Mahesh Dattani’s Radical Political Theatre
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Mahesh Dattani’s Final Solutions was first performed on 10 July 1993 against the backdrop of demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It was the time when the spectre of Partition appeared to have returned, hungering for even more corpses. It seemed to be India’s fate to live, if at all, with a gash in its soul.
Dattani’s powerful and subtle play shows the problem of Hindu-Muslim relations as not inherently insoluble. It suggests that the real problem could well be with the limitations of prevailing discourses about those relations. Each discourse affords a generalized and one-dimensional view of the problem and is unable to address its specific complexity. If discursive boundaries could be ignored in an effort to comprehend the complexity of the problem, solutions might not be really far away. Reaching beyond politics and the social sciences, the play thus performs the quintessential act of literature in identifying the problem as simultaneously historical and psychological, cultural and economic, collective and personal, cognitive and affective. It retrieves repressed histories and scrutinizes unexamined psychological motivations, makes taste and greed cross paths, notices the contamination of the religious with the economic (and vice versa), unseparates the collective and the personal, and affirms –through Bobby’s transgressive final act– the power of visceral judgement and “pure” action (224).
Significantly, the play’s theatrical negotiation of the complexity of its subject is equally complex. The conventionally linear narrative is overwritten with multiple temporalities and spaces, represented mainly by a split-level stage and an action that takes place in the 1940s as well as the 1990s. Reading the entry made in her diary nearly four decades ago on 31 March 1948, the old Hardika mumbles, “Yes, things have not changed that much” (167). Both giving and denying the illusion of continuity, the multiple temporalities and spaces converge in the character of Daksha/Hardika and underline the deeply problematic genealogy of subjectivity. In thus locating the problem of inter-community relations in the genealogies of subjectivity, the play charts the arduous trajectory of the project of self-understanding before finally affirming the role of subjective agency in history.
The stage is so designed as to give the impression of being “dominated by a horseshoe- or crescent-shaped ramp” (165). The implied evocation of powerful elemental forces through this particular spatial arrangement is reinforced by the suggestion of primitive tribal passions as the Mob/Chorus comes to occupy the ramp. The “crouched” position of the Mob/Chorus has a hint of leonine ferocity even as its black costumes (specifically explained as not alluding to any religious identity) suggest obscure ancient passions. The doubling up of the self-same five persons as both the Mob and the Chorus undoes the convenient distinction between the unthinking mob and the thoughtful commentator. What further complicates the seemingly marginal role of these faceless people in history (who yet command political action) is the changeability of their identities. The same five persons become the Muslim and the Hindu Mob by turns, by holding in front of them the respective masks of identity. The masks of identity turn out, paradoxically, to be masking deeper identities, those which a violent politics of identities would gladly inter. When Bobby advances to pick up the idol of Krishna, the Mob raises the Hindu and the Muslim masks together, affirming a transcendence of separatist self-identification as well as a deeper convergence of identities (224).
The shifting of roles between the Mob and the Chorus as also between the Hindu and the Muslim Mob manages to effectively foreground identity as a fluid strategy –or play– of subject positions. In fact, Hardika’s crisis of identity (symbolized by the split between her past and present selves, Daksha and Hardika) arises from her failure to negotiate between two opposite subject positions, each of which is unable to recognize the other. The split comes out simultaneously as both sharp and invisible in the scene in which Ramnik Gandhi opens the door to let in Javed and Bobby. Hardika and Daksha alternately utter a series of questions and exclamations:
HARDIKA. Why did he do it?
DAKSHA. Oh God! Why do I have to suffer?
HARDIKA. Didn’t he have any feelings for me?
DAKSHA. I just wanted them to be my friends!
HARDIKA. How could he let these people into my house?
DAKSHA. Oh! I hate this world!
HARDIKA. They killed his grandfather! (179)
The alternating utterances emphasize the absolute change that Daksha has undergone. The girl who suffered because she was denied contact with her Muslim friend Zarine and her family has grown to be an old intolerant woman who cannot suffer the presence of two Muslim boys who have sought refuge in her house from a bloodthirsty Hindu mob. The change from the former to the present self comes under blazing spotlight in a remarkable juxtaposition in which Daksha sobs and begs to be let out whereas Hardika berates her son for letting the two boys in (186). The one who was once young and open to the world has now become old and closed to the world.
Her emotional intransigence reflects an identity which is partial and frozen because it would not recognize the past. And it would not do so because it does know what really happened in history. The moment she discovers what really happened, her emotional intransigence ends and she begins to keenly await the return of the two boys whom she had once wanted to be immediately turned out of her house. “Do you think . . . do you think those boys will ever come back?” she asks Ramnik as the play ends (226).
The wearing of Hindu or Muslim masks by the Mob, which translates instantly into “frenetic” reflexes, is an instance of the mask(ed) identity territorializing the entire being, almost taking it by force of violence (168). The distinction between them and us emerges then with a savage primordial force. Indeed, it has no logic but asserts itself as the logic, with its attendant off-the-cuff ethical formulation: “They who are wrong. Since we are right” (181). The intransigence vis-à-vis the other is born of a circle of darkness that the self weaves not only around but also within itself. Hardika’s long years of confinement, during which she has fed on resentment and hatred of the other community, is thus a form of exile from the self also. And it finds its parallel in Javed’s exile from home which is motivated by a sense of profound grievance on behalf of his community. Hardika will breach the wall of inner darkness by understanding history; Javed will do so through disillusionment. Having glimpsed the other in the self, both will then be ready to recognize in the other a self in its own right, an other that is not a threat or nuisance to the self.
And yet, significantly, the passage to light happens to lie, in the case of each, through the conscious agency of another. Hardika sees light, which ends her (self-) confinement, with the help of her son Ramnik who tells her what had really happened over forty years ago. Javed sees light with the help of Bobby who notices his friend wavering on the edge and decides to prevent his relapse into old blind hatred.
Ramnik on his part understands the necessity of resolving the self-other dialectic, but even he requires shock treatment to shed his self-delusion. He knows that not all people in the other community are demons even as he understands that there are demons in his own community also (173). But the knowledge has not yet touched him to the core to shatter his vestigial inhibitions. It is Javed who would give him the shock treatment:
You don’t hate me for what I do or who I am. You hate me because I showed you that you are not as liberal as you think you are (198-99).
Javed’s words make him realize that his smug liberality is only a cover for complicity, an evasion of the sense of guilt. Indeed his failure to speak the truth to his mother can be seen as pointing to a deeper block: the inability to squarely confront the truth in its genesis. Until now he had been pacifying his troubled conscience by merely virtuously responding to the urge to protect and help Javed and Bobby (182; 194). He had not really come to terms with his conscience in which the memories of injustice done to a happy Muslim family lie buried: the shop he has inherited from his father was actually snatched from the rightful ownership of Daksha’s friend Zarine’s father through vile stratagem soon after the Partition. Daksha never came to know of this; she only thought that Zarine’s father, after his shop was destroyed in an accidental fire, had expected some help from her father-in-law, which had been refused. And she had rationalized the withdrawal and hostile silence of Zarine’s family as an instance of resentment and arrogance. The memories of her father’s alleged lynching by a Muslim mob in Hussainabad during the violence of Partition had reinforced the rationalization.
Deprived of the luxury of indulging her taste for Noorjahan’s songs by listening to Zarine’s collection of gramophone records at her house, she feels deeply hurt. Little does she realize that her deprivation is the consequence of her innocent taste crossing the path of her father-in-law’s and husband’s greed to posses the shop that Zarine’s father owns. And those men, in turn, do not seem to comprehend either what they are doing: they hide, probably even from themselves, their real economic motives behind a screen of hatred of the other community. They do not understand that no rationalization can transform acts of vandalism and theft into acts of divine justice. The sins of the fathers are finally visited upon the son as Ramnik carries the burden of guilt and suffers quietly for years before Javed redeems him through painful self-knowledge. Redeemed, he has at last the courage to free also his old mother of her own burden of hatred and resentment. Looking back, one can now better understand Ramnik’s hostility towards his mother for keeping back the complete truth and pretending not to know everything (172). He had transferred his own repression of truth to her and had been evading a confrontation with his own guilt by holding her guilty. Freed, when he announces the truth to her, he does it without any trace of hostility and without expecting her to be in possession of the complete truth. Rather, the few words he speaks to her are laced with earnest consolation (“You have to live with this shame only for a few years now” 226).
The subterranean overflow between the personal and the collective strains the relationship between Aruna and Smita and between Smita and Bobby also. Smita challenges her mother’s emotional investment in the security of religious identity and asks her to see the arrival of the two boys as an opportunity to leave behind a life lived in pettiness and false security (211). She refuses to be stifled any longer, but does it with tactful politeness. At the same time, she tells her father that she did not share her real feelings with him before because that would have pushed her mother into greater isolation (213). Smita has the strength and clarity of mind to see collective religious identities for what they are and she can also articulate her urge to be free from their oppressive hold. Listening to her, Bobby realizes he has been less well equipped in this regard. The finest uncomplication of the relationship takes place, thus, in the case of Smita and Bobby only. Smita is very clear, of course after having given it sufficient thought, that she does not wish to carry on her relationship with Bobby and that her decision to do so follows personal reasons. It is, hence, a freely made choice:
I am sure that if we wanted to, we could have made it happen, despite all odds. It is wonderful to know that the choice is yours to make (218).
Through Smita’s free and happy choice, Dattani avoids the temptation of vulgar secularism and affirms the subjective agency of rational humanist individualism with full force. Subsequently however, in Bobby’s transgressive final act the limitations of even this kind of agency are exceeded in so far as the act grounds agency in the far more fertile soil of phenomenology of relationships.
In picking up the idol of Krishna and placing it on his palm, Bobby is responding decisively yet viscerally to the ringing of the bell of prayer. The sound of the bell has left Javed stiff: he is battling with powerful feelings of resentment, humiliation and hatred. Bobby’s entire effort to bring him out of his past will fail if he slips back into those feelings. Whatever progress has been made so far in the action of the play has been through reason and argument. Bobby’s act is ostensibly sacrilegious, yet it is profoundly and luminously spiritual too. He reaches out with his whole being to a Hindu embodiment of Godhead and leaves his everlasting touch on God’s body. The Hindu God does not mind a Muslim’s touch, he proclaims. The Chorus supports his act with its “[we] are not idol breakers” (224). Indeed, there is a profound and innocent reverence in his gesture. He has communicated what no argument in language could. It is a strange replay of what Krishna does to Arjuna in the Mahabharata (and the battle lines are not drawn, but to be erased). When language falters and reason fails, communication finds deeper resources in order to happen. Sheer gesture might be such a resource: the body, the common ground of humanity, can discover itself as a treasure, as it does in Bobby’s case. To make the night memorable for everyone.
Dattani, Mahesh. Collected Plays. New Delhi: Penguin, 2000.
© 2009 Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English
Punjabi University, Patiala