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
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(
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
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
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
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
In picking up the idol of
Dattani, Mahesh. Collected Plays.
(from Archives 2007)