Mahesh Dattani’s  “Thirty Days in September” : A Saga of Child Sexual Abuse : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb


             Mahesh Dattani’s social concern  has impelled him  to  probe  deeply into the  taboo issue of child  sexual abuse in  “Thirty Days in September”, which is a saga of  incest, betrayal and demonic  subjugation in the name of blood relationship.   The  sex maniac   turns out to be   Mala’s  own maternal uncle,   who also has secret  incestuous relationship with her mother. The traumatic experience  embedded into her subconscious, leads Mala to live her  life  determined to take revenge on  any man crossing her path. The love game she plays lasts only for  thirty days with everyman she jilts. Her mother Shanta can only watch silently, suppressing her own muted self, as her daughter tortures  herself narcissistically.  Dattani brings in  a male character, Deepak, to  expose the evil perpetrated  by male chauvinism.

          My endeavour in this paper is to  trace the traumatic  memories of Mala and her mother, coping with betrayal trauma.  Betrayal trauma  occurs when the people or institutions we depend on for survival violate us in some way such as  childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.   The  core issue is betrayal – a betrayal of trust that produces conflict between external reality and a necessary system of social dependence. Of course, a particular event may be simultaneously a betrayal trauma and life threatening. Rape is such an event. Perhaps most childhood traumas are such events. The psychic pain involved in detecting betrayal,  is an evolved, adaptive, motivator for changing social alliances (Freyd  2008).

        A survey by  the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 shows 53.22% of children have faced sexual abuse. 5.69% had been sexually assaulted (oral sex or penetration of vagina or anus). 21.90% of child respondents faced severe forms of sexual abuse including assault, exposure or being photographed in the nude. 50.76% reported other forms of sexual abuse including sexual advances in travel or marriage situations.    50% of abusers were known to the children or in a position of trust and responsibility. Most children had not reported the matter  (“Sexual abuse.”

         According to a  recent survey  it was reported that 69 per cent of all Indian children are victims of physical, mental or emotional abuse, with New Delhi’s children facing an astounding abuse rate of 83.12 percent. The survey, which involved interviews with 12,447 children, also highlights that it is usually family members (89 percent) who perpetrate such crimes and that more boys face physical abuse (72.61) than girls (65 per cent). Overall, Indian children were found to be victims of a slew of sexual crimes –  rape, sodomy, exposure to pornographic material, fondling, forcible kissing and sexual advances, among others. The study also notes that child sexual abuse in India begins as early as five, ratchets up dramatically during pre-pubescence and peaks at 12 to 16 years.   Ironically, 71 per cent of sexual assault cases in India go unreported (“Child abuse.”

          Child sexual abuse remains  a taboo in India and people remain silent on  matters of  sex and sexuality.  Abuses are   buried   as mere painful and shameful incidents,  never to be  exposed. Even if the family is aware of any  abuse of   girls, it is kept a guarded secret to protect the virginity of their girls.   Though people are aware of the fact that a girl child is unsafe, nobody talks about it.  In recent times some  movies  have addressed the   issue of sexual abuse such as Monsoon Wedding (2001)  and the Oscar-winning 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire  (“Sexual abuse.”

          Dattani has devised  his plot astutely with a stage device equipping the dramatist  with maximum  opportunity to dwell on the traumatic situation addressed. The stage has been divided into four acting areas:


First stage area Second  stage area Third stage area Fourth stage area
 Reserved for unseen


 Living room of Shanta & Mala

With picture of Shri Krishna

 Pooja room  Represents different locations (a party house, two restaurants,

Deepak’s home)


        The  scene opens  as Mala is in conversation with her counsellor which reveals  her oppressed life encapsuled in her opening  statement which is a synopsis of the events that unfold: “Why not?… I do not hesitate to use my  real name now. Let the people know. There’s nothing to hide. Not for me. After all, it is  he who must hide. He should change his name, not me. It is he who must avoid being recognized. In people’s homes, at parties, hopefully even on the streets. He should look the  other way when someone spots him anywhere on the planet. And I can make that happen. I have the power to do that now. If I use the real name” (Dattani 2005: 8). Such a  powerful statement reveal the identity of Mala fighting her way through her traumatized life. The dramatist has probed into the subconscious of the protagonist  by playing Mala’s  tape recorded  recollections. She blames herself for her  pathetic lot. Her mother  Shanta busies herself with her pooja, a well conceived escape mechanism, to hide her  own bitter past.

        The scene shifts  as  Deepak, introducing himself as Mala’s boyfriend,   comes  visiting.  However,  Shanta shows her indifference asking him to leave before she arrives. But when he introduces himself as Colonel  Bhatia’s son, her mood shifts to one of friendliness. Still, she requests him to be off since  Mala didn’t want him to pursue her anymore.  Deepak is  shocked and felt insulted as Mala had asked him to visit her. He wants to talk  out matters  with  aunty, but she  doesn’t want to pay any heed,  instead  tells him to be off before Mala returns. On his part, Deepak, speaks out  frankly: “I just don’t get it. I thought everything  was going well (Upset.) I  thought she loved me. May be I said or did something to upset her. But what could it be?… (Composing himself.)  Last week, I told her that she was the most intelligent, sensitive and dynamic woman I had met. She just stared at me and said, ‘I have something to tell you. It is over. I don’t want to continue with our relationship” (14). 

         Shanta clearly tells him that Mala had  the feeling that he never  had the plan of  marrying  her.  He, on his part was shocked  to receive such a  negative response  as he never  suspected that the relationship would wind up all on a sudden.  He speaks out very frankly “I  have never  ever given her the feeling that I am only interested in a casual affair. In fact, I went out of my way to show how much I respect her as a person”  (14).      Her hope is that Mala would change for the better if she settles down with Deepak  who shows his determination to continue courting her, though Mala had been avoiding his calls and cooking up lies. He begins to doubt her intentions and suspects  something  else behind her masking. When the mother is told about Mala’s continuous playing games with lies, she attempts  to protect her daughter, but Deepak’s suspicions  get deepened  as he observes calendar markings in which she has crossed every last Mondays. Shanta has no option but to break down as  the mystery unfolds.

          The dramatist employs  the device of playing Mala’s  recorded voice to delve into her subconscious.

 MALA: I don’t know why. I just don’t understand… Please don’t ask me why I do it. It’s just a game… not a game. No… it’s… I know it’s wrong. What I am doing is terribly wrong! But it  means a lot to me. I like it. That is why I am a bad person. I have no character… It has to end in a month’s time. In fact I like it best when I can time it so it lasts for thirty days. I even mark it on my calendar. After that, I have to  – move on, if you know what I mean… Well it is no longer satisfying to me, and I don’t mean the physical part of it, although  that is usually the main attraction for me… not that I actually enjoy it when they are doing it to me… sometimes I do, with the right kind of people… When they – sort of – you know – use me… I can’t explain it. The only person who can, who could have prevented all this is my mother. Sometimes I wish  she would just tell me to stop. She could have prevented a lot from happening… Here are all the names of people whom I have been with (18).

         It is evident from her revelations that she is caught in the web, unable to free herself in her sexual revenge having been raped in childhood, with the knowledge of her mother who remained a silent spectator to perpetration of her sexual exploitation. Her  sadistic attitude towards men in her life is  the result of  sexual exploitation  which led her to  a form of psychosomatic behaviour due to stress and internal conflict.

         Deepak being a sincere lover,  is determined to   find the full truth. The rest of the play is exposition of  how Mala and her mother became victims of sexual crime perpetrated by Shanta’s own brother. Probing  the  several sequences that follow reveal Mala’s and Shanta’s secret lives.

         Mala is shown at her sexual games with men. She walks up to a man named Ravi  at a party and stands beside him. As their eyes meet she expresses her fear  as well as interest in him. As she introduces herself, he recognizes her as an advertising agent. They begin to dance together, hidden from the man’s wife.  Mala  asks him to hold her closer. When the man invites her to his hotel, she requests him to take her  there and then to his room to make love. Their intimacy building was disrupted  when his wife broke in. Mala was humiliated when the man blamed her for making sexual  advances. A humiliate Mala could only cry her tears as she took  her bag to leave.

       Returning home, she demanded  to know from her mother what Deepak told her. Shanta remains silent and merely looks at the picture of  Shri Krishna. Mala accuses her for hiding the truth by looking at the picture  whenever she cornered with questions.  After much thought her mother tells her: “That boy wants to marry you… You will have to. This is like my prayers have been answered…. Why? He is such a nice boy and from a family we know…You can tell me what is troubling you. I am always there for you… Please tell me where I have gone wrong so I can say sorry to you” (23). Her dream is to get her married to heal her once and for all. But Mala is not prepared for such   cosmetic touch up in her   sexually  perverted life,  groomed by the silence of her own mother’s guarded secrets. She challenges her mother   to face   truth squarely. But Shanta only keeps avoiding the vital question that keeps haunting her. Mala accuser her mother for always sliding away from the problem whenever she complained to her. “…Instead of  listening to what I had to say, you stuffed me with food. I couldn’t speak because I was being fed all the time, and you knew what? I began to like them. I thought that was the  cure for my pain. That if  I ate till I was stuffed, the pain would go away… You knew all along what was happening to me, I won’t ever let you forget that! “ (24). Shanta refuses to accept the past. Instead, her eyes only keep  gazing at her God’s image though Mala keeps taunting her: “Ma, I am talking about what I had told you five years ago, but you said it wasn’t true, it couldn’t be true. But now I know that you  want to believe it is not true…Five years ago…we were talking about that rape case that was in the papers. You said something about children also not being safe…Then I told you about – what happened to me. But you changed the subject…Is it just me. Did I imagine it all?…No. It did happen” (25).

         Shanta is in no mood to accept the unacceptable. She keeps mumbling the name of God    utters: “I prayed for you Mala (Pointing to the  portrait) That is what I was praying to. To our God, so He could send his  Sudarshan Chakra to defend you, to defend us from the demon inside you, not outside you. But you wouldn’t let me. You don’t let me” (28). The story further reveals how Mala’s own cousin molested her, learning the art from the uncle. Eventually, Mala began to enjoy sex as Shanta  reveals:

 SHANTA: Why should you stop him?  You were enjoying it. Your cousin told me in private that he was  concerned about you, that I should not send you out of the house.

MALA: That was after! He told you that after he molested me!

SHANTA: But Mala, I have seen it with my own eyes. You enjoyed it. You were an average child  but you had my brother and  your cousins dancing around you. That is what you wanted. Yes! How can I forget? I am trying to forget, please help me forget.

MALA: (quietly) Yes you are right.

SHANTA:  And please don’t talk about trying to forget the pain… Try to forget the pleasure.

MALA: That is part of the pain, Ma. The pleasure is part of  the pain. (Composing herself.) I – I will try, Ma. I can only try.

SHANTA: I forget. I forget everything. Be like me (28-9).

           The  argument  takes the readers to the crux of the problem and the way the two women handled it. Mala is faced with her  taking  sexual pleasure in  her painful experience of rape. She is  veritably a split personality – wounded and  yet finding comfort in her woundedness. This is  the game that she continues to play with all the men she lures and  dumps.  She is a masochist deriving  sexual gratification from   her own sexual  molestation.  She  acknowledges self surrender in pain: “…I seduced my uncle when I was thirteen! I – slept with my cousin – and – any one who was available” (33).

           The essential feature of sexual masochism is the feeling of sexual arousal or excitement resulting from receiving pain, suffering, or humiliation which  can be physical or psychological in nature.  Such a person often experiences significant impairment or distress in functioning due to masochistic behaviors or fantasies. A person may be receiving the pain, suffering, or humiliation at the hands of another person. This partner may have a diagnosis of sexual sadism but this is not necessarily the case. Such behavior involving a partner is sometimes referred to as sadomasochism. Acts and fantasies related to sexual masochism include receiving punishment or pain by means of paddling, spanking, whipping, burning, beating, electrical shocks, cutting, rape, and mutilation. Psychological humiliation and degradation can also be involved (“Sexual masochism.”

           There is no universally accepted cause or theory explaining the origin of sexual masochism, or sadomasochism in general. However, there are some theories that attempt to explain the presence of sexual paraphilias in general.   There is also a belief that masochistic individuals truly want to be in the dominating role. This causes them to become conflicted and thus submissive to others.  Another theory suggests that people seek out sadomasochistic behavior as a means of escape. They get to act out fantasies and become new and different people (“Sexual masochism.”

           The  maternal uncle and cousin  molesting and raping Mala, leads her on to live a  sadomasochistic life. The breaking point comes when Shanta  reveals her  own suffering   sexual abuse in the hands of the same man. Victims of sexual abuse develop  feelings of  distress and negativity. Most of them end up becoming  child abusers, prostitutes or get into  serious problems in adulthood. Such victims of child sexual abuse  refuse to tell any one about their traumatic experience due to fear and shame (“Sexual masochism.”

           The story  climaxes  with the arrival of the uncle in the second act. Mala recounts how her father left them for another woman in his life. However, they continued to receive financial assistance,   presuming to be from him. But  Mala comes to know as  the play winds up that the money came from her maternal uncle who continued to  wield his power over her mother. But Mala knew all the while that her  father left them because of her mother who never loved him: “You know why he left us… He left because of you. You didn’t love him. The only reason  you shared my room was because you didn’t  want to sleep with him. All night long I had to listen to your mumbling saying you didn’t want him near you. You didn’t want him touching you… I remember  daddy’s last words to me. You know what he said. He said to me ‘I married a frozen woman” (Dattani 2005:35-36). The question arises – why she became a frozen woman? Only she knew the  secret of her sexually abused

life from childhood, by her own brother.

             Mala wanted to be freed from her sexual perversion, but it was impossible as it had become part of her obsessive personality despite her seeking professional assistance from a counsellor.  As the play winds up in the third act, Mala goes to Deepak  accompanied by her uncle  to settle her into  marriage, so that  he could continue his incestuous  relationship  with  Shanta. Mala reaches out to hold Deepak, but is interrupted by the entrance of the uncle. His body language is with a  sense of conspiracy as if he had an urgent  and secret job at hand. The  scene is  a dream sequence in which the interaction between Mala, Deepak and the man probes into hidden secrets of  her molested life.

 DEPAK: It’s okay. It’s okay. Cry if you want to.

MAN: Shhh! Don’t cry You want to come here in your holidays, no? Then don’t cry. This is your seventh birthday, no? You are seven now. Ready for a real birthday present. Lie down. Come on, quickly.

DEEPAK: Look into my eyes.

MAN: If they hear you they will say you are a bad girl. This is our secret…

DEEPAK:  (kneeling beside her) Let go and trust me!… Sit back and relax.

MAN: Hold your frock up. Up over your face! Shut up!

DEEPAK: Relax and look into my eyes. I am not going to harm you.

MAN: I won’t hurt you I promise.

DEEPAK: Talk to me. Help me to help you.

MAN: Help me and I will love you more than your mummy or daddy. (43).

          The  portrays  the trauma she suffered, from which only Deepak could  liberate her. In the presence of Mala and her mother, Deepak encounters  the uncle  in the restaurant to find the reason for her consulting a therapist. Though he tries to evade questions on Mala’s  childhood, he is speechless when questioned: “Do you have anything to say about this? Was Mala abused as a child?” (48). Deepak has finally encountered the man with the vital question though he moves away changing the topic and clearing the bill with the waiter.

           The climax comes when the man gives an envelope containing a legal document – a title deed of the flat they were living in. That was his gift to his only sister in her lonely and  divorced life. Mala understood the meaning of the gesture as the man spoke of her  eventual marriage to Deepak.  Her  utterances are full of  nuances:

 SHANTA: I didn’t  ask for this, Mala. I did not.

MALA: He bought your silence. So that you can never tell anyone what he did to your daughter?

MAN: You have gone mad.

DEEPAK Let her speak…. Go on, Mala.

MALA: Where were you when he locked the door to your bedroom while I was napping in there? Where were you  during those fifteen minutes when he was destroying my soul? Fifteen minutes every day of my summer holidays, add them up. Fifteen minutes multiplied by thirty or thirty-one… That’s how long or how little it took for you to send me to hell for the rest of my life! (52-53).

       Though Shanta remains speechless at the charges leveled against her  muted life,  finally  she dares to reveal her hidden secrets that led her to remain vanquished all her life taking shelter in her God.

 SHANTA: (defeated) Yes. Yes! I only remained  silent. I am to blame. That is why God is punishing  me today. I remained silent not because I wanted to, but  I didn’t know how to speak . I – I cannot speak. I cannot say anything. My tongue was cut off… My tongue was cut off years ago… (To Deepak) Please save her.   I did not  save her. I  did not know  how to save her. How could I save her when I could not save myself?… (To Mala) …Did you ever see the pain in my eyes? No. Nobody saw anything. Nobody said  anything. Not my brothers, not my parents. Only (pointing to the Man)  he said, only he saw and he did (54-5).

          The revelation of Shanta’s  sexual molestation in the hands of her own brother, with the knowledge of her parents and siblings, is an eye-opener to the a social malady prevalent in  our society, kept  secret in  most cases.  In her case, her brother began molesting her when she was six and he,  thirteen. It went on for ten years, when her only comfort was seeking  the shelter in  God in the image. “I  looked at Him. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel pain, I didn’t feel pleasure. I lost myself in Him. He helped me. By taking away all feeling. No pain no pleasure, only silence…. But my tongue is cut off… I cannot shout for help,… I cannot even speak about it. No I can’t. I am dumb” (55). Looking at the man in disgust, Shanta grabs a broken  glass from the portrait  and  jabs into her mouth.

         The sequence  shifts to Mala in the Counsellor’s chamber with the Man in the spotlight. She is filled with a sense of joy as the Man is dead. “He is  dead. Today. I have made  February 29th my Freedom Day. I will celebrate it with my husband” (56). The scene  fades out to the man telling Mala to touch him erotically. She turns wild and starts hitting him. She grabs him by throat  to strangle him. He utters “Thirty days has September. April, June and November. February has twenty-eight. All the rest have thirty-one!” (57). The man falls limply on the chair  as if dead while Mala picks up her doll and smoothens and comforts it.  Meanwhile her mother busies herself with her God in prayer with a sense of peace. Mala continues to speak, telling her mother the trauma she suffered in the hands of the man. “We  were both struggling to survive,  but – I never acknowledged your struggle… I want you to know  that I am listening. Waiting for you to speak…I want to ask you whether you need my help. Please let me be of help… It’s not your fault,  mother.   Just as it wasn’t my fault. Please, tell me that you’ve forgiven me for blaming you” (58). The sequence thus  climaxes into   full cycle as the two women  strive to  liberate themselves from their traumatic lives.

          In the case of  Mala and her mother, they needed  help to let go of the past to live their lives meaningfully. Shanta lived a suppressed life, hiding it all the while  until she bursts out at the end of the play, seeking comfort in her God. Mala, on the other hand, had sought the assistance of a counsellor,  and    found new meaning in a marital relationship with Deepak. 

           The play shares the insights of  Where There’s a Will where  Dattani  attempts  the exorcism of the patriarchal code that  subjugates women  (Dattani 2000: 451) as  the protagonist Hasmukh establishes his patriarchy  purely through his wealth sacrificing all familial relationships. His evil designs lead him to have ultimate destructive control over his kith and kin through Kiran, the executrix of his will after death. Kiran on her part is   a victim of sexual abuse  as she utters: “And I – I too am like my mother. I married a drunkard…And I too have learnt to suffer silently. Oh! Where will all this end? Will the scars our parents lay on us remain for ever?”   (Dattani 508). Her reference to “scars”   of    parents remaining for ever is  also the experience of Mala and her mother. All these women  are haunted  like the way  Mrs Alving expresses her anguish in   Ibsen’s Ghost:

Ghosts… we are all ghosts…there is  in me something ghostlike from which I can never free  myself… It isn’t  just what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It is all kind of dead ideas and all sorts of old and obsolete beliefs. They are not alive in us; but they remain in us none the less, and we can never rid ourselves of them (Ibsen 39).

         In “Thirty Days  in September,” Dattani attempts to liberate the women from perpetration of sexual exploitation  through sincere men like Deepak who dares to expose  sexual oppression and offering emotional support in trauma.   The  dramatist  has  deftly handled  and brought to light a very serious   social malady which is often  kept under carpet like the  way  Henrik Ibsen  did in his time.


Works Cited:


Dattani, Mahesh. “Thirty Days  in September.” Collected Plays. vol 2. New Delhi: Penguin Books,  2005, 1-58.

—–. “Where There’s a Will.” Collected Plays. Vol.1 New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2000,  450-516.

Freyd, Jennifer J.  What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory?  2008. Retrieved  

        1 February 2009] from Downloaded on 22/09/10.

Ibsen, Henrik. Ghosts. Madras: Macmillan India Limited, 1989.

“Sexual abuse.”  /wiki/History_of_sex_in_India.

“Sexual masochism.”