Social Degradation in Asif Currimbhoy’s “The Dissident M.L.A” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

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.

RAMESH: Why?

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.

MANU” Yes.

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).

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Works Cited:
 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

Workshop,  1992.

Naik, M.K. A History of Indian English Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1982.

“NavNirman”http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/2727/COVER%20STORY/Pulse+of+the+people.

Rajinder, Paul &  Jacob Paul. 1970. Enact. Interview with Currimbhoy. December.