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.
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.”http://www.metawards.com). 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.
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