to Laxmi, Champa is desirable. She exudes sex. Her desirability is mirrored in Sakharam's and Dawood's gaze. She has not been abandoned by her husband; she has walked out on him when she cannot bear the sexual perversions he has practised on her ever since her mother sold her to him as a minor. This shows that she is capable of taking charge of her life, but not beyond walking out. The fact that she enters into a contract with Sakharam demonstrates her continuing dependence. She agrees to a contract in which she must have sex with Sakharam in exchange for boarding and lodging despite the fact that her experience with her husband has put her off sex completely. Like Leela Benare, she too has not learnt her lesson well. Sakharam needed to be artificially aroused in order to have sex with Laxmi. The situation is now reversed. It is Champa who needs to deaden her feelings with alcohol in order to endure sex with him.

Champa's relationship with Dawood happens off-stage and remains unexplained. We cannot be sure about it, but we must assume it is a sexual involvement. Given her revulsion to sex, it is difficult to imagine why she has entered into this relationship. Since nothing leads up to it and it does not appear to change her in any way, it must be seen only as a plot device to trigger the dramatic denouement of the play. Laxmi tells Sakharam of her suspicion. Egged on by her, he kills Champa. Horrifed by what he has done, he is immobilized. He does not know what to do with Champa’s body. Laxmi's rises to the occasion, takes charge and digs Champa's grave in the room.

Laxmi thus becomes one of the few female characters in Tendulkar's work to acquirs a new dimension at the end of the play. She grows from weakness to strength. However, what gives her strength is her conventional view of sin and virtue. Champa is a sinful woman because she betrayed the man who was or should have been like a husband to her. She herself is virtuous because she is sexually faithful to him, prays regularly and has never hurt anyone. The tables are truly turned on Sakharam. He has stood against the institution of marriage all his life and ridiculed its hypocrisies. Now he is saved by a woman who is not his wife but who shows him the mangalsutra she has tied around her neck in his name. The end of "Sakharam Binder" is the defeat of the rebellion of the individual and the triumph of the norms of the conventional. Like Benare's helplessness that works against Tendulkar's supposed intention of exposing the cruelty of man to man, Laxmi's growth works against Tendulkar's supposed intention of validating Sakharam's rejection of the institution of marriage. What he ends up validating is the strength of this institution.

Manik, Rama  

"Gidhade" presents two women characters who are each other's opposites. Manik is one of the vultures. Rama is the dove. As a vulture, Manik is rapacious. She is sluttish. She has had several lovers and is currently having an affair with a supposedly rich man  whom her brothers contemptuously refer to as the "the third-class raja of tinpot Hondur". He has six children by two wives, yet, despite her apparent worldly wisdom, Manik believes he is going to marry her. This seems to suggest that her earlier affairs with "that cycle-shop owner, that film cameraman and the vegetable grocer with whom she rode pillion, with her arms wound tight around him", were also attempts to catch a husband. But given their class, this seems unlikely. In that case she must have slept with them for the heck of it. Whatever the case, the purpose of these off-stage details seems to be to underline her promiscuity. We are not surprised then that she takes the lead in the siblings' plan to murder their uncle.

In contrast, Rama the dove lives in a cocoon of innocence and undying love. Nothing, but nothing in the world can drag her out of it. However, she suffers one moment of sexual weakness which culminates in what is arguably the only scene in Tendulkar's oeuvre that depicts pure physical passion. As significant as the scene itself, is Rama's elaborate monologue that precedes it. The purpose of the monologue is to establish extenuating circumstances for Rama's betrayal of her husband, thus ensuring our sympathy despite her transgression with her own brother-in-law, her husband's bastard brother, the poet Rajaninath. It is to be noted that this monologue is addressed to him after stage directions tell the actor to look again and again at his bare body. A chance remark by him about children which hurts Rama who is childless triggers the monologue: She begins by describing the nature of her pain at being childless:

"It's a new death every day. Millions of deaths every moment. The agony is like suffering a million needle pricks in the chest." After about 40 more lines in this vein, in the course of which Rama speaks of her husband's alcoholism and more directly of her inability to bear a child, she says, "Truly the fault isn't mine. This womb is healthy. I was born to be a mother. The soil is rich, it is hungry, but the seed will not hold. How can the soil be blamed if the seed is drenched in poisonous alcohol, is weak, feeble, without energy or life? The soil strains with all its power and will to nurture it, but the seed weakens, dries up and one day drains away, killing every hope, every dream. This has happened not once, not twice, but repeatedly, over and over again." After more elaboration about the hunger of the soil and its starvation, she admits that she has often thought of leaving her husband Ramakant, or of burning herself to death, or of feeding him poison; but she has been unable to do any of these things. Then she flagellates herself for what she is: "I do not have the courage to do this. Then I think, why not guard the marital fortune that I possess? If I don't have the good fortune to become a mother in this birth, let me live as a good wife at least. I am weak, I'm a coward, despicable, worthless, completely, terribly worthless."

A few more lines in this vein and then at last she succumbs to the attraction of Rajaninath's bare body. He clasps her in his arms but soon feels ashamed of what he has done and turns away. She goes up to him then, embraces him and lays her head against his back.

Only after years of silent suffering of the worst kind and the denial of what she considers to be the purpose of her life "I was born to be a mother" can Rama be allowed to have a moment's physical pleasure of the most innocent kind. It is a sexual pleasure but does not lead to sex. Rama finally follows Ramakant out of their home like a lamb being led to slaughter. At no point does she say that her husband’s foul mouth, her misogyny, his violence against his elders, his greed for property hurt her innocent soul. The hurt is all about not having a child.

Ironically, Manik, Rama's opposite, is favoured with the hope of a child. The hope is dashed when the enraged Ramakant and his brother kick the foetus out of her womb. The pain of the body is always present in Tendulkar's work driving it to dark endings.


The dramatic purpose of "Kamala" is to expose the methods that the new journalism of post-Emergency India employed to investigate the dark underside of our social and political life. The play is based on a report journalist Ashwini Sarin filed in the Indian Express in the early 70s, to expose the evil of human trafficking rackets in post-Independent India. He went to a place called Dholpur, bought a woman, Kamala, for Rs 2,300 and presented her at a Press conference in Delhi. Responsible newspapers condemned this form of journalism for exploiting the exploited; but it took root and is the source of the negativism of reporting that we see in the media today.

The crux of the play that reveals the exploitative nature of Jaisinh's investigation, is mirrored in a telling scene between Kamala and Jaisinh's wife, Sarita. I would like to read it in Priya Adarkar’s translation:


As usual, sex enters the couple's life with its perennial Tendulkarian companion, drink. He has celebrated his triumph at the Press conference with drink.  She asks him to stop drinking. She goes near him to take away his glass. Her proximity excites him. He asks her to go upstairs with him. She ignores his command. He is shocked. She has never done this before. He must know why she is doing so now: "You must tell me. I must know. Don't I have the right to have my wife when I feel like it? Don't I? This is also a form of hunger. I've starved for six days. What's wrong if I ask for something to eat? Answer me."

Sarita walks off to the kitchen. Jaisinh calls her a bitch and goes upstairs by himself. In the middle-class code for good wives, it is alright to refuse a husband his rights in bed, particularly if he is drunk. So Tendulkar is not likely to offend the middle-class by this act of defiance. The point Tendulkar is making is not this. It is that a man who pretends to champion the cause of women in his professional life while actually exploiting one of them, practises the same double standards at home. Unlike Kamala, Sarita is intelligent and belatedly spirited. She revolts against her exploitation but only in thought and word. About action she says to her uncle, "For the time being I will lock up these thoughts in a compartment of my mind and forget about them. But a day will come when I will stop being a slave, Kakasaheb. I will not remain a thing to be used and discarded. I shall live by my own will and nobody will have the power to dominate me. That day will surely come and I will pay any price that I am called upon to pay for it." Her words are meant to be prophetic. They are meant to suggest the emancipation of all women from slavehood. Once the project of freedom has been pushed into a vague future, she is free to be a slave for the moment.  

At the end of the play Jaisinh lies drunk on the settee because he has been sacked from his job. The stage instructions for the final scene run like this: "Sarita switches off the lights one by one, leaving only one light on. She goes to Jaisinh. She removes his shoes very gently. She sits down by the settee and leans against it. She closes her troubled eyes. She opens them. There is peace in her gaze. Her gaze is fixed on a spot somewhere in the future. Her expression is quietly determined." It is worth noting that Priya has dropped the line about removing the shoes from her translation. Perhaps her selfg-respect as a woman could not stomach it.

In her role as nurturer, Sarita does not go upstairs to the bedroom to sleep comfortably. Her position on the floor at her husband's feet demonstrates her readiness to be of service any time he needs her. Leela Benare's final posture of defeat is a submission to middle-class morality. Sarita's final posture is a submission to middle-class values.

Here, as in much of Tendulkar's other work, there is a constant tussle between the truth of psychology and the truth of a commonly perceived and accepted social reality. Ibsen's Nora was so certain that living with Thorvald would be intolerable after what had transpired between them, that her "quiet determination" expressed itself in the immediate action of leaving his house. Ibsen too did not live in times when wives left their husbands so easily. But his protagonist had to do so if we were to believe that her eyes had been truly opened to her position in Thorvald's house. Unlike Tendulkar, Ibsen was true to his protagonist's psychology. He allowed her to make the future happen.

Tendulkar was acutely aware of the limits that the hypocritical society he was part of put on his knowledge of basic human instincts. In his preface to Manaswini Lata Ravindra’s first play, “Cigarettes” which explores the sexual mores of her generation, this is what he says :

"I was amused as I mulled over the play, realising that there was a lot in it [ about sex] that I had never written, or even suspected. If my generation, which had not lived their sexual life too well, had any interest at all in the subject, it was for its affairs, illicit relationships, and for the food it provided for male gossip. As young people we lived idiotically in abundant ignorance about the subject and perverted notions provided by pornographic literature. Primed this way, we not only destroyed our own sexual life, but prevented our wives from getting any pleasure out of it. In short, we lived like animals in this respect....

"This is why watching Manaswini's "Cigarettes" was an altogether new experience for me. I was involuntarily drawn into the intimate aspects of the life of the young generation and lost myself as it unfolded before me. It raised many questions, and answered many. At the end of the play the fatigue that hit me was like finding my way back after having been lost in a forest that was both close to me and distant from me.

Published On : 18-01-2008