Living in Absurdity in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s “Garbo”: Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

Living in Absurdity in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Garbo: Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

As a dramatist,  Mahesh Elkunchwar has been  successful in  portraying human predicament in the face of death, loneliness and illusions of all kinds, leading to apparent purposelessness of choice as the  ultimate goal of life remaining unknown (Lal 120).   He writes like the   Absurdists for whom  reality being  meaningless, there is no God and man’s life is reduced to a mere circular progress from nothing to nothing.   The true field  of battle is inside us, in the Unconscious. Hence the theatre of the Absurd attacks us below the threshold  of consciousness using mainly visual devices and language in a state of fragmentation. They mainly  concern themselves with the doomed individual, the man in despair and distress, alone and bitter in the wide world.  The absurdists  abandoned the concept of character and motivation, and concentrated  on the states of mind and human situations. We do not find in them development of a plot from exposition to solution. They confront  the audience with harsh facts of isolated life in an alien world.  Elkunchwar seems to write  Garbo adopting  many of the techniques from the theatre of the absurd in the tradition of   Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, John Osborne and others.

In writing his play Garbo, he has  probed into the meaningless lives   young people live in  our contemporary society, devoid of  social and  ethical values. According to him the  young generation   depicted in the play revolted against  imposed traditions, seeking freedom.  But they were disillusioned as  Elkunchwar opined: “Suddenly the non-conformists among us had decided to shake off all this artificial baggage imposed on us by tradition. At the same time we had realized that  we didn’t  know what to do with the freedom…Since we  were not equipped to use this freedom creatively and constructively, we began to destroy ourselves in the process” (Bandyopadhyay  xii).  He is concerned with  sexuality as the central issue as he  probes into the inner battles of  his characters (xii).  Shrimant, Intuc and Pansy   merely use Garbo for their sexual satisfaction with no genuine affection for her.  The three men  indulge in  their sexual fantasies with Garbo as they come together on a Sunday morning. The three men have different attitude towards her. For Shrimant she is merely a sex machine, giving him sexual satisfaction. Intuc observes her as a living work of art while  Pansy sees her like an older sister. The scenes portray comic  acting by the  characters. The  comic situation becomes grim when she announces  her pregnancy.  They all shrug off their  responsibility and Garbo lets the babe in her womb  get aborted accidentally. Garbo  may be  examined in the  absurd tradition. As Esslin Martin points out that the absurdists have  no story or plot, no recognizable characters, no proper theme with a beginning and end. They reflect dreams and nightmares with incoherent babbling (Esslin 21-22).

The play opens as Pansy and Intuc are relaxing in a room. Pansy  is fiddling with  a radio to listen to  his favourite Hindi songs. He  recollects how as a boy he used to listen to  radio songs  outside  a pan shop. Intuc on his part recounts how  he used to listen to classical music and go to concerts where he used to  clap hands the longest. Now that he is a Professor, he has to pretend to understand   classical music. He  speaks of the modern trend by which people pretend to be interested in music.  “Those days are gone, kiddo, when  you could enjoy music as a private pleasure. Nowadays these musical conferences are an immense fraud perpetrated by the community upon the community… You’ve got everything there except good music” (CPME 5-6). Their  assessment of  concerts becomes sexy as Pansy suggests that Intuc arranges for a private concert to enjoy the company of sexy women.

The two men find it boring awaiting the arrival of Shrimant. Intuc  philosophises saying that time  never passes,  but it has to be spent. Pansy  expresses his boredom  being a young boy of seventeen. Intuc  boasts of his achievement  writing four stories and  four poems, and winning instant fame. He  also dedicated  his new collection of poems to Garbo. He reflects on fame  as “a sort of  pleasant allegation” (8).

Shrimant enters as a policeman,  disrupting Intuc’s discourse on fame.  When he  orders them to  go with him to the police station, Intuc demands that he declares the charges levelled  against them. The situation  presented is absurd as    Shrimant levels his mock charges  exposing  the world of valueless lives they live:

SHRIMANT: … You are guilty of  using  impossibly clean language shorn of all obscenities, thus causing  acute embarrassment to those who are in the habit of using abusive language… You are both guilty of expressing contempt and disgust towards drinking, meat-eating, smoking, opium, hemp, and LSD…Instead of having  a bit of fun with good-looking  chicks and  letting them go, you soppily indulge in pure and sublime love… (10).

In the mock trial Shrimant further adds that  Intuc and Pansy would be given gold medals for their crimes of “integrity, extensive scholarship, ardent  selflessness, boundless philanthropy,  humble service, burning patriotism and  an unblemished character” (11). The mock trial ends and Shrimant demands  drinks. When he is unable to get it, he quarrels with Pansy and Intuc.   The duo   decide to leave when Shrimant  tells them to get out of his  house. As they are about to leave Shrimant gives Pansy a parcel containing cufflinks. He  apologises for having misbehaved with them and begs  them to stay on with him. When Intuc questions him on his sudden outbursts, Shrimant  refers to it as sentimentality as has been pointed out by Garbo. But Pansy points out how rational Garbo is by not losing her emotional balance.

The conversation shifts  to  Garbo whom Shrimant  describes as a woman who is always available and very great in bed.  When Pansy confirms her as a great woman, Shrimant  calls him a humorist. He  goes on to describe her as a  sex-machine. Pansy shows his annoyance at  such   derogatory remarks. Intuc  points  out how  Shrimant contradicts himself. “Now, if she is  a machine, she is devoid of  emotions. And if she is  devoid of emotions, she can’t be great in bed” (16). Pansy objects to  Shrimant calling Garbo a common whore. Intuc philosophises and says, “…Names don’t  change things. Garbo will remain Garbo, while we will continue to search for the kind of  Garbo we want. If we find her, well and good. If we don’t we will suffer a  bit. Or not even that,  after a while” (17). Shrimant refuses to suffer and  would instead look for someone else  in her place. Intuc points out  to “let Garbo  be what she is. The important  thing is to know what we are…But I know what  I want from her…Garbo is  a challenge. She grows older but never stale” (18). He wonders what  would be the secret of her  great quality. He surmises  her to be a great artist persevering in her infinite freshness. Her freshness may be compared to the  infinite  variety of  Shakespeare’s Cleopatra.

The conversation leads to their further comments on the  enigma  surrounding women. Shrimant opines that women  can never go stale. But Intuc is of the opposite viewpoint and makes his derogatory remarks: “Once you’ve  understood  a woman, you don’t want to look at her again. Once you’ve explored her the thrill is gone. A woman should be able to satisfy you fully, and yet withhold a part of herself from you” (18). Shrimant wants the Professor to sum up his thoughts on Garbo into  ‘Garbo-Slut and Enigma’ (18). Intuc  puts things in perspective when he says that part of Garbo remains untouched even after satisfying all three of them.  She  proves to be a great artist in her dealing with people queuing  outside her house including film producers, directors and cameramen. According to Shrimant, she is  a whore who receives everyone into her enigmatic embrace.

When news arrives that Garbo is about to come, the three men are excited to meet her.  The conversation  gives leads into the  kind of relationship between the four.

PANSY: Garbo is here.

SHRIMANT: Now  three cheers for Garbo the sex-machine. Come on. Darling  Garbo.

PANSY: We’ve been waiting for you for hours.

GARBO: But I hadn’t said I’d come.

PANSY: Even then we were waiting (20-1).

She decides to take Pansy along with her, considering him a child who had run away from his home and attempted suicide. Shrimant  comments on it as her wanting to have a toy with her. Intuc  makes his absurd comment on suicide: “Thus Pansy allowed  a golden opportunity to slip through his fingers. Pansy this is the time. You’re at the right age for a beautiful deed, like suicide. Later on a man becomes thick-skinned, and continues to cling to life shamelessly like a leach” (22).

Garbo is unhappy with Intuc telling the boy such dreadful things and tells Pansy not to pay any heed to such promptings. The conversation  leads to  their accusing each other and  speaking of Garbo as a chaste woman.

SHRIMANT:  Honey, since when have you started objecting to our laying on you?

GARBO: You have a dirty mind.

INTUC: And a dirty  body as well.

PANSY: You’re  disgusted, aren’t you?

INTUC: Disgusted is the word since Garbo is basically a pure, chaste creature  and all that.

GARBO: of course I am.

INTUC: A chaste woman of chaste family  living in a chaste, tradition-bound society, once gave birth to another chaste woman… (24).

The three men  speak of the emptiness they experience in their lives, while Garbo claims having no emptiness in her as she would be a mother soon. The three men  put their ears to her stomach and make derogatory  remarks. Intuc goes to the extent of  saying that she would become a mother of three babes of good fortune like Dattaguru incarnate. Garbo shed tears  showing her sensitivity to their ugly remarks. She bursts out: “Go away. Don’t  slobber over me like a dog. And don’t call me Garbo again  either…Are you trying to merely flaunt my  failure before me? I’m aware of my failure, perhaps better than you. And I’m trying to  come to terms with it. I don’t claw  at people, draw blood, and then dance with demonic joy the way you do” (27).

When Garbo  makes towards the door to  go away, Pansy pleads with her not to leave, acknowledging their mistake. She surrenders in humility as a whore in their presence, telling them to continue with their game. Shrimant  taunts her being mawkish and sentimental. Intuc calls it her escape mechanism and sentimentality. She  agrees to be with them to play their  game provided they desisted from annoying her further.  She asks the three men to play with her – the game of the slut and the three gentlemen. They begin to play a game imitating each other to feel  alive.

Intuc imitates a neighbour Tatya who calls himself  a holy man who has lived with his  paralysed and blind   wife for fifty years and never strayed from the path of morality. He caresses Garbo affectionately calling her like his own daughter. He tells her to keep off from the company of the  libertines. The game further leads to the others pulling  out Intuc’s dhoti, exposing his nakedness.

Suddenly, Garbo becomes serious and tells them that  they are all  wallowing filth. Shrimant points out  how she becomes emotional once again.  Intuc has his  justification as he says everything  is filthy all around: “Can you show me a single place that is clean?… There’s none left. If we are wallowing in filth, there’s no escape for us. We must continue  to live in this same  filth. And we will say this filth is beautiful.  In order to render this filth endurable, we will have to make up new theories about  beauty… A sort of aesthetics of filth and depravity” (34). Gargo is annoyed  at such comments and sulks when Intuc further  slights her motherhood. He  wonders why she should be telling them about her pregnancy when  she is used to it  being a whore. He suspects her  trying to  put the responsibility on them. He is  in no mood  to accept paternity.  Garbo only spites them for their attitude towards her  after having exploited her sexually all the time. The moment she is pregnant, they all consider her a cheap slut. She reminds them: “We’ll allow ourselves  to forget those days when you followed me around like dogs and couldn’t do without me. .. I haven’t come here to throw myself  on your mercy. I don’t want any help from you… But today I’ve  seen you in your  true colour” (36). Though she could implicate all of them in her pregnancy, she  only wanted them to show her sympathy as  a true friend.  She demanded ten thousand rupees to abort the foetus. When Shrimant offers her  the money she refuses saying he is not involved in it. When Intuc offers a cheque, she  slaps it on his face in disgust. As she is about to leave, Intuc asks her  pardon for behaving like a  cad. She  shrugs her shoulders and utters that it is her responsibility to find a way out. He begs her to let him have the child. He would look after it  as penance for  exploiting her sexuality.

INTUC:  Yes. And we will humble  ourselves  before him. He will be our creation. And we will bow our heads before  our  own creation. A single smile  from him will move us (pleading).  Garbo let us do this. We are doomed people, we have neither seen, nor  experienced, nor created  anything beyond filth. Let us grab this opportunity. It’s  our only hope, our only chance. We will create  something beautiful out of this filth. The world will know that there is a life somewhere which is  beautiful, pure, fearless innocent… And Garbo, we cannot achieve this without you (40).

Garbo agrees to his proposal, but questions him if they would have the guts to pursues their decision. She would have to cancel all the contracts  for an year taking maternity leave to nurture her babe – the beautiful thing  in her life. Intuc reassures her that she won’t have to work as  he would see to all her needs. Her only job would be to  love and nurse the child.

On her part, she  expresses her longing to love someone and to lose herself in love. She asserts her need to be affirmed:

GARBO: There’s a heap of  ashes  within me. Will I find one live ember in it? I have no more

strength left. Will I be able to live intensely again? (41)

Intuc  reassures her that  her life would bloom again. He  invites her to stand in the middle  and they all bow  before her in great respect uttering in unison:

SHRIMANT, INTUC, PANSY:  You are life.

The spring of fearless-beauty,

the source of  all hope,

the fulfilment of  all promises

are you. You are the beginning of belief.

You are the everlasting.

All future Suns are in your womb.

Give us your light.

He will be creation out of destruction.



Mother! (42).

In Act II, a month later,  when preparations are made for the  arrival of a baby, Garbo breaks the tragic news that her babe was aborted in the course of   shooting a movie, while riding  on a camel. Hearing the news, Intuc  realises how undeserving the men are to see a child’s birth. He acknowledges his sin:

INTUC: Let’s return to filth. The world we desired was not for us, could  never have been. We are idiots, out to turn dreams into reality. Let us go back to our old world now. The world of filth. As a punishment. As a sort of consolation too (49).

The three men beg her not to leave them  in the lurch in that situation of abandonment. When she walks out of their lives, in despair Shrimant  plunges a knife into her. As the play ends Intuc speaks out in despair   : “Garbo’s gone. Murdered. Or did she die first and was murdered later?” (66).  He sums up the   aimless life of mediocrity they live, exploiting women. Intuc’s remarks pinpoints  how Garbo died many a death before her murder,  as a victim of man’s lust.  She is an enigmatic  ‘everywoman’  losing her  feminine identity in a male dominated society.

Garbo as a play  portrays a  “generation which breaks out into defiance of living out their own lives with non-conformism for a credo; throwing up in the process a small minority culture, containing within itself its own seeds of destruction. The drama in Garbo grows out of a claustrophobic real-life situation pushed to the limits of endurance…” (“Garbo. The drama is surrealistic  and bizarre  portrayal of contemporary society in which a class of young people live  unethical lives in  an enigmatic world of their making.


Works Cited:

Bandyopadhyay,  Samik. “Introduction.”  Collected Plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar. New Delhi:

Oxford University Press,  2009.

Elkunchwar, Mahesh.  Collected Plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar. New Delhi: Oxford University

Press, 2009.  Abbreviated: CPME.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. London: Penguin. 1968.


Lal, Ananda. Ed. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre.  New Delhi: Oxford University

Press,  2004.