Conjugal Oppression in Satish Alekar’s Mickey and the Memsahib: Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

      Conjugal  Oppression  in Satish Alekar’s Mickey and the Memsahib: Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

        Excelling in depicting absurdities of life, mingling black humour and satire, Satish Alekar  has   been acknowledged as a major force in the Indian  theatre. Coming under the  influence of the dramatist   Diwakar (Shankar Kashinath Garge (1889-1931)  who employed  Natyachhata (dramatic monologues) to  project  issues of social customs, women, politics, colonial bureaucracy,  using  dark comedy and cynicism, Alekar has successfully mingled colloquialism and traditional theatrical practices of Maharashtra (Alekar 410).  

         Mickey and Memsahib  (1973) throws light on the irony of  life that a hen-pecked  professor                  who lives under his   young and beautiful wife, depicting sexual oppression. The play is a mingling of realism   with   absurd mode of expression shown in the  strange relationship between the professor  and his   wife.

        Alekar has very adroitly brought together  several  sequences in Mickey and the Memsahib   to bring out very  powerfully the stream of consciousness of the protagonist who undergoes mental and physical conflicts in his relationship with his wife. Though, disconnected, in thought and feeling depicting absurd situations, the  play delves  deeply into various  areas in a  suppressed  self. 

       The title  of the play  is highly symbolic as the Professor is divided in his experiments with the mouse as well as his  relationship with his wife.   His experiments on Mickey is with a great ambitious plan of making breakthrough in  Molecular  Biology,  aiming even  at the  Nobel prize. But his antagonist  turns out to be his own wife who wrecks all his plans.  There is a continuous  conflict of interests  between the husband and wife.  She continues to blackmail him into  total submission. It all began with their strange marriage of convenience after he had an affair with her, while she was his PhD scholar, leading to sexual oppression. Could this be interpreted in the light of  penis jealousy as propounded by Freud as they  are also issueless in their marital life?

       He is like a pawn in her hands, a victim of her  caprice. Instead of  getting engrossed in his experiments, he is forced to be  a bonded slave to her. He stands helpless between the mouse and the Memsahib, losing his identity as a man.  He undergoes a total breakdown in his roles  as husband and Professor. His marital life is  wrecked as he is made a mere servant figure to do the errands and chores at home – a total reversal of roles. He has no control over his wife since she is  much younger and beautiful.  He lost the focus of his  scientific life of experiments and  intellectual pursuits, falling a prey to her  sensual charms. Eventually his experiments with Mickey is destroyed by her killing it. The play is also a peep  into the life of a scientist like him. One cannot  commit fully to either  to one’s experiment or one’s wife, unless there is mutual understanding.  The wife finally kills the mouse to end his experiments to possess him fully as her man. She, on her part, continues to blackmail  him with the various games she plays. The Professor’s career and life is  kept under suppression by his wife who has  turned out to be a megalomaniac.

          The  play  probes into the evil machinations of  the Memsahib and  could be  assessed in the  absurd theatre tradition with its  atmosphere  of  nervous tension,  coupled  with comical situations. The absurdists  believe  that reality is meaningless and senseless. Absurd theatre presents the absurdity of modern human condition and the humanity’s loss of  religious, philosophical, or cultural roots. The individual is essentially isolated and alone. It presents the existential outlook of man depicting him lonely, confused and often anguished in a bewildering universe  ( Murfin 2).  Her  sexual exploitation in the hands of the Professor  in the early part of the play when she is his PhD scholar forces him to marry her. In turn she  exploits his sexual weakness and  becomes cruel, jealous and  intriguing. As the play ends  she  makes  sexual advances by caressing him into laughter, yet turning monstrous in chasing to kill him with a spear

          In the sequence where the Professor  attempts  to inject the chemicals into Gulavani  is indicative of his desire to create a monster to  achieve his ambition of  subjugating everything, especially  Memsahib. But the irony  of life is that he is crushed into a  victim,  being subjugated by his wife. The  play is a powerful comment on  distorted spousal roles that can lead to disintegration of familial relationships. He becomes a mere plaything in the  hands of the Memsahib. There is  no emotional attachment in their marriage. He is made a mere doll in the hands of  his wife – just the opposite  of what happens in  Ibsen’s A Doll’s House  where  Nora utters:  “…You only thought  how nice it was to be in love with me… At home, Daddy…used to call me his baby doll, and he played with me as I used to play with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house……I have been living  here like a beggar…It’s your fault that I’ve never made anything of my life…I have been your doll wife…I thought it was fun when you came and played with me” (Ibsen 82-3).  Why has the Professor become less than a doll in his house? Is it because he has lost his moral ascendancy  over his wife after a marriage of convenience? Alekar  lets the readers  probe into the possible reasons for such  strange behavioral problems. Is it that the Professor  became a  slave to her charms while supervising her  PhD which perhaps ended in  a forced marriage   to protect his honour? That was the beginning of his life of submission to her. He had to write her PhD thesis for her and   become a puppet  in her hands.  Several unanswered questions remain :  Is their childlessness due to his absorbing research where he has no time for emotional and sexual fulfilment? Is she trying to establish her feminine supremacy  like the way the protagonist Lise  in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat behaves with men and  denies them sexual bliss, but  chooses her own way by chasing her own murderer? The Memsahib behaves similarly, a weird woman bored with her life,   determined   to take revenge on her husband.  The story  delves into darker side of human psyche where affection and love denied, breaks out  into other forms of oppression in spousal relationships.

          The play  opens symbolically as the Professor  places a cage with a white mouse in it  to show  how the protagonist suffers   in the hands of his young  and beautiful wife. He,  in his fifties, is busy unwinding the poultice from his thumb. He is  bothered about the bandage  as it is a nuisance in the midst of his busy schedule of manual labour as well as  scientific experiments. As he takes great care of his mouse, he  begins to talk with it  “I say, Mickey, why didn’t you  eat your food yesterday? You know  we have an agreement that you’ll everything I give you…you must eat it all. Or else my experiments will go wrong and you’ll die in vain” (Alekar  361). He also  talks to the mouse the way he hurt his thumb when his wife mercilessly  slammed the door. He is  kept busy throughout with household chores, experiments and the thesis work of his scholar, Gulavani. He is upset that he is unprepared for his lectures  that day besides the viva examinations of the students.

           The Professor busies himself in carrying water to the water pot. It has been his daily occupation since he married Memsahib,  to carry water to the water pot whenever  she rang the bell. He  reveals certain facts of life when he  says, “Even though I am Reader and head of the University’s Molecular Biology  section and you’re just a lecturer under me – it is I who fill the water when the bell rings… I also  understand just how you got your PhD” (363). It has become his daily preoccupation unlike other  men in his  neighbourhood. The problem is that  his wife always forgets to turn of the tap. Her negligence has led to his  constant filling the water pot.

          As  the Professor is about to leave his home, his Memsahib stops him  to remind  him that it is his fifty-ninth  birthday. She also chides him  for  not having completed his household chores.   He is accused of being late everyday for his class. He  retorts saying: “I’ve become Head of Molecular Biology section in the University entirely through my own efforts, not through anyone’s influence. Memsahib, don’t forget you did your thesis under my supervision” (367).

        The scene shifts to slides illustrating molecular  biology on a cyclorama. Memsahib  is seen lecturing to an imaginary class. As light dims, the Professor enters and  engages his class of students. However, his class is interrupted by the sweeper asking  him to move out for a few minutes. When the Professor  orders him to be off, he is told that he had been instructed by the Memsahib to do the sweeping  while he lectures. The dramatist  portrays the scene very  skilfully  to show the way the professor, though the Head of the department, is controlled by the whims and fancies of  his wife. The dramatist probes into the  conflicting situation in their  relationship. He has merely become a  non-entity, being a slave to her machinations. The irony is that he is a split personality like  Alfred J. Prufrock of T.S. Eliot, living dual lives.  His   lecture  on cancerous cells is symbolic of  his own cancerous and meaningless life: “The cancerous cell is an abnormal cell. A normal cell turns into the cancerous cell by  undergoing many transformations…UV radiation is also able to convert   the normal cell into the precancerous cell” (368). He is being consumed by a henpecking wife. She is like the cancerous growth in his life which he is unable to terminate for a healthy life.

       His class is  intercepted by Memsahib and the Professor gets panicky due to  laughter and chattering of students. They keep clapping and jeering whenever one of them speaks.

PRO:   Carcinogenic agents act at various stages. (His students clap).

MEM:  Strictly speaking X-ray crystallographic technique is not as difficult as it seems to   be.  The principle behind it is very simple. (The students in the Memsahib’s class clap).

MEM: An X-ray beam is made to fall on—

PRO: A pre-cancerous cell is an abnormal cell (369).

             The sequence shifts to the Professor complaining to the Vice-Chancellor over phone about his staff who do not listen to him. He  points our how his Memsahib is the centre of  all disturbance, instigating even the peons to be on her side He demands from the Vice-Chancellor to make an inquiry on the happenings. “Yes. I understand it is a domestic matter. But I am head in the department… But I am only complaining because the matter has got out  of my control. Please give some attention to it. Please give some attention to it. So my lectures can be given as smoothly as they should… But please try and give  a warning too” (369).

           As the  Professor returns home, a man  living at the University campus, comes in, making a courtesy call. He enquires  of the inmates in the house. The Professor speaks of himself and his mouse Mickey. When the man is surprised, he  introduces himself as a  molecular biologist, engaged in his  scientific experiments. The man is  curious to know why the Professor has such a huge tank in his house. He retorts  saying that it is none of his business to know why. “Why? Why? Why ask me all these questions? What concern am I of  yours? I’ll look after my own affairs. Ask about my  department, about my experiment with Mickey, about  theory, about practical. Theory and practicals are not in watertight compartments. Water can travel between them – but  it doesn’t fill my tank” (375).

         It has been a dream sequence in which  the professor goes  into a  subconscious  episode in which he had interacted with a stranger. Suddenly he imagines that  Gulavani came to meet him. But all the while it was Gulavani who was with him, sitting in the  neighbour’s  lawn. It is a clear indication  of how the Professor has  become a total mental wreck. The conversation continues in an absurd manner as the Professor  speaks of   gardening when Gulavani requests for his  corrected rough draft.

GUL:  I had given you some rough  typed pages…

PRO: (lost in his own thoughts): I’ll look after my own garden. Who is this fellow to tell me?   What right  he has got?         

GUL: Please let me have them if you have finished them…

PRO: If you’ve got the guts, plant your own garden. It’s a crime to ask questions about other people’s garden…

GUL:  Just yesterday, a letter came from the  Vice Chancellor. He has asked for an explanation…

PRO: The VC is a big man. His garden is a big one, too.

GUL: No, no sir- the thesis – an explanation about my thesis- that’s what  he’s asked for.

PRO: What  thesis of the  VC’s? He isn’t going to do  a PhD at this age, is he?

GUL: What is the matter with you, sir? I’m asking about my thesis. About the rough typed pages (376-7).

          As the Professor muses  over his career achievement, having a PhD from U.S.A and his seniority in the Department, he feels insulted when  the sweeper is sent to clean as he begins his lecture. He complains to the Vice Chancellor that the Memsahib is the cause of all problems in his department. The problem has become so acute he can only cry out: “That fault has lodged itself in my body and becomes a  corn. I can’t remove it. Don’t throw me out of the department I’m the Head of the section. My wishes must be obeyed in the department” (377). The Professor continues to be in a state of  subconscious thoughts. He speaks of his Mickey  and the water tank. His routine  of filling the tank daily keeps  reminding him of his   hen-pecked life. Suddenly he comes to his senses and tells Gulavani to meet him the following day. He, then,  takes the water pot and pours  it out and busies himself with the injection for Mickey. As he retires to his study to correct the thesis, his Memsahib approaches him looking very attractive, wearing a transparent nightgown. The conversation leads to her complaining about the food he cooked. He surrenders to her commands in an ironic manner:

 PROF: What is your command?

MEM: No command – just a complaint.

PRO: Please tell us   your  complaint, and forgive us our mistake.

MEM:  It’s this – there was far too little salt in the dal and brinjal curry today.

PRO: Last time  madam complained there was too much, so today the salt was a little less than it should have been. So it’s your   servant’s  humble request that you should make it easier for him by telling him in scientific terms how much salt he should put in.

MEM: 1.2 milligrams.

PRO:  Forgive me for asking – but a milligram is a very tiny quantity. I think Memsahib must be making an error. It is my opinion that madam must mean 1.2 grams (380).

         The Professor goes on to beg her to  change the leaking water pot with goatskin. As he continues with his correction, Memsahib comes around asking him to go to sleep. She keeps cajoling him, putting her arms around  him. She sympathises with him for all his strains. The Professor stops his correcting the papers as she strokes him and tickles him to laughter though he suppresses it  for a while. As they exit the mood is set with changing light effects on stage.  Suddenly shouting and screaming  of the Professor could be heard: “No, no don’t kill me. I beg to you. Save me! Help!” (382). The Professor runs  and collapses on the stage as the Memsahib comes in a rage with spear in hand. She threatens him for having overslept  and for not filling  the water pot. He is told to wake her up daily at nine to enable her to attend to her lecture at ten. The Professor struggling to his feet pleads her  to be merciful: “Tender love. Tender love… Our bloody love has tenders filled  like this one.  With the earnest  money paid years before. But  with the option to reject the tender midway after it’s been accepted. The threads that join us, thin to breaking, almost non-existent, become like ropes at this time. I am tied to the cot. And then at dawn. Those same ropes become spears and pierce me. Why these weak interactions suddenly become strong forces?” (382). He continues with his morning chores at the water pot.

        In  Act Two,  the Professor enters with a bag full of vegetables uttering a prayer  like in the Bhondla (A woman’s  ritual-cum-game typical of Maharashtra performed during ten days of Durga Puja) for Mickey’s safety. Gulavani enters  with a book in his hand and a  bottle gourd on his head. He counters the Professor  saying that Mickey cannot be  a part of prayer as the name came from  Walt Disney cartoon character of a mouse. The Professor is determined to sing the song as he chops vegetables before the Memsahib arrives. The two men engage in their playing the  religious game. The game play keeps the Professor utter certain truths  about himself: “A molecular biologist – a reader in the University… I lecture in the class. I do experiments in the laboratory. At home, I chop  vegetables. I fill the water, I play the Bhondla…Actually I don’t have a father or mother. Only the wrestling. Because Darwin’s theory is ‘the survival of the fittest’ (385-6).

        He requests Gulavani to give injection to Mickey as he cleans the vegetables before Memsahib arrives. When Gulavani asks for his corrected papers, the Professor  refers to them as feathers of the peacock that danced  during the night. He, then, keeps talking of cooking the vegetables,   filling the water pot,  wash his clothes,  fold Memsahib’s sarees on the floor.  The sequence shifts to a well dressed man  coming  in to meet the Memsahib. They keep talking about when she would come.  The Professor tells him to wait for her while he goes to   invite the man’s wife to visit Memsahib along with all her kith and kin. The man pleads with him not to inform his wife lest he will be ostracized. “Please, have  pity on me. Don’t tell my wife about it. She will talk about it everywhere. I’ll be ostracized. I’m standing for election to the university Board of studies… Don’t tell  anyone. I’ll lose everything I’ve earned till this day” (394).  The Professor promises that he wouldn’t  tell anyone provided he fills the water pot and empty it into the tank. As the man fills the water the Professor sings:

Let us fill the water

Let’s fill them, let’s empty them.

Let’s  water the garden with the water from the tank.

Green, green trees…

Beautiful flowers have bloomed on the trees.

We made beautiful garlands from them,

And decorated the Memsahib’s hair (395).

          The Memsahib comes in and throws away the water pot and says that her women  friends have arrived. They demand that the Professor sings the Bhondla. As they await the Professor  comes with a cage in his hand and narrates the story of  Raja Bhoj who fell asleep during a hunt and threw the arrow and killed the  ceremonial  elephant when he woke up.  In his case, the Professor has only the mouse instead of the elephant. He covers the cage with a cloth before beginning the Bhondla. The women join  the game and the Professor announces that  water will be  given as  food  to them. “… Water is the basis of food, clothing, and shelter. Water is almighty…Therefore water  is a highly suitable offering on the auspicious occasion  of this  Bhondla. The Bhondla god himself will be greatly pleased with it. We sincerely pray he will not be enraged any more. Amen”  (399).

          The Professor  joins his hands in prayer and sits on the steps. Suddenly he wakes up with a start. Memsahib appears in  her transparent nightgown with a spear in her hand. As the Professor keeps calling Gulavani, he arrives wearing sacred thread  and a tray in his hand for worship. They both sing invocatory hymn to  goddess Durga. Memsahib comes down with a small box in her hand. She gives it to him as he prostrates before her. Gulavani  perceiving it as a miracle, wants to make a big offering to the goddess. He  volunteers to be the priest to offer pooja. The Professor comes in wearing  a silk dhoti and sacred thread. Gulavani applies kumkum powder on his forehead. Gulavani gives him the betel nut and he ties on his waistband. The Professor  puts sandalwood paste on the black box and chants the mantra along with Gulavani. He puts his hand in the  box and feels the tail of the  mouse and utters:  

 Rest in peace. Mickey. Rest in peace. You have departed from me. Without saying goodbye. You should at least  have made a noise in your cage before you died. If you had died from my injection I would have understood it…You have dealt me a blow, Memsahib, you have cheated, you have cheated me. You have not kept your word. I did no wrong in cooking the vegetables and filling the tank, so why did you do this? What have my experiments to do with you? I never made any mistake in your service till this day. I completed your PhD thesis before our wedding… If Mickey had died  in the course of my experiment I would have brought another Mickey. But you murdered him – as a  revenge on me. It is alright. You started the vendetta. I am not sad that Mickey is dead;  but Memsahib you are becoming ruthless (403).

     He keeps sobbing  with  his head in his hands. Meanwhile Gulavani  removes the  cover and peeps into the empty cage. The Professor watches him and goes into his subconscious prattles thinking that his Mickey has grown big in the person of Gulavani. “Mickey, Mickey, how big you have grown. When did you come out of the cage?…we’ll make a bigger cage for you” (403). A mystified Gulavani observes the Professor in a frenzy dancing around him. Though Gulavani  tells him repeatedly that he  came for his thesis papers, the Professor keeps gazing at him as his blown up Mickey. The Professor goes on to give injection to Gulavani  after making him stumble on the ground. He  expects success from his experiment and bag a Nobel prize. It will transform everything for him  as  he imagines  that Memsahib will  fill the water in his leaking water tank which he would build much higher up. It will change her personality as  she will have to climb up every time.  He remains in a world of dreams, suffering victimisation in the hands of his Memsahib.

    The antagonist in the play could be assessed as  a  person suffering from Megalomania which is a psycho-pathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. She  is characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation of her powers and beliefs (“Megalomania.”  Freud’s concept of repression by ignoring one’s  unresolved conflicts or traumatic past being forced out of conscious awareness into the realm of unconscious,  could be applied to her life.  Freud’s idea of  ego, super-ego and the id, corresponding to consciousness, conscience and unconscious (Barry 97), delves deep into her life whereby she kills her conscience which eventually suppresses her consciousness  and  returns her  to the stage of  the unconscious.  Hence Memsahib becomes a demonic character,  destroying  the Professor in all  possible ways in her megalomaniac dreams and  conjugal  oppression.


Works Cited:

Alekar, Satish. Collected Plays of Satish Alekar.  New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009, 359-405.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An  Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester and

     New York: Manchester University Press, 2002. Rpt.

Ibsen,  A Doll’s House. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, reprt. 2004.


Murfin, Ross & Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.  New York:

    Bedford Books,  1998.