“Let me tell you about the reality I know.”
(Savitri (The Woman), Act Two.
Halfway House, Mohan Rakesh).
The above lines have been taken from the play ‘Halfway House’ by Mohan Rakesh and are apt for the topic of the portrayal of woman characters in the text. The play was written originally in Hindi under the title ‘Aadhe-adhure’ in 1968, was first performed in 1969 and was originally published in Enact in 1971. These lines reflect one of the central characters’ feeling of having a different view of the world and of reality than the others, as she feels like she is the only one able to perceive it accurately. There can also be noted in the play a stark difference between the female characters’ perception of reality, as opposed to that of the males, since the play proposes a gendered perspective. She struggles to balance the lives of herself as well as her children, and hold her family together. In doing this, as she has a husband who is a simpleton and has little regard for his family, she tends to loose her temper frequently and comes across as negative. However, as the play progresses, her behaviour seems more and more justified to the reader as one realises the responsibility resting on her shoulders. Her nagging and irritability seems less aggressively petulant and more reasonable, given her situation, as the play progresses. The play has been referred to by some critics as an anti-woman play in its portrayal of the primary female character as a judgemental and nit-picking individual, particularly as she is referred to in the stage directions not by her name but as ‘The Woman,’ implying that she represents not herself as an individual but womankind in general.
However, as has been elucidated above, this reading does not hold merit. Critic Rajinder Nath claims to have conversed with Mohan, the playwright, on the topic of Savitri being ported in an unsympathetic lights and says that he had “vehemently denied this.” (Nath, R. An Introduction to Aadhe-adhure, Worldview Publications, 2014.) Also, her commonality is stressed since every character in the play is meant to reflect an aspect of society, such as Mahendranath (Savitri’s husband) being referred to as First Man, Binni as Elder Daughter, et cetera. In the words of critic Pratibha Aggarwal, “The aim of the playwright was not to portray any particular character but to sketch the particular situation of our society and the people who make up this society” through these characters. (Aggarwal, P. on Mohan Rakesh, 2014.) This idea is reiterated by the man in the black suit in the prologue of the play where he says, “there is something of me in each of you and that is why […] I have no separate identity.”
The character of Savitri is seen by some critics as inherently good and with a protective motherly instinct instilled within her. She is seen as the sole character of the play who has any regard for the family and works tirelessly for them, yet going unrewarded for her devotion. According to Nigam, R.L., even her losing her temper seems justified to the reader due to what she puts up with from her “stupendous nincompoop,” in his words, of a husband. He claims that “so nearly full is our sympathy for her that even if she should, at times, appear a little too important and peevish, one is willing to understand her impatience and irritations as a natural consequence of the stresses and strains accumulated over the years.” (Nigam. Enact- Aadhe-adhure: A Comment, Independence Issue, 1969.) However, another stance taken by critics is that she is a negative and critical woman, who frequently cuts off and picks fights with her husband. Nigam’s justification, in this context, seems to be overly stretched and he appears as though he is “making excuses for a personal favourite” character, and it is not, in the opinion of, the responsibility of critics to make allowances for shortcomings of personae in the play. One such critic who holds this view is Sanjay Kumar, who writes in his essay ‘Halfway House: A Critical Commentary’ that the playwright juxtaposes the husband’s apparent tolerance and patience with Savitri’s behaviour that almost comes across as lunacy in the first act. This is however dissolved in the latter half of the play as, in Kumar’s view, Mohan builds “sympathy for Mahendranath but then surprisingly introduces domestic cruelty and violence through […] Binni.” (Kumar, S. 1998) This is seen in Act Two when the true situation of the family, or the true reality from Savitri’s perspective, becomes increasingly clear to the reader. Here, the elder daughter Binni talks to Juneja (a friend of Mahendranath’s) about the horrific and “fearful scenes [she] witnessed in this house” of her father gagging and beating Savitri, and “dragging her by the hair to the W.C.” (Act Two). It is asserted by some critics that her non-conformity to her husband’s expectations leads to her abuse. “I still don’t do what he wants,” she says, “I still don’t conform.” (Act Two). Thus it can be seen that the influence of the patriarchy, as well as its manipulation of its victims, leads to the fall and degradation of society.
In Savitri, the strong wife matched with a parasitic, spineless husband, Rakesh articulates the consciousness of a modern woman. And although the portrait of Savitri is not altogether sympathetic, it remains a significant attempt at , in the words of critic , “delineating the new woman caught in the process of change.” (Juneja, R. Women in the Plays of Mohan Rakesh, Journal of South Asian Literature, Michigan State University, volume 19 no. 1, 1984) Thus, where the mythological Savitri had challenged the Lord of Death to restore her husband, Rakesh’s modern woman in the form of Savitri “questions the meaning of her existence with a husband she cannot abide.” The name of Savitri itself great irony attached with it in the context of this play, since it is a term usually associated with ‘purity’ and unwavering loyalty to one’s husband (as it was Lord Shiva’s name, in Hindu mythology), whereas the “working woman” Savitri of the play does not embody either of these notions. In this way, Rakesh takes on a gendered perspective to expose the reality, especially in dealing with a “working woman” (where sexist terminology is employed) of modern India, and allows the reader to reexamine an exhausted tradition. The problem comes in especially because it is a tradition that cannot be “simply discard[ed],” as Gulam Sheikh suggests to critic Mohan Maharishi, as Indian society and culture, even in the modern day, is deeply rooted in its traditional history. (Maharishi, M. Experimentation and Innovation in Indian Theatre, Sahitya Akademi National Seminar, 1991).
Taking this perspective into consideration, Savitri can be contrasted with the character Linda, from Arthur Miller’s celebrated play Death of a Salesman (1949). Linda was also the mother and wife in her own family and was considered to be the devoted figure who held the family together- an image that is similar to the opinion held by some of Savitri. They can both be seen throughout the plays to be cleaning up or tidying (in Savitri’s case) and carrying laundry (in Linda’s); these are important motifs in the theme of their holding the family together. However, where Linda is the gullible, innocent and blindly trusting wife and mother who is eternally devoted to every words uttered by her husband (which tends to be unfruitful, since her husband holds a distorted view of life), Savitri is, on the other hand, more street smart and less naive, critical as she is of her husband. She, in her shrewdness and impatience, defies the idea of the loyally ignorant wife feeding her husband’s delusions that Linda embodies and epitomises. Another significant difference that may be brought out is that Savitri is the member of her spousal relationship who has an affair whereas Linda is the one cheated on by her partner, but pretends to be unaware of it. This significantly reflects Linda’s complacent attitude as a contrast to Savitri’s frustration and dissatisfaction. The outlook taken towards Savitri and Linda can be thus compared, especially since they are both the mother figures in a family set-up that contains an eery sense of incompleteness and deals with a recurring theme of abandonment. Thus, the name ‘Savitri’ would perhaps be more suitable to the character of Linda, who truly personifies pure, unwavering loyalty to Willy, her husband.
Unlike Linda, Savitri’s true feelings of frustration are kept suppressed in the play until her blowout argument with Juneja in the second act. The reader gets a sense of her leaving something unsaid and, once her inner tension and turmoil reaches its ‘boiling point,’ so to speak, it culminates in all her feelings bursting forth- after all the undercutting leaving the conflict incomplete- in the form of her altercation with Juneja. She voices her exasperation with Mahendranath in lines such as “Doesn’t being a man involve something more? Personality…? Strength of character…?,” (Act Two), which illuminates her yearning for a true man, which she does not consider Mahendranath to be (hence offering some form of explanation to the reader for her being driven to having an extra-marital affair). She also turns against his friends, holding them amongst those to blame for her husband’s neglect of the family. This part resonates with the opening quote of the essay, which is the point where Savitri’s apparent ‘catharsis’ begins. According to critic Rajender Nath, however, this encounter was not originally a part of the play and Mohan Rakesh included it later, when his friend Dina Pathak gave him feedback about a “nagging feeling that she had a lot more to say,” that Rakesh had left unwritten. (Nath, 2014.) However, Nath feels that even after Savitri’s speech, an imbalance remains.
Rakesh also explores in his play the imbalances in the dynamics of another relationship, which represents the concept of the Indian ‘love marriage,’ through Binni and Manoj. Indian society limits freedom of choice in marriage as well as opportunities for such relationships. Even among the urbanised, the young have scarcely any chance of having such a relationship openly. Marriages of this nature tend to be considered “doomed to failure” as they are secretive, and thus have a tendency to be overly romantic and tend not to be based on a full and mature understanding of each other. Thus, Binni feels, as she confesses to Savitri, that she feels she has married a stranger, and that she does not truly know Manoj. Further, the play exposes how it is acceptable for a husband to voice a suspicion about his wife-to-be, but not for a woman to do so. A moral inferiority in Binni is implied by Manoj, as well as an alleged inability to be satisfied in a man. In the view of society, Savitri’s sins (and supposedly Binni’s, too, if there is truth in them), and not her husband’s, damn her family. This reveals the deeply ingrained sexist mindset prevalent in even the modern society that exists in the world of the play.
Also seen in Binni is an almost-replica of her mother, the way that in Death of a Salesman the younger son Happy is almost an exact image of his father, Willy. Binni looks up to her mother as an ideal, as Happy did his father, and strives to be like her. She struggles and bears hardships to make her marriage work as she believes her mother did, whereas Happy employed his father’s ideology onto his own life, despite it having failed for his father due to his distorted view of reality. In the same way, Binni fails to hold her marriage together due to the failure and collapse of the entire marriage system in the play- as her mother’s grip on her marriage (and family) breaks off, so does Binni’s. Binni, being the older daughter is the first to sense an imbalance and a sense of incompleteness in the house, in the coarse of the play, even though it is Kinni, the younger daughter who truly recognises it. Binni, in Act One, says “it’s from this house I’ve taken something with me that prevents me from being natural,” finding resonances again with Arthur Miller’s play in that there seems to be something in their house that keeps them from attaining any sort of completion. The characters exist on a seemingly cyclic plane, and continually return to the same state over and over, as they do in Death of a Salesman. Here, it is evidenced in Binni’s lines “we start treading the same path” (Act One) and several of Savitri’s lines as well. This is cleverly portrayed by the playwright by having the play progress seamlessly in the same location of their house (but different areas of it) and without a single scene break or interval, with only a dimming of lights between the two acts to indicate the passage of a day. The same device is also employed by Miller, who has his entire play take place in various rooms of the Loman house in a time span of twenty-four hour, with the entire play being one act long (without scene breaks).
Willy and Biff, Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller.
Where resonances are seen between Savitri and Arthur Miller’s Linda, the younger daughter, Kinni, in Mohan Rakesh’s play can be compared to Linda’s son Biff, from Death of a Salesman, in that they both are the only characters aware that something in the house, and in their lives, is missing and that they must strive to overcome this shortcoming. They are the only characters for whom there is hope for the future, as they can see the failings in their family, and are more detached from it than its other members. This is seen in Kinni only briefly, for an odd fleeting moment or two in the play, while in Miller’s Biff this forms the basis for his entire personality. However, this aware consciousness does not amount to anything in the end of either play as both characters remain caught in the odd trap that is their family. The awareness and frustration in Kinni is seen reflected in the line “One never knows what’s going on here!” (Act One). A similar sentiment is expressed by the older daughter Binni when she says, “I don’t know what is wrong and why!” (Act One). Thus, a sense of awareness does exist somewhere in the mind of the family, but they tend to ignore it, and remain caught in their recurring trauma and distress.
As Kinni is the younger daughter, she tends to get far more easily traumatised by the events that take place in the house. She is the one who most frequently undercuts the discussions, in order to prevent a conflict, not realising that she is only prolonging the inevitable and thus doing more harm than good since the eventual explosion is bound to be worse if it is put off for longer, allowing the frustration of the characters to fester and stew over a longer period of time. She is also unable to handle the domestic violence taking place in her home, and has probably either repressed or tried to ignore or forget it, and this can be seen since Binni, the older daughter, is the one to expose Mahendranath’s brutality against Savitri. Kinni being a young girl needs her family to support her at this time but is unable to find what she seeks, like the rest of her family. In her young, formative years, she lacks the support she so desperately yearns for, as her parents and siblings are preoccupied with their own complex lives that are in a constant state of disarray. Yet, despite the sexual innuendos laced through the play, sex remains a ‘dirty business’ in the society portrayed by Rakesh. Kinni’s curiosity about sex (natural as it is, with her being a teenager) only earns her a beating from her brother Ashok, thus exposing the sexist double standards and sexual repression in modern Indian society, especially since Ashok himself looks at pornographic material and spends his time cutting pictures of scantily clad actresses. Kinni’s attempt to search for an identity “through her emerging sexuality and an awareness of this sexuality” (Saraswat, S. The Quest of Completeness: Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe-adhure, Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, volume 2 issue 9, 2014.) is therefore left incomplete and her desire to forge a sexual identity for herself is unfulfilled. The unfulfilled desires of a woman are also reflected in Savitri, who years for a real man, since Mahendranath is “not even half a man” to her (Act Two) and she is dissatisfied with him- emotionally as well as sexually, as critic Girish Rastogi writes in Mohan Rakesh and His Plays, Allahabad: Lokbharti Prakarshan, 1989.
In this way, Mohan Rakesh is able to depict a sordid view or modern life that finds resonance with Eliot’s writing in poems such as ‘Preludes’ and ‘The Wasteland’ in its bleak portrayal of reality, while at the same time he, unlike Eliot, hopes for a better future. He is therefore able to simultaneously abide with Premchand’s view of ‘The Nature and Purpose of Literature,’ as propounded in his lecture as President of the Progressive Writers’ Association.
There is also in the play a sort of perverse, inverted sexism in which Savitri, towards the end of the play, in the midst of her quarrel with Juneja, reveals that she has developed a stereotyped notion of all men being the same, most likely due to the subjugation and violence she faced at the hands of her husband which led her to believe that all men are the same. She has an untamed hostility towards the patriarchy because of the bad treatment meted out to her by her husband, his friends as well as other male members of society. This generalisation, perverse as it is (as she developed a sort of sexism of retaliation), establishes the tragedy of Savitri’s experiences through her resounding, profound exclamation. Similarities can be sen especially highlighted by this dialogue in the sentence construction in this play and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, as he employs, much like Mohan Rakesh, the use of disjointed sentences connected by ellipses in order to bring out the scrambled, bewildered state of mind of the characters and their search for a sense of completion and fulfilment in their lives. They both also employ repetition in the most specifically poignant and profound dialogues of the play, in order to stress the points being made while simultaneously underlining the bleakness and desperation in the play. Thus Savitri’s dialogue as discussed here is both succinct and powerful, and has a significant impact on the play, whether looked at from the perspective of the theme of incompletion, similarities with Miller’s writing or the portrayal of woman characters.
“Haven’t I said enough! All of you… every one of you… all alike! Exactly the same. Different masks, but the face…? The same wretched face… every single one of you!”
Savitri (The Woman), Act Two.