Class Antagonism in Manoj Mitra’s Honey from a Broken Hive
Manoj Mitra (1938 -), Bengali actor, director and dramatist emerged as a dramatist of great calibre with popular plays such as Chak Bhanga Modhu, Sajano Bagan, Rajdarshan, Kinu Kaharer Thetar, Alakanandar Putrakanya, Darpane Sharatshashi and Galpo Hekimshaheb. His plays have been remarkable in depicting human alienation and the cruelty of powerful classes (Lal 270-1). Mitra has been very innovative in combining humour and pathos while depicting history, mythology, fantasy, and reality in his plays.
Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) formed in 1943, stressing people’s struggle for freedom, cultural progress and economic justice, had established its unit in Bengal propounding leftist views and ideals (Lal 162-3). In Bengal IPTA came to be Gana Natya which gave freshness to theatre, drawing the attention of the audience with its political message. Theatre became a movement against established order of society involving problems of common man. Theatre established close affinity with contemporary political, social, economic and cultural changes in Bengal. Gana Natya adhered to Marxist ideology and exposition of the class struggle leading to resistance and violence. It is in this context that Mitra’s plays ought to be examined since his style emerges from a distinctive philosophy of being. Many of his plays belong to people’s theatre and not political theatre. From political theatre, he turned towards a theatre of conscience in Chhayar Prashad, Galpo Hekimshaheb and Chak Bhanga Modhu, moving towards alternate frames of resistance and freedom from oppression Chak Bhanga Modhu(1969) depicts the period of Naxal Movement in Bengal, examines the problem of representation (TTOC 1-4).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Naxalite movement was immensely popular. On 2March 1967, a tribal youth named Bimal Kissan from a remote Naxalbari village in West Bengal obtained a judicial order with the right to plough his land. The local landlord attacked him with the help of his goons. The tribals of the area retaliated and started forcefully recapturing their lands. Thus began the Naxal movement into which even brilliant students, dropping out of college, joined in the struggle for the rights of the tribals and landless labourers (“Birth of Naxalism.” http://www.competitionmaster.com).
Mitra’s response to politically motivated violence and killing of landlords is summed up in his plays. He recounts how he created his characters:
Matla and Badami of Honey from a Broken Hive I have seen from very close. I have seen the rags in which they cover themselves… Poverty was their constant friend. They never thought of freedom. Poverty seemed to be a deadly illness that enveloped them like a deep coma. Around the 1970s I read somewhere in the newspapers, ‘Man goes to ojha’s house to take out poison and dies of snakebite.’ It was then that I wrote Honey from a Broken Hive. In Honey from a Broken Hive there was a snake in Matla Ojha’s house as well. But Aghor Ghosh does not die of snakebite. He gives his life to Badami’s machete. In the play, the news changed only that much. The news was a catalyst for writing the play. Had it not been for that piece of news, perhaps I would never have written the play (TTOC 24).
The story surrounds Matla Ojha who is a snake tamer who is able to treat people suffering from snakebites. His power of sorcery helps him to heal and destroy people. The victim brought to him for treatment is his bitter class opponent, Aghor Ghosh, who has taken over his land and property. However, he treats the man for ethical reasons than political vendetta. Mitra also depicts violence in the midst of extreme poverty. The play presents moral choice in the midst of conflict and violence, bringing to focus consciousness that goes beyond the closures of binaries of the regulating norms of the political theatre (4-6).
The play is replete with symbolic language depicting conflict and violence in the community of ojhas of Sunderbans who work with snakes and snake venom. The snake and its poison runs through as a powerful symbol throughout. Poison spreads all over the text of the play. Having mastery over poison controls life and death. Matla Ojha wields such a power over the landlord Aghor, through his magic chants (25).
They lay opens at the tumbledown hut of Matla Ojha where his daughter Badami sleeps in the courtyard to the chirping of wild birds. Matla returns home after a weary day’s labour by the slopes of the ridge. The half- naked, rugged old man has on his head a clay pot.
The conversation between Badami and Matla gives cue to their impoverished life. Badami is upset Matla was out the whole day leaving her all alone. She wants to know if he brought any grain. He tells her not to strain herself, to protect the babe in her womb. She is curious to know what he has brought in the pot. He makes her guess what it could be – Cane gur? Juice of tal? Honey? He tells her he found two huge hives in the forests of Godaho on a high branch, hidden among leaves.
As he speaks of the way bees chased him, old Jata enters, hoping to satisfy his hunger with the honey. When Badami hurriedly opens the lid, she screams and jumps back in fright, finding a baby Cobra instead. Matla consoles her that she wouldn’t die, hailing from the family of ojhas who are snake handlers. He came across the snake when he went in search of food. When he was about to spit, he found the snake coiled around his feet as though it came out of his chest. Badami trembling with fear, accuses him for having brought a snake, telling it to be honey from a broken hive. She hurls herself at Matla and tears his hair with her hands, indicating perhaps her incestuous relationship, in the absence of her husband who left her. Poverty had made him barely able to walk, making him almost crawl on his chest like a snake. Old Jata recounts how Badami’s grandma starved for seventeen days and then jumped into the river to end her life with a godly smile of a faithful wife. On the contrary, Badami utters only poisonous words. Jata suggests to terminate her pregnancy with the assistance of the village woman. It was a shocking news for both Matla and Badami, who show their respect for human life:
MATLA: Uncle! You ask me to kill a human being?
JATA: Yes, yes, I do…
MATLA: (Pounces on Jata). You damned creature, you still move about because I give you a share of my earnings! And you dare- (122).
An enraged Matla drives out old Jata threatening to break his legs for prompting to clean her womb. He consoles Badami that he would never kill the child before birth, and would collect money from moneylenders even by mortgaging the land.
Soon an excited Jata comes to inform that moneylender Aghor Ghosh is on his way to Matla’s home. Presuming it to be a visit to grab all he could holding the red book in his hand. Since Matla owes him a lot of money, he plans to hide in the garden. When Jata reveals that Aghor is dying of snakebite, he is glad he would die and would never return to collect hundred rupees he owes him. He starts dancing with joy at the good news. A Muslim farmer, details how Aghor was bitten by a very poisonous snake while he was resting after the midday meal. He is surprised to see them making merry instead of going with him to the dying man. Good moral sense prevails over Badami who pleads with her father to heal the man.
BADAMI: Won’t you take the poison off him?… Don’t you know, the ojha himself must rush to the ailing as soon as he hears of poisoning Come on…
MATLA: Uncle, what’s this girl to say? The person who’s robbed me of everything… I’ll go, take the poison off him!
BADAMI: What are you saying? The man’s dying!
MATLA: God’s taking him, eh! And I’ll snatch him from His mouth? Won’t that be wrong. Uncle?
JATA: ‘Course it’ll be. Like scratching yourself to make a rash.
BADAMI: Are you human or… If Pa don’t come, you do old man… Do you hear me? Ojhas, all of you… (127).
The sequence is indicative of her moral responsibility to a dying man, which she maintains through out the play.
The party of Aghor comes along with his son Shankar, a young business man. Though Matla is called out several times, he doesn’t respond. Jata gives different excuses saying that the man has gone to market to buy fish and vegetables, to make rice pudding for his daughter. Shankar requests the old Jata to go and heal his father. He declines the offer saying he had forgotten the magic chants. In the meantime, Badami enters with a clay dish in her hands containing some rice. She assures Shankar that he needn’t fear since her father would treat him. She informs that Matla is at home, to the utter surprise of all. Shankar asks her not to fret about the petty troubles of the past. He promises to give them due reward or money for the services.
Badami reminds her father about the big expenses he has to incur as her time to give birth is drawing near. She tells him to save the master to get all the money he needs. She expresses her fears and terrible pain in her body. Matla finally relents to her demands and decides to save the man.
In Act II, Jata, Badami and Matla gather in a corner of the ridge where the palanquin bearers bring Aghor. Jata pours a thin stream of water on Matla’s hands and approach the palanquin. Jata asks for mustard oil and bananas for the ritual to begin. Matla asks for a fishing rod as well, which comes as a surprise to everyone. Jata gets annoyed and tells him to say how far the poison has moved. As the commotion goes on, Shankar enters dismissing the palanquin bearers, arguing with Matla. Badami comes in with a basket full of creepers and hading over to her father assures that a man bitten by snakes can live for seven days. Shankar is confident that the ojha would heal his father in due time. Unable to bear Badami’s powerful gaze, Matla fretfully yells at her to leave as poison would never leave the body when a woman is around. As she obliges and returns to the hut, Matla tells Jata that they could run away with the money they had already extorted for buying various articles for the ritual. Matla intents to tell them to call someone else to remove the poison, knowing full well none could do it. Matla doesn’t want the man to survive, lest he continues harassing them by taking over their land. “I feel I’ve slipped into a larger bugger of a trap myself! Neither can we chant nor can we let others go near him fearing he comes round! The man’s dying but still he won’t spare us!” (154).
Matla suggests to Shankar to take his father away from there if he wishes to save his life. Hearing this, Badami begs her father not to kill the man.
BADAMI: So why kill now?
MATLA: I kill?
BADAMI: Don’t you? His life’s in your hands and you don’t give it to him.
BADAMI: You have no powers!
BADAMI: Yes, yes, it was your pa that brought the medals… but you learnt nothing from him!…O, Pa, stop it! How can he, on whose yard a man dies, claim to be an ojha?
MATLA: Dies! Then behold if I can save him or not!
Being, challenged to be a deserving ojha, Matla rushes to the dying man and runs roots over him. Immediately Badami observes poison going down and darkness and poison leaving him. She is found to be in excruciating pain and experiences something jumping in her body. Matla tells her to sit quiet and lie on his thighs to stop the bugger in her from jumping around. Badami on her part requests her father to keep chanting as the master twitches his mouth with life coming back to him.
When Jata makes his entry, he feels as though he has seen a ghost. He rushes to Matla and strikes his face with roots and creepers. Badami observes poison rise and fall like a dangerous game of dance. Jata pulls out Aghor’s hand and tries to tear off the shining gold medal. Badami chases him with a bamboo to hit on the head calling him a corpse eating vulture. Matla, on his part has become like an immovable stone. However, he begins to move and suddenly runs to get a pot of toddy and drinks till he becomes drunk with laughter and shouts, “This bloody poison’s like a wild cow that enters the garden and destroys everything!” ( (159). As he continues in his drunken state, Shankar questions Badami why they do nothing to heal. She expresses their inability to do anything and tells him to take the master elsewhere. When Shankar questions her further why they are unwilling to heal, she lets out the truth that they have fear of saving the master. Shankar, being aware of the truth of the matter, agrees with her:
SHANKAR: That’s right! How can they? Bloodsucking vampire of a moneylender…
BADAMI: Master! Master!, I don’t know what made you say that… but none of it’s untrue! That one man alone has destroyed this entire village… You’re so good…even your own pa you…
SHANRKAR: Why my pa? I don’t fear even his pa when it comes to speaking the truth. We’re shop keepers…We deal with folks like you. Don’t we understand your pains? Just the other day Harish from Balarampur had come… (163).
The moment her husband Harish’s name is uttered, she gets excited to know his whereabouts. Shankar gives details of how he thinks about her and the child to be born. He borrowed some money from Shankar and bought a pair of silver bangles for the baby. He is growing crops and would take her and the baby after harvesting. Badami is moved with emotion hearing the good news. Shankar asks her to attempt trying the chants and the ritual, to bring Aghor to life and then reveal the truth of all the injustice he has committed.
SHANKAR: …Once he’s dead, it’ll be over. What’s to Aghor Ghosh? He’ll be set free by death and never know the harm he’s done the lot of you. So much harm he’s brought on you…won’t you tell him? Save him… make him stand up… then tell him, ‘Master, look, I could have let you die… but I gave you back your life!’ Now, won’t that be revenge?… He’ll bow before you…he’ll die knowing it was the snakebite that killed him… Poverty made Harish leave you. I’ll make Aghor Ghosh take care of your poverty…You save Aghor Ghosh. I’ll see to it that Harish, you and the baby are able to live. And live well! (164-5).
With hope in her eyes, she picks up the roots to make the chants. Matla makes his entry and warns that if she touches Aghor the poison will go to her womb and make the child become like the poisoned man. She tells him not to scold her for doing a good work, but pleads with him to save him: “Pa, aren’t you an ojha! Such is the magic of your hands. If you cast your spell twice, the poison goes down in a jiffy… Sometimes, I want to drink poison and give myself to your chants and spells… in the hands of a gunin like you” (166). Her affirmation of his power as a medicine man possessing magical powers, sets Matla to make arrangements for reciting the chants. He thrusts his hands inside and runs them swiftly over Aghor’s body, chasing the venom out with his slaps. By and by Aghor’s arms, legs and head begins to move. Aghor begins to crawl like an animal. Matla takes the creeper and shakes at Aghor’s feet. He cries out in joy and grief and throws himself before the palanquin. He has marks all over his body as he writhes in intense heat. Matla refuses to give any water. He directs Badam to get fire on him. Aghor is laid on a bamboo platform under which fire is kept. Dakkhayani, his whore, assists Aghor to open his mouth to swallow heat. Dakkhayani reminds him how she had warned him, “A thousand times’ve told you, be careful. Is there a dearth of enemies? How you make a mess of anything I don’t attend to… Eat, live and live in peace… How many times I’ve told you, don’t sleep in the courtyard. Five hundred-so-many sacks piled there. Who knows what creatures lurk… no, he must sleep there and hold guard. Why? Don’t we guard them? No, he won’t listen. He’ll do exactly what we tell him not to” (169). She feels so broken that he has reached such a stage.
Matla comes forward asking Aghor how he feels after he had been pulled out from the jaws of a tiger. He tells him that he has nothing to fear of Ma Manasha (one eyed goddess of snakes) as long as he wears the string on his neck. He also tells him that while reciting the chants he had done away with his own poison.
OLD DULI-BEARER: Your poison!
MATLA: Yes, yes. Mine! Listen to me. Hatred for you had poisoned my heart…How often I’ve thought ‘Let me lay hands on him just once.’ You’ve taken our land, mortgaged our homestead, made us toil for free… Master, you even killed my old pig and sold its meat when I couldn’t pay…And yet your debts remained unpaid. Stamping over the heart of this village, you’ve sucked its blood. Caught us tight in the net of fresh debts day after day… Now that you’ve gotten your own life back, d’ you know that we too have a life!… mine own poison went down with yours! A new life for you… a new life for me too… (170).
When Aghor gets back to his senses, he begins to question why he had not been attended to when writhing in pain for so long. He is all the more annoyed as to why he had been carried there instead of the ojha treating him in his own home. When he sees Matla, Aghor demands his interest.
AGHOR: Pay my interest!
AGHOR: Give back my taka! Tried to kill me, cheat me…
DAKKA & SHANKAR: Right!
AGHOR: Kill me! Devil! Give me my taka!
MATLA: What do you want, Master? Interest?
SHANKAR: (takes his shoe in his hand and starts roaring) Pleading at the feet of these
swines was all that was left for me to do…
AGHOR: (in drunken swoon) Not give me? No? I’ll take your all… You thought I was dead! All had
When Badami enters, gritting his teeth, Aghor approaches her with sexual demands. Dakkhayani warns him the woman is pregnant. As he goes to the palanquin, he tells Dakkhayani to get the woman to his house to live with him. She tells Badami to oblige the master who lives lonely without a wife. She would always have food, clothing and shoal fish, in return. Besides, people would forget whether she is Brahmin or lowborn within a couple of days. Matla begs not to take his daughter away and pleads his helplessness in front of all. Badami decides to go with the master saying that she is moving to her in-law’s. When Matla reacts sternly she retorts that she won’t be beaten and abused by him anymore.
Aghor taunts and derides Matla for having plotted to kill him. When he reaches the ridge, he notices Dakkhayani squatting there. He chases her with a stick as she had tries to grab his wealth by keeping his keys. When she flees in despair, Badami steps out with a pot of honey. When Matla remonstrates in terror, he is grabbed by the palanquin bearers who stuff cloth into his mouth to silence him. Badami tells Aghor since he can’t drink water, she has the pot of honey from two large hives on the gab tree in the forests of Godaho. When he longs to drink the honey from her hands she says, “If Pa could give you life, why can’t I give you honey? Drink some and cool yourself” (176). When Matla tries to snatch the pot away, Aghor pounces on it and pulls it on to his lap. When he opens the lid of the pot to look inside, Badami clutches her father’s hand and jumps in joy, presuming the snake to rise to fang Aghor to death. Matla reveals that he had killed the snake earlier. Snatching the pot in great anguish, Badami smashes it on the floor. Laughing and crying like a mad woman, she drags the snake as if she were disembowelling herself. After lashing the snake on the ground a few times, she runs to pick up the tortoise-killing machete and rushes to Aghor. Unable to make his escape, being surrounded by the villagers, Badami swings at him and tears his chest with her own hands. Drums of gajon (festival of Shiva) could be heard as Matla holds her to his chest, ending the drama.
It is in her helplessness that Badami strikes the man dead, when he demands her, a pregnant woman to be his whore, in compensation for money due to him. Matla on his part proves his moral sense to revive the wicked Aghor, in spite of impoverishing him and the villagers.
Comparisons can be made between the unconscious snakebite the wicked Aghor suffers, rendering him a swollen monster and Badami’s pregnant body, ripe with child (26). As the poison is being removed from the dying man, Badami groans in agony with the child in her moving ferociously. The sequence shows the contrast of the two characters. Aghor continues to be evil through and through, while Badami maintains her moral obligation to save his life.
The dilemma in the play is whether to save the snake-bitten Aghor or let him die who is a social menace. The play powerfully portrays class antagonism (26). Snake and pot of honey are symbolic of eroticism leading to death. Poison in Bengali language signifies seduction (27). When the poison is being removed by Matla, Badami feels proud of her father and wants to drink poison and hand herself into his chants and spells.
The play belongs to Theatre of conscience which draws attention to judge between ‘Where lies violence?’ and ‘What is justice?’ unlike in the political theatre where it is violence that decides justice as per ideologies. However, Mitra’s theatre of conscience doesn’t get trapped in ideological positions (8). At the end after killing the wicked Aghor, Badami establishes the value of life (27).
The play could also be viewed from the standpoint of Ethical Criticism which analyses the potential moral effects of stories on a reader and to assess how such effects occur. Most fiction represent real life, and real life inevitably requires moral judgements and standards. Current Postmodern theory cannot avoid the “ethical” merely renaming it “political” or “rhetorical.” Ethical criticism helps readers see, understand and appreciate the powerful ways in which fictions invite them into specific ways of feeling, thinking, and judging, a process that ultimately exerts a powerful influence on readers’ hearts and minds (Gregory 37). Though Mitra presents through the play social antagonism in the backdrop of the misery of landless poor leading to Naxal movement, he, draws attention to moral and the immoral in the lives of people. Even the impoverished village people depicted in the play such as Badami and Matla, show their exceptional moral calibre. However, “good life requires a favourable social context… Socially desirable human behaviour is not genetically programmed or instinctive. Socially desirable behaviour must be socially encouraged. Society must set and enforce moral rules, just as it must set and enforce rules” (Olson 143). Though the play brings class antagonism to the fore, it establishes social and moral obligations typical of the theatre of conscience.
“Birth of Naxalism.” http://www.competitionmaster.com/ArticleDetail.aspx?
Gregory, Marshall. “Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Ethics, Literature, Theory. Ed. Stephen K. George. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
Lal, Ananda. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Mitra, Manoj. “Honey from a Broken Hive.” The Theatre of Conscience. Calcutta: Seagull Books,
2007, 115-178. (Abbreviated TTOC).
Olson, Robert G. Ethics: A Short Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1978.