Mahesh Elkunchwar’s “Reflection” : A study in Loss of Identity : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Mahesh Elkunchwar presents a wide range of dramatic situations, theatrical devices, and speech rhythms in his plays which portray preoccupation with death, loneliness, creativity, the illusion of wealth, and the apparent purposelessness of choice or action while the ultimate goal of life remained unknown (“Mahesh Elckunchwar.” http://www.indianetzone.com). As a dramatist, he 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 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 playwright presents characters who are migrants to the metropolis “brought together by chance, rootless, with rootlessness as their only bond” (qtd Bandyopadhyay xi)
Elkunchwar has employed surrealism like André Breton who held the view that the irrational is the best mode of perceiving and representing reality. Surrealism emphasized the role of the unconscious in creative activity and employed the psychic unconscious in a more orderly and more serious manner. Surrealists stressed hallucination, psychotic utterance, automatic writing and free associations. By using automatism they wrote whatever words came into their conscious mind and regarded these words as inviolable. The authors felt that this free flow of thought would establish a rapport with the subconscious mind of their readers. This purely psychic automatism was modified later by the conscious use of symbols derived from Freudian psychology. In its simple form surrealism is present in modern literature as whatever is visionary and dreamlike (Sebastian 256).
In “Reflection,” the playwright has probed into the meaningless lives young people live in our contemporary society, devoid of social and ethical values, leading to loss of identity. The playwright employs magical realism in which the world appears just as ours in all respects but very extraordinary things happen. Most magical realism makes no attempt to explain such events as they simply happen, often with people reacting as if such things are not all that unusual (“Magical realism.” http://writing2.richmond.edu).
The story begins with the protagonist fast asleep on his bed. He is startled to get up with the alarm, but he remains directionless for sometime. Suddenly he realises he is late and rushed to the bathroom. The telephone keeps ringing. As he goes to attend to the call, the alarm sounds again. As he runs to put off the alarm, the door bell rings Realising his mistake he opens the door and finds no one there. He sits on his bed expecting the alarm, telephone and door bell to ring. When none of them ring, he is relaxed and opens his window. Listening to the city traffic, he shuts the window. He engages himself to brush his teeth and switches on the radio. He tries to scan the newspaper but is unable to see anything printed on it. The sequence moves to a coquettish woman coming with a cup of tea and a broom in one hand. She places the tea and sweeps in haste, chiding him for his irresponsible living: “I get up at four in the morning all ready for the day’s work. Who do you think you are? You get up any time you like and expect me to get your tea? Even a paying guest must have some discipline” (Elkunchwar 202). The woman continues to reproach him for his late rising, saying that when her husband was alive he would help her in all the household chores. Though she treated the boy like one in the family, he had not responded responsibly. Meanwhile, a scream is heard in the bathroom. When he came out, he had a scared appearance as he leaned against the doorjamb. He falls into a chair terrified.
WOMAN (concerned): What’s the matter?
He: Tell me. Are the mirrors in the house okay?
WOMAN: What do you mean?
HE: Are they really okay?
WOMAN: What’s okay supposed to mean? Don’t I wipe them everyday? Even mirrors ought to be spotless. It’s no use being clean. If the mirror is dirty, you will look dirty. Don’t you agree?
HE: That’s not what I meant. (Pause.) Will you come and have a look at the mirror in the bathroom please?… Tell me what do you see there…
WOMAN: Now you’re being childish. What should I see in the mirror? I saw my reflection. That’s all (Elkunchwar 204).
The man begins to talk seriously, telling her about his predicament, that he is unable to see his reflection in the mirror. He keeps telling her that he cleaned the mirror and checked if the mercury had peeled off. The mystery still remained, he is unable to see his reflection even in other mirrors. In despair he cries out: “”I’ve lost my reflection. It has disappeared. It has gone away. Left me and gone” (206). The story becomes a black comedy when he discovers he is unable to see his reflection in a mirror. The woman keeps teasing him for getting intoxicated the previous night at the binge. He confesses that he had not been drunk for over a week. She checks his breath to find if true, instead his mouth is full of toothpaste form. He chides her for mocking him and taking him to be joking. She retorts telling him he is crazy: “How can you lose your reflection? It must be hallucination. Or your mind is not there. Go and take another look in the mirror. Get up. I’d just like to see how you lose your reflection. Utter rot. You’re a paying guest here. I’m responsible if you lose something…Get up and take a good look in the mirror again” (206). He is reluctant and scared of looking again in the mirror. Finally he picks up courage as she persuades him to look into the mirror and finds to his horror his image not reflected in it. The woman plans to advertise the bizarre incident to get publicity and fame. Though he declines the offer, she convinces him that it is his only chance to get recognised in the city of Bombay where he is a non-entity. “…Now is your chance. You have been staying with me for the last three years. But I do not know your name. Everyone calls you Blockhead. So I also call you Blockhead” (207).
The dramatist reveals that the boy has no identity of his own. Hence he has come to convince himself psychosomatically that he has lost his reflection in the mirror. She wants to get to the media for publicity so that he can easily enter the world of fame. She tells him that people would be flocking to see him. With his fame as a man without a reflection, would let him have entry into inaccessible places. She keeps telling him: “The whole world will know you as “The Man without a Reflection! The wonder of wonders! Travel all over the world. Stand in front of a mirror and hold one man shows of the Man without a Reflection” (207). She promises to put a plaque on the door in his memory when his is dead: “Here lived the famous Mr Blockhead who didn’t make a reflection” (207). But he is unaffected by her plans. He doesn’t want any one to know about his strange experience. His fear looms large as people do not care for the unexpected unnatural things that occur. They get terrified by them and merely keep jeering at the freak until he dies. He then narrates how his class mate who had a lump on his forehead, threw himself into a pond to die. The woman only hopes that he wouldn’t resort to such extremes in her house. Her fear is that at the event of his suicide, she would’t get another paying guest. She decides to put a mesh on his window on the fifth floor, to ward off any such mishap.
In his confused state of mind, the boy invites her to check if she can really see him as he is. When she reaches out to touch him, he squirms. However, he questions how she can prove that he exists. She argues: “There are only two ways to prove that a body exists. One by reflection. Two, by another body. One thing proves the existence of another. Or else an object has no meaning” (209). She keeps on arguing with the example of an inkpot which has no meaning without a pen or a pack of cigarette having no meaning without a box of matches. She philosophises that if he wants to be sure of his own body, he has to depend on another. The conversation gets into deeper metaphysical questions:
He:…is a reflection just a body?
WOMAN: What else? What do you see in the mirror – your mind? Your heart? Your soul?
HE: I wonder. What does a mirror show? What do we see?
WOMAN: Besides, instead of saying we look in the mirror, wouldn’t it be more correct to say that it’s the reflection in the mirror that looks at us?
HE: That’s also true.
WOMAN: There. So your reflection must have got a little bored of looking at you…It must have got fed up and walked off. How many years of blockheadedness can the poor thing take?…
HE: Could my own reflection be bored of me? (209-10).
The dramatist very deftly plays on magic realism to delve into the story further in its absurd movement. She goes on to speak of the body getting tired of itself while the mind keeps fresh with constant activity. If mind is kept busy with fresh thoughts, it would remain “honest-to-goodness real-and-alive” solving the problem of missing one’s reflection (210). When she questions him on the way he looked at his reflection in the mirror, he confesses how he had become scared of his own image. He found himself staring at his eyes which stared back at him in the mirror. He felt the piercing look from the marble turned image with no blood. It would have pierced through him, had he not moved away. From then on he never looked at the mirror straight. Occasionally he looked sideways and turned away quickly. Now that the mystery has led to the vanishing of all reflections. But he feels devastated as he cannot live with out his reflection. “”But, I can’t bear the idea of living without it. Even the loss of a limb is okay. One manages somehow. But how can you live without your reflection, even if it is useless?” (211).
On her part, the woman keeps advising him not to lose heart, but to keep the window of his mind always open. She tells him to keep his window open and rushes out. But he keeps doesn’t open the window. Calling him Blockhead, she pushes open the window and points out how tightly closed the window of his mind is. She tries to climb on the window-stilt to enter into the room. She has to wriggle out through the narrow window to enter in. Managing to fall on his bed she began to probe into the window of his mind: “Oh dear! The window of your mind is so narrow. How can splendid, magnificent thoughts ever enter it?” (212). She begins to be suggestive, coming around him on tip toe, wearing a flimsy nightie over her sari. Se tries to draw his attention, but he brushes her aside. She leaps into the air and fall on the ground and claims to be playing the character of Hema Malini, imagining him to be Dharmindra. He begins to show his annoyance, but she demands that they live in their make-believe world of romance which she has brought to his mind. She is absorbed in her absurd dream-play:
HE: (Shouts): Stop it, Bai.
WOMAN: Oh, how loud you shout! Don’t you know that the walls of the mind are fragile?
HE: Stop this drama.
WOMAN: But in your mind…
HE: It’s my mind, isn’t it?
HE: And you’ve come into it.
HE: Then how can you decide what should happen in my mind?…
WOMAN: But- but won’t you listen to me?
HE: Out. Get out… Go out the way you came in (212-13).
Wriggling out of the window she comes into the room through the door and questions him as to what happened in his mind after she entered in. He, on his part, threatens her to let him into her mind. Instead, she tells him to enter into his own mind to find his own reflection within. “…You’ll be surprised at the things you can find in your mind. All you need to do is look. Things you’ve lost, forgotten, discarded, thrown away. Things you don’t want and so want, the modern, the ancient, the brand new, things turned to sawdust with white ants,- try doing it, you must have this experience. It’s like Alladin’s treasure (216). He tells her to go out, so that he could try the exercise himself. He goes out through the door and makes his entry though the window. His movements are accompanied by the ringing of the telephone, alarm going off and the door bell ringing. Suddenly all the ringing stop and a terrified scream could be heard with the sound of someone stumbling on stage in the dark. He comes out through the door along with the woman. He feels the intensity of the darkness surrounding with the deep silence enveloping the rigid atmosphere.
The sequence shifts to a certain Flags entering into the room. The protagonist pitifully tells him that he has lost his reflection in the mirror. Flags has no sympathy for Blocks and argues: “Blocks, do you know that in this city alone ninety-nine per cent of the people live below the reflection line? Who listens to their complaints? Only the petite bourgeois like you go whining about things like that. You’re really terrible people – selfish and self-centred. Constantly thinking of yourselves and your reflections. Arrey, why the hell do you need this worthless reflection?” (219). Observing him further, Flags says he doesn’t remember his looks. He sees only a vague shape with eyes, nose and ears. In his view Blocks would be lost amidst the millions of people where his puny reflection wouldn’t make any difference. Flags advises him to shave and get to work instead of thinking about people losing their reflections. He recounts how people have no time to think of their reflections as they are busy sweating away at their work places, from morning till night to eke out a living. They have no time to look at the mirror to wipe off their sweat. Only the conceited ones like Blockhead can indulge in such luxury. If everyone were to lose their reflections, there would be a perfect society of equality where everyone would be reduced to a single class. But Blocks insists that his friend looks at the mirror to observe him. Flags laughs his heart out and teases him. When the woman enters, Blocks tells her to observe Flags in the mirror. He tells her that she has seen a cock instead of his reflection. The arguments keeps heightening when the protagonist begins to speak of Exploitation, Capitalism, Class Struggle, Blood, Revolution and The masses. The crisis situation has reached such a stage whereby the characters have strangely entered into each other.
WOMAN: Dear me! This is going to be a real mess. Blockhead’s in Flags’s mind and now Flags is trying to get into Blockhead’s. So A enters B which is already in A!
(Flags is at the window).
HE: Don’t you bite off more than you can chew. You’ll get a fright at the end.
FLAGS: Pooh! Pooh!
(Flags bangs his head on the window trying to come in. Finally manages it. Instant darkness. Flags screams. Sounds of someone stumbling around.)
HE: Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
FLAGS: God! How dark it is in here.
HE: Yell now!
FLAGS: Hey, how do I get out of here?
HE: Sit and whine! I’m off.
FLAGS: (Mimes groping in the dark): Hey! You’ve got out of my mind, and I’m still stuck in yours.
HE: Bother! Now have you got your sense back?
FLAGS: Help! Help me get free (227).
Flags tries to get out from the mental power of Blocks and finally succeeds in his effort. Meanwhile the woman comes and persuades Blocks to go to his office. He begins to laugh saying that he is free at last from all shackles and speaks out: “…I’ve got my freedom now. Freedom. You know how a sack feels once it’s relieved of all the grain? That’s the kind of freedom I now have. It’s my Independence Day today. I must sing my song of freedom” (228). He goes on to sing “My reflection has left my body, my mind, my wealth” (229). When the woman shows her annoyance at the way he was exulting in joy, he keeps singing disregarding everyone – boss and fat woman, bosom pal and politician. It is a sense of liberation which cannot be described. He wants to distribute sweets and booze to celebrate. He calls it the ultimate revelation in his life when he is surrounded by darkness all around: “Darkness without. Darkness within. This is the moment of darkness. This is the knowledge of the self. The knowledge of the self” (230).
The scene shifts to the ringing of the door bell and a young girl making her entry. He questions her whereabouts as though he doesn’t know her. She introduces herself as Broomstick. She tells him that she works in his office in the same section. He disclaims her saying how could he recognise her among fifty office girls wearing the same type of synthetic saris and using similar perfumes and lipsticks. He suspects her advances as she is yet to hook a husband. She has come to take him away and go anywhere, even to the ends of the earth. She bares out her love and longing for him. She had been silently in love with him in office for so long. He is annoyed and tells her that he doesn’t believe in her romantic outlook. When questioned further as to the purpose of her visit, she tells him how he had lost his reflection in the mirror in his office canteen. She had observed everything from behind him and had herself lost her own reflection. She begins to recount how she found herself applying kumkum (vermilion) not on her forehead, instead on her cheeks or nose. It happened that one day she applied it on herself and nothing could be seen on the mirror except a red dot. It was a terrifying experience for her to lose her reflection in the mirror. The boy becomes very sympathetic, hearing her lot as he found they were both in the same boat, having lost their identity. Hearing the story, the woman begin to suspect the girl playing a trick on him. Suspecting her plan he tells her to be off. But the girl pleads “I’m a girl after all. What can I do alone? Help me. And I’ll help you. We are both people who have lost their reflections. We could help each other find them” (235).
The protagonist takes up her challenge to do things together: “The two of us together will fight for freedom. The two of us together will abolish inequality. The two of us together will serve society. The two of us together will set up an ashram for celibates” (235-6). The girl requests him to let her rest her head in a corner of his mind. Her move makes the old woman call her a leech trying to play her trick on him. Meanwhile the conversation between the boy and the girl reveals their confused minds:
GIRL: Give me a chance. Only one, I beg you.
HE: I tell you, there is total darkness in my mind. I can’t see a thing there myself. Why do you want to go stumbling through a strange place?
GIRL: I’ll light the lamp of my love there and remove the darkness.
HE: But what do you get by lighting up that place? You won’t see a thing there anyway. Besides, what’s light and what’s darkness for those who have lost their reflections? Everything remains just the same (236).
The boy is wonderstruck by her optimism which the old woman terms leechiness. The girls begins to move out of the room. He feels that his mind has become like a railway platform. Meanwhile, the stage turns dark as the girl comes in through the window. Sobs could be heard. When the stage lights up, the girl comes in through the door and begins to reveal herself to him:
GIRL: (angry): Are you?
HE: I’d warned you.
GIRL: How I sobbed in your mind! You could have spoken a few words of sympathy at least.
HE: But I didn’t hear you sob.
WOMAN: Nor did I!
GIRL: Brutal. Heartless. Cruel…You’ve never suffered…You haven’t suffered because you don’t know what you’ve lost.
HE: Oh yes, I do,… But I know it’s useless searching for what’s lost…You and I are different. So our paths lie in opposite directions. Since we have got this freedom to go our different ways, why don’t we enjoy the freedom? (237-8).
The boy asks her to free him from her mind. He is bothered as he has been in and out of minds so many times in the course of the day. He tells the girl to stop playing her love games on him. He feels that love stumbles around in each other’s darkness. He feels nothingness in his body as all things have vanished with his reflection. As a matter of fact, he has nothing to worry about the future, past and present. For him there is no difference between pessimism and optimism since all time is dark. The scene shifts to darkness in which only his lips can be seen with total silence. He move towards the window and jumps out to his death. The old woman makes her final comments: “Nothing wrong in killing yourself. But after falling five floors right into the middle of the road without so much as a sound, or a blood-stain or a traffic pile-up…What kind of a death is that!” (240). The play ends as the woman closes the window while the door bell rings and stops. She runs to the mirror, stares at it and scream as the door bell keeps ringing. There is total darkness and silence indicative of the loss of her identity.
Elkunchwar has very successfully probed into the absurdities of human predicament and the angst people suffer, which is portrayed through the protagonist’s loss of identity. The play may be compared to Kafka’s Metamorphoses, where Gregor Samsa is transformed into a giant insect as he wakes up one morning. Finally the protagonist wastes away and dies, losing his identity as a human being. Similarly the protagonist in “Reflection” jumps to his death. Through the play, Elkunchwar shows the intricate working of human psyche. It shows the hidden self that we do not see as we often hide from ourselves, leading to negation of the self. When one hides from his/her vital spirits, due to human frailty, life becomes meaningless, leading to loss of identity as a person. The play may be assessed as a superb study in subconscious and the hidden regions of human mind.
Elkunchwar, Mahesh. “Reflection.” Collected Plays. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009, 199-241.
Bandyopadhyay, Samik. “Introduction.” Collected Plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 2009.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. London: Penguin. 1968.
Lal, Ananda. Ed. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Oxford University
Sebastian, AJ et al. Literary Terms in Drama, Theatre and cinema. Delhi: Authorspress: 2002.
“Magical realism.” http://writing2.richmond.edu/jessid/eng216/216terms.html.