The socio-political situation in India in the 1960s and 70s shook up sensitive writers and during this period Indian English drama has received fresh impetus from young women playwrights like Manjula Padmanavan, Polie Sengupta and Dina Mehta. Women’s theatre has emerged as a distinct dramatic force which stages the various issues of contemporary Indian society. Their plays include themes of relationships like motherhood, intricate baffling relationship of men and women, incest and adultery. Their plays focus on various types of violence as physical, emotional, psychological, and the exploitation of women at home and in profession. Their plays of resistance present the themes of, voicing against foeticide, infanticide, rape, inequality, poverty illiteracy and gender discrimination and Dina Mehta’s play Getting Away with Murder belongs to this category.
This play follows three friends through their personal sufferings in their private hells. Sonali, happily married to a businessman Anil Bhatnagar, is in her third month of pregnancy. But strangely, she decides not to tell her husband about that good news until she has met Dr. Razia and found out its sex. She requests her friend Mallika or Mala to persuade the doctor to do amniocentesis and tell her its sex. Though the rallying cry freedom for every woman is heard in every nook and corner, women themselves stoically accept their marginalisation and Sonali belongs to this type of women. In a world where the oppression of women is naturalised, public spheres have become a platform to reveal the underlying ideology. Sonali is aware that it is a testy that it banned for sex determination and is allowed only to detect abnormalities in the foetus, but she knows if Malu persuades Dr. Raziya, could show some medical pretext and do the test:
Mala: ….Okay Sonali suppose Raziya; does the test under whatever.
Sonali: If it’s a girl I’ll abort it.
Mala: My God you too….I thought only ignorant women had this prejudice…. But to someone like you can it matter if the first is a boy or a girl?
Sonali: To me it’s simply a family planning measure…. Anil would cheerfully welcome a row of daughters…but his mother would be mortified, if I presented Anil with a girl as his first born.
Mala: Would it also mortify you?
Sonali: Well my mother always said that a woman’s failure to bear a son is just retribution for her misdeeds in her past life. (Mehta, 62)
Thus by exposing the grim reality of cruel foeticide in the beginning of the play, Mehta proves that the roots of all female foeticide be it in Kashmir or Kanyakumari—lie in gender bias, the notion that sons are better than daughters. The demographic imbalance between men and women however continues to exist and has further deteriorated. Something that is very disturbing is the sex ratio, which is considered as an important indicator of the distortion of the biological trend and natural balance in terms of number of females per thousand males. In recent times, female foeticide has gained alarming proportion in many districts in India. During a discussion in Legislative Assembly on rising cases of female foeticide Nayeem Akhter, chief spokesperson Peoples Democratic Party maintained that around 42,000 girls are being killed in wombs every year. According to Akhter from last 10 years the female ratio has declined and the highest of this is seen in Jammu and Kashmir and he describes it as “medical terrorism” (Rising Kashmir, 2013). But on the contrary to Sonali, who believe in her right to choose the sex of her child, according to Mala female foeticide is most offensive and terrifying like that of a “black comedy” as she observes that: Sex determination tests don’t guarantee you the birth of a son. All they do is instigate multiple murders…Mothers award death sentence to their unborn daughters in the name of liberation. They play God! (Mehta, 63).
This inhuman and sadistic pleasure in getting rid of a female foetus is not a sudden step; it is a result of a deep psychological parental personal experience which led to her psychosis. Sonali behaves in an abnormal way, her headaches, talking to herself, her agitated nature, and her details of childhood, pointed that something torturing her. She hates herself being a woman as she thinks: “to be born a girl is only to subject to violence and servitude” (Mehta, 59). Mala is worried about her as she speaks of some “worst thing”, and when Mala investigates about it, Sonali replies:
I don’t know. I feel it gathering shape, a half remembered word here, a gesture there, all coming together….only it never does and I am baffled out left with a splitting headache. (Mehta, 65)
When Mala tells Gopal, Sonali’s brother that his sister wants to abort her child if the foetus is a girl, Gopal answers surprisingly: “Go easy on Sonali…my sister’s taken terrible wallops—and I was no help at all” (Mehta, 83). Finally when Anil insists Gopal to share the secret, Gopal reveals their sad, shameful past which had left its mark permanently on Sonali, damaged her psychologically, losing her faith always in the grip of fear, living in nightmares:
Gopal: I think there is no less brutal way of saying that my sister was sexually abused from the time she was 8 years old….uncle Naturam….So you can imagine…night after night…coming to her bed, the pious swine…He threatened her to silence….the screams she swallowed must be still tearing her up inside… And I did nothing to help her, nothing …hiding my face in the bedcovers…I was in the same room and did nothing. (Mehta, 87-88)
After this long grief-stricken, remorseful speech of Gopal, Sonali shares them about their conspiracy to kill their drunken uncle and how they became successful in killing the brute. She also tells them about their strange fate: “and it was this man whose portrait was garlanded by mother everyday, Gopal and myself were urged to remember his kindness and pray for him” (Mehta, 88). The rape is generally committed by a stranger in dark lanes of deserted fields or houses at the point of gun. But contrary to it the perpetrators are often people who are familiar or even close to the victims as in case of Sonali, who is raped repeatedly by her maternal uncle, Narotam.
In this play Mallika Malu runs an agency for foodstuffs and her worthless partner is Mr Pankaj Pingley. He cannot accept women like that of Malu, as leading business managers. He doesn’t even hesitate to make advance to the typist Thelma, who finds no way there but to resign. She shares Malu of Pingley’s indecent behaviour:
Thelma: How can I tell you… He he makes vulgar talks, and wicked gestures…This morning he called me to dictate the memo…he squeezed me here… He always tells me his wife is old enough…asking me to accompany him to…hotels outside city.
Malu: How long has this been going on?
Thelma: Since February…
Malu: How many times?
Thelma: Thrice, I,m sorry… (Mehta, 89-90)
Therefore, not only in home but also in the work place, women are not safe. Commoditisation of female body is, thus, rampant in both the public and private spheres of a woman’s life. Traditionally women have been associated with the body; whereas men have been associated with mind. Judith Butler comments regarding this in Gender Trouble:
The association of the body with the female works along magical relations of reciprocity whereby the female sex becomes paradoxically, the incorporeal instrument of an ostensibly radical freedom. (Butler, 16)
As a result of this commoditisation of body thus consciousness of their own body is either denied to the women and alienates them from their own body. Thus it appears that it is impossible for patriarchal society to accept women along with their sexuality as a natural adjunct to their being. It cannot be accepted as something which is normal, and need not therefore be tampered with it. Ironically, such an attitude only reveals an unnatural response on the men’s part that is unable to be at ease with the situation. Similarly, in Polie Sengupta’s play Mangalam, the woman Mangalam’s body has all along been treated as a commodity by the molester for gratification, by her father as an object of preservation and by her husband as an object for venting out his frustration. Therefore Luce Irigaray comments: “Women are not supposed to exercise choice in these dealings but are rather expected to act as mute and compliant spectators to this business” (Irigaray, 22). The greatest misconception about rape is that people believes rape to be consensual of women; which is not actually. One cannot generalise on how women react to being raped as reaction, depends on her circumstances, her background, her family. Actually fear of molestation and death can make a woman submit. Women writers can deal with rape victims more sympathetically, for they know that the notion that women enjoy being raped is only a male myth. Dina Mehta says, “The women dramatists can see more clearly into the female psyche than the male” (Mukherjee, 62), and this is reflected in her plays.
Rape victims are invariably psychologically and physically traumatized. The effect can be devastating and can last long, which can change a woman totally. Even a gay, self-confident woman could be shattered and become emotionally unstable, would cry, shout, become hysterical as in case of Sonali. In such cases things can be improved with time and progress in a positive way only with understanding family especially a brother like Gopal, who is not only sensitive to his sister but also involves himself in the upliftment of women by fighting against the practice of women being burnt under the allegation that they are witches. He even undertakes the care of Minzari’s little daughter when she is beaten to death in Barisola village. Again for the improvement of the traumatized condition of the rape victims they need a trustworthy husband like Anil, who supports Sonali, throughout the play. He consoles her that it does not matter whether she gives birth to a girl or not, and forbids her not to abort the child. He also remains indifferent even after hearing about the grim past of his wife, does not leave her. Apart from this, friendship with other women and share each other’s suffering can improve the condition of the rape victims. Women writers show that friendship between women should be characterized by openness, trust, intellectual stimulation and stability, which women frequently find difficult to achieve in the relationships with men. In Dina Mehta’s Getting Away with Murder, the three friends Mallika, Raziya and Sonali, offer each other support and comfort. These requirements being available to Sonali, she recovers at the end from her trauma. Sonali is shown bearing a child at the end and now she is not worried about finding the sex of her child. However, having had some earlier upheavals she is still in panic no doubt: “I still have my moments of panic. Still look sometimes for the disgust in Anil’s eyes—after all—he got landed with damaged goods” (Mehta, 91).
Thus, in the end of the play, Mehta strikes a note of optimism, men need not be indifferent observers, they can simply help a woman in getting over her trauma just as Anil and Gopal does. Sonali is empowered at the end, because she has been purged out of her psychosis, her self-realisation lends her gravity. She had written a letter to Anil, proclaims that she would spend her entire life in taking care of her ailing sister-in-law and she also wants her mother-in-law to come back to her from her ‘forced pilgrimage’. Malu also put an end to the whole conspiracy of Mr. Pingley to blackmail Thelma and thereby having an affair leading to rape and with her strong determination she successfully manages to help Sonali to overcome the trauma of child abuse. Raziya too, is able to confess, “The enemy is within, don’t you see!” (Mehta, 78), meaning thereby, that women in India will have to break the shackles that tradition binds them in, to confront their real selves. Hence, Sonali too, confidently claims, “Nothing can change overnight, I guess, but we can be goddesses if we want it enough” (Mehta, 92). Similarly, in Dina Mehta’s another play Brides are not for Burning, Malini gets retribution at the end for the dowry death of her sister and sets off alone on the path she thinks right: “…one road still beckons. I will educate myself all I can. There is no future that can be denied me” (Brides are not for Burning, 94). Therefore, in order to be empowered and protected against male-oppression, women must use their “body” as a weapon to fight against that very sexual exploitation and “the culturally constructed body then”, in the words of Butler, “be liberated…to an open future of cultural possibilities” (Butler, 93). Daniel Moase in an essay entitled “Indian Women and Protest: An Historical Overview and Modern Day Evaluation”, points out that using sexuality and violence, “the women of India have often fought…they eschew renunciation, and propagate an assertion that involves an acceptance of body, shunning the shame associated with it, and demanding the respect it deserves” (Mehrotra, 145).
- Mukherjee, Tutun. Staging Feminism: Plays by Women in Translation. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Sengupta, Polie. Women Centre Stage: The Dramatist and the Play. New Delhi: Routledge, 2010.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
- Mehta, Dina. Getting Away With Murder. Body Blows: Women, Violence and Survival. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2000.
- Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna. An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003.
- Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1975.
- India Today. India is fourth most dangerous place in the world for women: Poll, New Delhi. June 16, 2001.
- The Express tribune. Canada best G20 country to be a woman, India Worst, Pakistan. June 13, 2012.
- Rising Kashmir. Female foeticide: 42,000 girls are killed in wombs every year in JK, Srinagar. Oct.7, 2013.
- Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
- Mehta, Dina. Brides Are Not for Burning: A Play in Two Acts, Calcutta: Rupa & Co, 1993s, 2000
Bidhan Mondal has done his M.A. in English & B.Ed from The University of Burdwan, West Bengal. He has recently qualified in UGC-NET & obtained the award of JRF. His specialised area during his masters was Modern Literary Theory, at present he is preparing for doing his Ph.D on Eco-criticism theory and its application on the Indian hunting narratives. He has interests also in the other areas like Gender theories, Queer theories, Post-feminist theories and Indian Writing in English.