Social Degradation in Asif Currimbhoy’s The Dissident M.L.A: Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Currimbhoy explores universal human predicament through his social, moral, religious and political concerns in his plays. He is a voice of universal revolt and anguish. And it is compassion that unifies his plays (Currimbhoy 1993a:ix). Sensing conflicts everywhere he says, ‘…conflict in theatre, conflict at every level – physical, mental, emotional – because from the time really you meet with other people, what is called human relationships’ (Rajinder, Jacob. December1970).
All his issues, though local in colour, are of universal appeal, drawing attention to problems of man everywhere such as denial of human rights, justice and freedom. This is evident from the appreciation he has received from theatres across the world, where the plays have been successfully staged. The conflicts presented are internal as well as external in nature, rendering them superb psychological studies.
Based on the political events that took place in Gujarat in 1974, The Dissident M.L.A. centres on the evil designs of Manubhai to topple the Government. The play depicts various incidents such as students’ protest against raise in mess bill at the Engineering college hostel, tough examinations, corrupt Government etc. The agitating students gherao the Vice Chancellor and publicly humiliate the Home Minister, shaving his head, blackening his face and parading him riding on a donkey. The events finally lead to dissolution of the Gujarat Assembly. The play is a social criticism in which the playwright satirises politicians who are corrupt and greedy
After Chimanbhai Patel became the chief minister of Gujarat in 1973, he drew protest from students and teachers over rampant corruption prevalent in the state. By and by, student protests grew due to high mess bills and poor quality of food in hostels, sparking off agitation in Ahmedabad in December 1973. The clashes between the police and students led to the formation of a students’ committee known as the Nav Nirman Yuvak Samiti. To voice their grievances, an indefinite strike was called from 7 January 1974 in schools and colleges. They demanded reduction in educational fees, more campus facilities, distribution of quality food and arrest of black marketeers. It inspired Jayaprakash Narayan to launch the “total revolution” movement, the outcome of which was the Emergency and not a resurgence of public morality. Widespread riots in January led to imposition of curfew in 44 towns rocking the whole state. Dissident leaders of the ruling party also openly supported the agitation which demanded the resignation of Patel. Indira Gandhi was forced to ask Patel to step down on February 9. By March, students had got 95 of 167 MLAs to resign. Morarji Desai, leader of Congress (O), went on an indefinite fast in support of the demand. On March 16, the assembly was dissolved and President’s rule imposed. In the beginning, Nav Nirman, was a buzz word for students and their mentors. But their value system was no different from the politicians they were combating and the agitation had no effect on arresting corruption. Patel became chief minister again with BJP support in 1990. Eventually, Nav Nirman provided ground for reactionary forces to flourish (“Nav Nirman”http://indiatoday.intoday.in).
The illustration below shows how Manubhai takes the central stage with all others as his satellites, to bring to fulfilment his political ambition. Even the donkey is given a position as a character, which is symbolic of the unintelligent life he lives.
The play opens with Manubhai restlessly pacing up and down in his living room awaiting the arrival of his only son Ramesh. He is a dissident M.L.A. in his mid-forties, who has gulped down several times from the half-empty bottle of Scotch, to spend the tension filled night. He keeps grumbling and cursing his son who has not arrived. Meanwhile voice of his wife could be heard uttering evil of her husband: “That useless father of yours, Ramesh…Grow up and disgrace him…He’ll try to shine through you, my noble, beautiful boy. But… you…down! He sucked the life out of me. Don’t let him escape!” (DMLA 9). Manu expresses his disgust for her wanting his son never to listen to her, a frustrated, brainless woman. Her taunting voice can be heard, deriding her husband who she predicts will be wrecked in his political career. Manu, ignoring her wretched nature, writhes in frustration, longing for his son’s return. Soon he could hear Ramesh call him out from the dark, refusing to come to light if his father doesn’t agree to his demands.
Ramesh doesn’t want his father take advantage of him with his tricks for his political gains. Manu assumes that his son has come to consult him on their strategy to continue with the student agitation. Ramesh counts the various reasons for the student unrest such as raise in the mess fees of L.P. Engineering College and the rampant corruption in the examination system. Manu is also told that since he is the dissident M.L.A. that the students need his direction as he is well versed in his old tricks in the trade. He, on his part, also advises Ramesh to go for the big ones in the system like the Dean, the Principal and the V.C. He instigates: “…Try a gherao. A simple gherao. One of those innoculous non-violent ones. I’ll guide you. Listen to my whispers. Follow what I say” (13).
The scene shifts to gheraoing the V.C. by the students as Manu continues to direct them from behind the scene, telling them in whispers what they ought to do. He prompts them to break V.C’s will and shame him until he wets his pants in sheer shock. Manu as a dissident M.L.A. is shown how he masterminds to bring about political instability in the state, with the agitating students, through his son.
When he returns home, heaving with unspent passion, Manubhai, goes straight to his astrologer to force out a lucky forecast of his political future. He is advised to control his passion for food, wine and women. But a reckless Manu has set his mind on his planned insurrection in the Legislative Assembly the following day.
Scene 4 brings to focus proceedings in the Legislative Assembly, where the Speaker is unable to control a rude and agitated assembly. Manubhai imposingly speaks out with suddenly screaming profanities, “This Government needs to be pulled down, and this Assembly dissolved. NONE OF YOU WOULD GET RE-ELECTED AND YOU KNOW IT!” (18). In his anger, he throws his chappals at them causing a general pandemonium.
As Manubhat returns home, the episode exposes his sexually perverse life, having an affair with Sona, the servant girl, rescued from the Rescue Home where she used to be molested by the Minister for Social Welfare. The condition of Rescue Homes for women is portrayed ironically by the dramatist as centres of sexual exploitation by politicians in the name of social work, though set up with social concern by Gandhians like Kantibhai.
In act 2, donning his Gandhian outfit, Manu visits his political mentor, Kantibhai. He appraises him of the way the agitating students and the women, continue to spearhead, with devotion and self-sacrifice, like the Salt March by the Mahatma. Kantibhai hails it as done with moral courage in national interest. Manubhai sympathises with his mentor, being shabbily treated, though he was a force in the old party. He points out how moral courage has slackened, generating strikes, gheraos and morchas instead of nation building, which was the prime motive of freedom fighters like him. He terms violence generated by the students merely by a bunch of hooligans. When he questions Manu about the recent happenings in the legislative assembly, he fumbles for a suitable reply. Kantibhai reminds him of the need for moral rectitude and Brahmacharya to generate moral fibre in society. Manu tries to wind up his courtesy call, flattering Kantibhai, who led selfless non-cooperation movement through fasting and peaceful ways.
Returning home, Manubhai gulps down scotch to drown his shame, exposed by Kantibhai. He turns grumpy and curses the old man for his moral fibre when the Government has been corrupt to the core. Meanwhile, Sonal comes in to clean the floor, making sexual signals to him. Putting off the candle, he tiptoes towards her and indulges in sex. Hearing the braying of the donkey and the presence of his wife around, he abruptly stops it, telling her to be off. Moments later Shanti approaches him with a peg of whisky and tries to make love to him. He desists her passionate approach wanting to have sex with him. He makes excuses saying that Kantibhai had advised abstinence.
Following morning, as Manubhai wearily drinks a glass of milk, Ramesh comes in with a group of students, wanting to have a private meeting to discuss their further strategies. They plan to begin their clean movement called Nav Nirman Samiti with “no interference, no trade unions, no opposition parties, no money-businessmen” (33). They assess their success in gheraoing the V.C and making the Minister ride on a mule.
Manubhai keeps exhorting the students to continue the agitation with a little more organised action and a tinge of violence to make it effective. He wants a total bandh to paralize the state aiming to bring down the Government and the Chief Minister.
The episode moves to the pandemonium created by the students crying in the streets with Manubhai yelling, “…Burn the fair price shops!… Catch the food-grain sellers…Beat up the black marketeers. The only language they understand is fear!… Hijack those buses! Bring the trains to a halt! Burn those milkbooths down!” (34). Being provoked, the students go about burning and looting in the streets. When things go out of hand, some students begin to question the movement. “What are we doing? Have we ever stopped to question ourselves? Or are we just getting caught in a madness” (35). But Manubhai keeps inspiring the students not to lose sight of their main objective of getting the downfall of the corrupt body. When Ramesh tells his father that things are getting out of control, blaming him for using the students for his selfish mad motives, Manubhai merely blames them for asking for his help. He continues to justify his stand: “We are not offenders. We’re creating new laws in a free society by breaking old ones. Killing? We’ve had nothing to do with it. They’ve killed one of mine… We won’t take it lying down. We’ll kill too. Rally around!…Attack every Government building! Burn every Police Station! Burn! Loot! Kill!” (38).
The sequence shifts to meeting of the Congress High Command that condemns Manubhai being guilty of indiscipline and anti-party activities. He pleads not guilty being a committed party worker. When he questions corruption and price rise and political rivalry, he is dismissed from the party. Next sequence leads Manubhai in the house of Kantibhai, seeking sympathy for having encouraged the use of violence as a means to an end. Kantibhai tells him of God’s conscience besides man’s conscience: “And God’s conscience is greater: it forms the basis of Natural Law. Man’s law may be broken, but not the Natural Law” (39).
The scene ends as Ramesh returns home to inform his father that the Ministry has resigned and the C.M. has stepped down. But his father is not satisfied with the news, as he wants the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly.
Act 3 introduces the scene at the Legislative Assembly where the Governor reads in the house the Presidential Order. Manubhai misbehaves in the Assembly and objects to the suspended animation of the Assembly. He demands dissolution of the house. As the Governor disregards the demand, all the opposition M.L.A.s walk out making it appear like a voluntary dissolution, though the Congress High Command had warned party M.L.As not to leave.
The students, on their part, take full credit for their movement without the politicians, trade unionists and mill owners’ involvement with their vested interests. Their heated discussions wind up with an introspection by Ramesh: “ Comrades, we’ve revolted against corruption… And it seemed to us corruption came only with politicians and business men, hoarders and blackmarketeers… Well, there’s another kind of corruption coming in too. The corrupt, unethical, power-hungry student. And what are you doing to stop that?” (45).
Scene three further depicts Manubhai’s attempt at gathering more and more M.L.As to resign from the Assembly. He tells his wife how he has got 45 out of 108 members tender their resignation. He keeps on calling several M.L.A.s on telephone to get their resignation. Finding resistance from some, he becomes more abusive on phone. Meanwhile Shanti tells him about Kantibhai’s announcement of his fast unto death until the Assembly is dissolved. Hearing the news, Manubhai becomes very crazy and starts laughing hysterically. Finding him going mad, Shanti slaps him to bring sanity. The comical section brings to focus how political ambitions can lead to such mad behaviour in people. Manubhai keeps grumbling about his mentor Kantibhai who has gone crazy, “Can’t believe it! That descrepit old moralist going on fast unto death! Who does he think he is? Gandhi? What times does he think he’s living in? Gandhian? The old fool! They will let him die…He’s a spent force” (47). Immediately, he goes to meet Kantibhai to stop him from his fast unto death as it would be only seen as his taking revenge for having been thrown out of the Government.
The scene shifts to Manubhai snoring on the couch, humorously presenting him shouting, while apparently asleep: “You let that old man die and I’ll see to it that you all fry in Delhi!” (50). Sonal walks in with her bundle planning to go back to Kantibhai, to look after him in his old age. Since his wife died she wanted to be with him to give some comfort in his loneliness as if to pay back her debt to him for having put her in the Rescue Home. Manubhai lusted to have her for a last time to satisfy his lust. When she refuses the M.L.A. sighs uttering , “I guess all good things come to an end. Good bye, love. Look after the old goat… the old man. If there’s any trouble, call me” (52). Ironically, the sequence presents how corrupt both the men prove themselves to be, exploiting women in their own subtle ways in the name of humanitarian service.
In scene 7 Ramesh finds his father fully intoxicated, lying in his smoky room. He announces the happy news that the Assembly has been dissolved. But Kantibhai had not called off his fast in protest against Manubhai’s call to protest in the streets. An argument ensues between the two in which important issues are analysed:
MANU: True. I made you follow my will.
MANU: (frowning, searching within himself) I don’t know. Maybe it was to liberate myself. To make you do all the things I failed to do myself in life.
RAMESH (angrily) But what about me! My own feelings! Or didn’t that matter?
MANU: It was my love…
RAMESH: It wasn’t your love. It was your ego.
MANU: I’m sorry. I couldn’t differentiate.
RAMESH: But I’m sure you thought it made a man out of me.
RAMESH: Wrong again. I like to make my own timings, my own mistakes, to maturity. Not someone else’s.
MANU: Where was the mistake? We… you and I… rooted out corruption.
RAMESH: Did we? You know what that wise old fox told me? He said there’d be a new election, and new corrupt M.L.A.’s would come in instead of the old corrupt ones… It means we’ve gone through all this for nothing. We’ll have the same old corrupt Government as long as people live (54-5).
Manubhai laughs hysterically and goes off to the telephone to make appointment with Kantibhai to make him break his fast.
The play ends with Manubhai meeting his Astrologer to find out where his son is. He tells him of the destiny of man, “…we’re both equally fallible. There really are no Absolutes in life…If I could be certain of it…Then I could believe that Man makes his own God” (55-6). As the Astrologer leaves, Manubhai lies on his couch and wearily closes his eyes. After a long pause he could be heard whispering with a quiver, “Ramesh. Oh how I pray God you return. I’ve never been so afraid in all my life” (56). The ghost of Ramesh appears, but he doesn’t believe it to be his son. As he weeps in despair, the ghost leads him to the window to look out to the horizon to see his Ramesh “walking down the road” (56). Bursting out in grief he cries out “Ramesh! Ramesh! Yes, I see you there! Oh God, I’ve seen him! I’m certain now! And he’s coming home!” (56).
Juxtapositioning the opening scene with the final sequence bring to light how social and familial disintegration takes place due to political manoeuvring, corruption and immorality. The opening scene depicting the restlessness of Manubhai, drinking and cursing his wife, expecting his son betray his political conniving. Ramesh refuses to come out of the dark if his father does not yield to his demands. Finally when the play ends, after having had all his plans executed through his son, Ramesh condemns him for his selfish motives. In the final sequence, Manubhai is a desperate man, haunted by the realization that he has lost his own son. Through satire and comedy, the dramatist draws attention to various factors that bring about disintegration of society through ambition, cunning and sexual pervasion.
The play focuses on the various issues that are a menace to social fabric, such as political corruption, student unrest and sexual perversion. In the final analysis, corruption continues in spite of change of guard in administration. Through the play Currimbhoy points out how idealistic youth are led astray by unscrupulous and corrupt politicians who channelise their youthful energy to create a sense of panic. He has also included violence and sex so rampant in our society, adding zest to the story.
Critics have pointed out certain incongruities in his work and art. Thought most of his plays have a strong ‘documentary’ element about them, he has not tried to understand and project in dramatic terms the ideological implications of the political conflicts dealt within. The dramatist seems to stress the thrill of the exciting events rather than the thought processes, thereby resulting in sheer reportage (Naik 258-60).
A perceptive critic will also find it extremely difficult to separate his didacticism from his dramatic art. His dramatic techniques are meant “to provide visual images to stimulate the minds, the ears, and the eyes of his audience” (Meserve 15). The play, through its comical and satirical device exposes avarice and corruption among politicians as well as the apparent idealism of students.
The play is an excellent study in human behaviour through dramatic devices such as the use of occasional dual scenes. It may be remarked that the playwright has very realistically presented a historical event with irony, satire and social criticism. Currimbhoy depicts social evils and chaos letting his audience/readers to find the right answers themselves, calling for introspection. At the same time one gets the impression that the playwright is personally involved in the plays and uses the stage to present societal issues with the intention of social transformation. However the playwright does not like to be labelled a propagandist as he claims to let his audience make their conclusions from his presentation of facts (Currimbhoy 1976 :41).
Currimbhoy, Asif. The Dissident M.L.A. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1974. (Abbreviated: DMLA).
—– Inquilab. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1993a.
Meserve, Ruth & Walter Meserve. “Foreword.” The Hungry Ones. Calcutta: Writers
Naik, M.K. A History of Indian English Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1982.
Rajinder, Paul & Jacob Paul. 1970. Enact. Interview with Currimbhoy. December.