Monday, March 18, 2013

Reflections on Mahesh Dattani's Tara

Mahesh Dattani’s is one of India’s foremost playwrights – someone who takes keen interest in wading through the tempestuous waters which our society finds itself struggling with, by adhering to ideas, notions and practices which scarce are servants to reason or logic. Dattani sees in society what others conveniently ignore. He calls them the ‘invisible issues’ of our society, permeating our culture, affecting our daily existence; yet, people somehow collude to maintain a tacit, steadfast silence on them. It is once in a while, that a voice like that of Dattani is heard, who in his own, carries the voice of many other voiceless characters nature has given birth to and society has destroyed. “Giving Voice To The Voiceless” is the title of one of the works referred while writing this paper, and how apt does it sound in terms of describing Dattani and the essence of his works.

Tara, earlier published as Twinkle Tara, is one of Dattani’s plays, which deals with notions and conditions of gender. In a poignant story of two Siamese twins, this play unearths the many dishonourable tendencies which exist in the underbelly of our society even today when we have come around to fooling ourselves into believing that we celebrate womanhood. Tara also does well to depict the dynamics of a family which is dealing with a situation society does not define a precept for. It is a unique situation – bringing up twins, who were conjoined at birth, separated after a surgery and who now live with one artificial limb each and extremely fragile health conditions. With ease, yet with force, Dattani depicts the bizarre, but universally accepted philosophy of women playing second fiddle to men. Woven into the narrative of the play are issues of class, of conflict between the modern and traditional lifestyle, of the inexpressiveness of filial love, and the clash between new and old value systems.

In an interview with Lakshmi Subramaniam, Dattani had himself made a statement – “I see Tara as a play about male self and female self, and the male self being preferred in all cultures. The play is about the separation of self and the resultant angst.” In these lines of Dattani, it becomes amply clear, that this play is being enacted as a microcosm of the practices and psyche of the society. History has been witness to a cruel and inherent bias against its female members since ages. Societies have come and gone, but the politics of gender have never been completely erased from its face. Invariably, it is the society which assumes a deterministic role over the life (and body, as we will discuss in later paragraphs) of a girl, which ordains tenets for their existence. This ‘society’ is usually a male set-up; if not that, it is heavily patriarchal or patrilineal in character. 

Discrimination against women is not limited to India. However, when it comes to conducting an academic inquiry into prejudices which females suffer merely by the virtue of their biological characteristics, India is a land rich and vibrant with stories and practices and rituals which can put one’s beliefs in right and wrong to shame. In Tara, in which the family is constructed as a credible, average Indian household, grappling with a unique problem, the bias against Tara, vis-à-vis her twin, Chandan, is clearly visible, without the need for any ornate dialogues or visuals. This bias is present in the way Tara is treated by her father, in the way Chandan is expected to conform to certain roles and abstain from certain activities, in a repentant mother’s lament for the future of her daughter, and more than anything, this bias is present in the story of Tara’s birth. This bias, perhaps, is also visible in the telling of this story, which will be understood once the process of Tara and Chandan’s separation and the gender politics there-in is understood.

As mentioned earlier, Tara and Chandan are conjoined twins. Birth of conjoined twins is an extremely rare phenomenon, and in most cases where they are surgically separated, only one of the two survives. Chandan and Tara, however, carry with them the promise of living as two separate individuals. They have perfect chances of surviving after surgery, with each important organ present in each body. There is, however, one issue. The boy and the girl, together, have three lower limbs, and chances of the limb surviving on the girl are more, as stated by Dr. Thakkar, also present in a significant role in the play. In a cruel judgement, the mother of the twins, Bharati, with the help of her father, convinces Dr. Thakkar to graft the leg onto Chandan’s body, where it does not survive for long! Thus, there seems to be something destiny ridden in the way both twins are again made equal – they both now boast of one Jaipur foot each. What is interesting to note here is the application of gendered role of a girl. Since time immemorial, female body is seen as a means for comforting, rejuvenating and even entertaining the male body. Going a step further, it would not be wrong to assert that female body is also seen as an instrument for alleviating male deficiencies and deformities. The body of a girl has often been seen akin to a territory, with many claims to it, which passes on from hand to hand, which has human (man) making decisions for it. Poor Tara, even before being given a chance at a full life, is deprived of it, because the classic male-child-preference psyche operates here, in this case. There is a certain cold ease with which the mother (microcosmic representation of the society), strips the girl of the right to live as an able bodied, complete woman and seizes from the girl which is biologically, and hence naturally hers.

The author - Mahesh Dattani
A carefully placed conversation in the text of Tara is about one of the most hideous cultural practices of that India which considers its daughters as curses. In a scene between Tara, Chandan, their next-door-neighbour and extremely garrulous Roopa and Bharati, a practice of drowning infant daughters in milk is mentioned in a rather subtle and casual way. Though the deed of choking daughters on a nourishing white fluid is ironic and hideous, the essence of that scene is not in creating awareness among the audience that such practices in India exist (In Gujarati community specially, as per the play). The catch in that scene is in the attempt of Bharati to stop Roopa from revealing to her twins this practice. Why does she do that? May be, an acute undercurrent of guilt operates in her system. May be, she equates, in her mind, the act of killing an infant with what she did to Tara, by depriving her a chance at a full and healthy life. 

More intriguing is the character of Mr. Patel, Bharati’s husband, who had no role to play in Tara’s deprived existence, but who sure is the reflection of a quintessential male-head of the family in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is a social system in which the male acts as the primary authority figure central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It is also a system in which division of labour is clear and roles expected from gendered selves pre-ordained. There are not any premeditated, conspiratorial acts conducted against the woman; patriarchy is more of a way of living. As evident in the play, Tara is dearly loved by her father, but Patel has lofty expectations from his son. He scolds his wife for making a sissy out of him when he observes him helping in some domestic chores. He insists on taking Chandan to his office in the face of his absent interest, and doesn’t take the suggestion of replacing him with Tara in the office trip too kindly.What their daughter is worthy of is some human consideration and compassion, but nothing beyond. This ethos is articulated in a powerful dialogue by Bharati addressed to Chandan – “It’s all very cute and comfortable when she makes witty remarks. But let her grow up. Yes, Chandan, the world will tolerate you. The world will accept you – but not her!”

Bharati does try to reduce her burden of guilt by showering enormous maternal affection on Tara. She, realizing her sin, leads a stigmatized motherhood, consequently suffering nervous breakdown and metamorphosis. She cultivates disproportionate compassion for Tara in an effort to seek salvation and exonerate herself by donating a kidney to her daughter, but not before Dattani makes it amply clear that the affection of mother-daughter relationship is subordinated and subjugated to the demands of a patriarchal society. Therein lies the tragedy of the narrative. Patel, her husband, is not in favour of Bharati donating her kidney. In fact, he goes ahead and finds a commercial donor. When confronted by Bharati, Patel replied rather sternly, without any cushion, that he does not want Bharati to donate her kidney “because I do not want you to have the satisfaction of doing it.” This one sentence is ponderable, and has disturbing socio-cultural interpretations. Bharati is still insistent, and even succeeds in her desire of giving Tara a part of herself, but she, her husband and the society fail miserably in letting Tara live. As mentioned in one of the essays on this play, Tara eventually wastes away and dies.

One of the saving graces of Tara’s life is perhaps the kind of special relation she shares with Chandan. Chandan refuses to join college unless Tara does. He recognizes his sister’s interests and personality and accepts that she might be a stronger person than him (“I’m sorry if I don’t have your strength!”). He calms her in her moments of distress and understands her more than is in the capacity of anyone in the world. A dialogue which surmises Chandan’s love for Tara most aptly is, “No difference between you and me? That’s the nicest thing you have said to me.” In Chandan’s words we witness a lament of everything that cannot be. The relation between him and his sister is special, but is ridden with emotional tribulations of the harshest kind. Metaphor and perhaps prophecy for the separation of these two souls, so much in communion with each other, is visited at the very beginning of their existence. Two operation tables being put together and then pushed apart – two loving souls brought close and then violently separated, never to come back together again. The image of separation at the operation table translates into jarring emotional parting between them, the effect of which is so profound on Chandan, that he escapes his identity, becomes Dan and sets out to narrate Tara’s story, essentially trying to find a completion to his own. The place where Chandan (or Dan) falters is when he becomes the agent of perpetuating the wrong done to Tara in her life. Chandan had always been interested in writing, and when he sets down to write Tara’s story, he writes it as his own tragedy. He apologises to Tara for doing this – “Forgive me Tara. Forgive me for making it my tragedy.”

Dattani’s play, as would be evident by now, has an overwhelming relevance to contemporary realities. It is important to ask in this context, how appropriate is it to use the medium of theatre to send across messages which are strong and which need to be sent across. The function of the drama is not merely being to ‘reflect the malfunction of the society but to act like freak mirrors in a carnival and to project grotesque images of all that passes for normal in our world’ (‘Gender Discrimination and Social Consciousnes Tara by Mahesh Dattani’, Khobragade Grishma Manikrao). “There is inseparable relation between the play and the audience. Every setting, action and characterization in the drama is performed keeping in mind the audience and viewers of the play as every act has to be played live and in as it is manner.” – Writes Vivekananda Jha is his paper on Tara, titled ‘Discrimination of Class and Gender: Mahesh Dattani’s Tara. Jha also adds words of appreciation for Dattani by stating “As a playwright, Dattani has peerless power to transform his script into living and natural performance.” Tara is specifically relevant in our times of burgeoning foeticide, infanticide and increasingly adverse sex ratio. When a sentiment is enacted on stage, there lies more to it that mere words. Non verbal communication plays a great role in conveying to the audience what readers might never be able to read in between the lines. In an interview about Tara, Dattani clearly mentions that evoking sympathy about Tara’s character was not the single-fold focus of undertaking this writing exercise. It was also to shed light on the feminine side of males, which when expressed, is met with disdain and disappointment. 

When asked what gave him the idea for writing Tara, Dattani mentioned it was a medical journal elucidating on Siamese twins and goes onto add , “It was the inspiration but I think by then having written Dance Like a Man, I was prepared to take on the gender issue head on, and I think that was a powerful metaphor. Again, you know, the play is misread and, you know, people tend to focus on the medical details but that’s really not what the play is about. It’s a metaphor either for being born equal as male and female and sharing so much more and with the surgical separation comes a cultural distinction and prejudices as well, but on another level, it could also deal with the individual having the male and female self and half the female self is, whether your gender is male or female, is definitely given the lower priority.” In this journey which Dattani undertakes to shed light on the way gender is perceived and constructed in our cultural milieu, he more than succeeds at touching the hearts of his audience (as well as his readers). He gives Tara an identity, which is strong enough to become a metaphor for the various wrongs perpetuated on women kind in our society, whether in infancy or adulthood. Or even in after life.
·         Mee, Erin, Collected Plays by Mahesh Dattani, Penguin
·        Jha, Vivekananda, Discrimination of Class and Gender: Mahesh Dattani’s Tara
·         Mukherjee, Tutun, ‘I do not write merely to be read’ – An Interview with Mahesh Dattani, The Hindu
·         Acharya, Pankaj, The Socio-Psychological Aspects of Discrimination in Mahesh Dattani’s Tara, International Research Journal
·         Manikrao, Grishma Khobragade, Gender Discrimination and Social Consciousness In The Plays of Mahesh Dattani: Tara

(This essay is an abridged version of the paper I wrote as a part of the optional course, titled 'Indian Writing in English', during semester I of Masters in English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia)

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