Reading Time: 9 minutes

Silence! The Court is in Session is the first of Vijay Tendulkar’s plays to become part of the New Indian Drama phenomenon of the sixties and the first significant modern Indian play in any language to centre on woman as protagonist and victim. With its production, Tendulkar became the centre of a general controversy. He had already acquired the epithet of the angry young man of Marathi theatre but now he was marked out as a rebel against the established values of fundamentally orthodox society. 

In the plays that Tendulkar wrote before Silence! the focus, by and large, was on the sufferings of the middle-class man living in an urbanized, industrialized society. But Silence!, however, marks a change in Tendulkar’s attitude towards his favourite subject, that is, the middle-class man. For the first time in his dramatic career, he began to look into the psyche of his subject and focus his attention on the ugliness he detected therein. Tendulkar has created memorable male and female characters. But it is his women, on account of their unique position in society, who help to reveal his social conscience, and it is they who emerge as the columns and beams on which he builds his structures. In some of his plays, Tendulkar presents women in pairs. They are quite different from each other in behavioural traits, class and character. But underneath these superficial differences lie lives that resemble each other in the ultimate truth of being commanded by men, for their pleasure and under their laws. The best example is Leela Benare and Mrs Kashikar in Silence! The Court is in Session.

In Silence! Tendulkar exposes the hypocrisy, selfishness, sham, moral standards and the sadism latent in the immediate colleagues of the buoyant but belligerent Benare. This play exactly describes middle-class mentality and its pettiness. The theatre members are bored, frustrated and repressed a lot. Each artist of the group represents an unfulfilled dream. Boredom pervades their lives. Leela Benare describes them sarcastically which brings out the failure of the individual in this sick-hurry and divided world. Benare functions as the central consciousness in Silence! and through her ironic perception the audience get an insight into the other characters.

The play’s protagonist, Leela Benare is a young, single, unconventional lady full of laughter, full of pride in her dedication to and skill in teaching and always happy to attack hypocritical facades and watch them crumble. She possesses a natural lust for life as she states “We should laugh, we should play. We should sing if we can and if they’ll let us, we should dance too. Shouldn’t have any false modesty or dignity. Or care for anyone! I mean it when your life’s over, do you think anyone will give you a bit of theirs?” She firmly believes in this principle and it is not just an ideology for her but she puts it into practice also she says –“I, Leela Benare, a living woman, I say it from my own experience. Life is not meant for anyone else. It’s your own life. It must be. It’s a very very important thing. Every moment, every bit of it is precious.” Thus, she is not ready to be imprisoned in the cage prepared by society for women. 

Ms Benare considers herself as an individual and not merely a woman. Like Rousseau, she believes “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. And she, as an individual does not want to bind herself to the established conventions of society. Perhaps due to this search for individuality as a human being, she suffers and becomes an object of criticism in society. She rejects all boundaries that are set for a woman. But in her search for individuality, she faces only treachery, hypocrisy, shallowness and vanity of the people.

In her view, men aren’t superior beings by definition. They must prove themselves so before they can command her respect. Benare has been carrying on an affair with Professor Damle, another member of the cast; after she became pregnant, however, he cut her off. Benare has also recently been fired from her job, as her superiors view unmarried motherhood as sinful and worried she would somehow pass on her immorality to her students. Now, pregnant and unemployed, Benare is committed to figuring out a way to make a life for herself and her unborn child. She’s asked some of her courtroom collaborators, Ponkshe and Rokde, to marry her and help her raise her child, but has been rejected. She understands the stigma both she and her child will face if born without a father and worries about how to move forward. The stress Benare is under in her personal life comes to the surface when Kashikar jokingly charges her with infanticide during an improvised mock trial. Throughout this trial, Benare’s real troubles are brought to light, and her collaborators and ostensible friends take the opportunity to insult what they see as her loose, immoral, progressive lifestyle. At the end of the play, although her castmates collect themselves and try to tell her that her prosecution was just a game, Benare has been emotionally broken.

Raghunath Bhikaji Samant is a local innocent villager who helps the members of the Living Courtroom find the meeting hall and set it up. An outsider to the rest of the group, through his utterances and actions, he becomes another powerful vehicle of satire against the hypocritical citywallahs. Tendulkar introduces Samant in the play not only to play a key role in the mock trial but also to highlight the gaping holes in the moral pretensions of his urban counterparts. He remains in the room throughout their improvised trial, even serving as a witness and delivering a made-up piece of evidence. Samant often acts as an audience surrogate, allowing other characters to explain the workings of the court or the relationships between each of them. Samant is kind if clueless; early in the play Benare attempts to hit on him and he fails to understand her advances. Samant, unlike many of the other characters, thinks Benare seems kind and competent and does not judge her for being in her thirties and unmarried, or for having a job and earning her independent income. Samant is also the only character to show Benare any kindness, defending her in the context of the trial, and leaving her a small gift of a cloth parrot in the play’s final scene.

Sukhatme is a central member of the Living Courtroom, in which he typically plays the lawyer for the prosecution. However, since both Damle and Rawte are absent on this particular day, he also acts as the lawyer for the defence. Sukhatme also works as a lawyer outside of the troop, although his practice is not successful. He enjoys having power in the fictional Living Courtroom, which he does not have in real life. Professor Damle’s inability to be present on the occasion of the staging of the Mock Law Court causes many a ripple amongst the amateur artists. Tendulkar deftly utilises this suspenseful dramatic occasion to expose the real natures of Kashikar and Sukhatme. They expose themselves through their utterances. Kashikar’s sense of social obligation, though a false one, is aroused when he says- “How can I not worry? We owe something to the people, Sukhatme, A performance is no laughing matter.”

A failed academic who works as a clerk and a member of the Living Courtroom, Gopal N.Ponkshe is insecure about his professional status but tries to elevate himself by insulting and degrading those around him. He is unmarried, and a few days before the events of the play, Benare asked him if he would marry her and raise her unborn child. Ponkshe saw Benare’s request as an insult, a sign that she doesn’t respect him and believes he doesn’t respect himself. Of course, Benare likely asked out of desperation and because she hoped he would have empathy for her situation. Ponkshe is the only member of the cast, aside from Benare, who knows Damle is the father of her child and he reveals this as a witness during the mock trial.

Mr Kashikar, a self-styled, social reformer, is the chairman of The Sonar Moti Tenement (Bombay) progressive Association, an amateur theatre troupe belonging to the urban middle-class society of Bombay. He is an orthodox husband who never allows his wife to argue with him or to express her wish. Kashikar is a social worker in his real life and takes great pride in his job and the status it affords him. He and his wife have no children but have taken on Rokde as a ward and unpaid servant. Kashikar is intensely critical of Rokde as well as his wife, Mrs Kashikir, abusing her essentially every time she speaks. He is also critical of his fellow players and intensely sceptical of the women’s independence movement in India.

He plays the judge in the mock trial of Ms Benare. After listening to Ms Benare’s justification Mr Kashikar, gives the judgement that her sin can not be forgiven. It must be expiated. He pronounces the verdict – “No memento of your sin should remain for future generations, therefore, this court hereby sentences that you shall live. But the child in your womb shall be destroyed.” Thus, the accusation brought against her at the beginning of the trial that of infanticide- turns into the verdict at the conclusion. Principally because the orthodox Indian society cannot accept the birth of a child born without socially approved marriage. Using Benare’s trial as a way to criticize working women generally, and, in his mind, the breakdown of society because of women who refuse to marry and engage in behaviours is according to him, immoral.

Mrs Kashikar is a middle-aged homemaker, conventional and disapproving of “free women” like Benare. She is as much keen as the men to draw blood when Benare is put on trial. The very existence of Ms Benare places a question mark against the emptiness of Mrs Kashikar’s life. That is why she offers her help with such alacrity when the men shy away from physically forcing Benare into the dock. Mrs Kashikar during the session of the entire “mock-trial never misses an opportunity to insinuate her venomous comments directed at Benare as she is extremely envious of Benare’s boundless independence. She, suffering from a persecution complex on account of her barrenness, and her abject dependence on her husband. She is utterly spiteful of Benare. In the closing act, Tendulkar gives Mrs Kashikar ample opportunity to torture Benare to expose a discontented woman’s irrepressible malevolence against a superior, successful being. Tendulkar brings out the hollowness of their life so well. Mr Kashikar buys flowers for his wife. Mrs Kashikar buys shirts for her husband. They make a constant show of fondness in public. Mr Kashikar, a male chauvinist does not let the wife speak at all. Their perpetual show of love becomes distasteful and repulsive. 

The Minor Characters in the play are Rawte; a member of the Living Courtroom who is sick on the day of this particular trial, Nanasaheb Shinde; the Mumbai-based Chairman of the Education Society. He also has an interest in social work. Based on a conversation Mr Kashikar claims to have overheard, Nanasaheb is likely the man who decided to fire Benare, on account of the perceived immorality of her unmarried motherhood The other minor characters are Benare’s Uncle; as a young girl, Benare fell in love with her uncle, as he was kinder to her than her parents. Her uncle and mother opposed the relationship, however, and, feeling betrayed, Benare attempted suicide Then there is a Servant who appears briefly at the beginning of the play to help load in props for the Living Courtroom.

It is part of Tendulkar’s dramatic strategy that Benare’s immediate persecutors in the play are as powerless as she is, and all their exertions to cut Benare down to size are more their striving after power than a real exercise of power. Tendulkar plays at considerable length on the individual and powerlessness of each of her assailants, each of them grabbing every opportunity to expose and humiliate another, and ganging up only to attack Benare, in the process exposing their powerlessness and their desperate need to assume a pretence of power in the collective. 

In delineating these characters, Tendulkar has explored their psyches to the extent of revealing the hidden sense of failure pervading their lives – the inefficiency of Sukahtme as a lawyer, the childlessness of Mr and Mrs Kashikar, the non-fulfilment of Ponkshe’s dream to become a scientist, the vain attempt of Karnik to be a successful actor and the inability of Rokde to attain an independent, adult existence. While showing contempt for this helpless woman, fierce psychological violence becomes evident. The latent sadism of the characters of Sukhatme, of Mr & Mrs Kashikar, of Ponkshe, Karnik or even Rokde, surfaces during the process of the trial.

 


A Critique of Gender Discrimination

Previous articleI Can’t Help Blossoming
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

COMMENT