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.” http://en.wikipedia.org). 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.
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.