The Quest for Satiation- A reading of Mohan Rakesh’s Halfway House

Halfway house is a play written by Mohan Rakesh, published in the year 1969. The play seems to give a scathing critique of the unsatisfactory and incomplete nature of bourgeois existence. The play also shows the influence of modern theatrical and philosophical traditions especially of Theatre of Absurd (Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett etc.) and Theatre of Ideas (Sartre, Camus and Shaw etc.). During this period, in India all were touched by this wave. Plays were making serious enquiries about oneself and existentialism.

All the characters in this play are shown to be incomplete and in fragments of their own predicaments but women are more incomplete than men. The play foregrounds the corrosiveness of a disintegrated family through their characters.

 “The real commitment of a writer is not to any particular philosophy but to himself, his times and the life of his times.”    (Bakalam-khud, p. 112)

Rakesh was a firm believer of the above line and all his works were rooted in his immediate surroundings. The truth that Rakesh tried to convey was that of the new consciousness and conflict seen in the modern relationships between a man and a woman. Rakesh has chosen a modern setting to deal with modern issues of ego clash and conflicts between a man and a woman in a dysfunctional family with no way to escape. They are doomed to be incomplete.

The prologue uses Brecht’s principle of alienation to make the audience feel detach from the play so that they can view the play from a critical perspective and alertness.  The man in the black suit can be seen as the ‘Sutradhar’ who hints at the possibilities of the play. The prologue gives a glimpse of absurdist and existentialism but once it paves way for the main play, the realist development of the play takes place.

The opening scene resembles Camus’ discursive writings or Beckett’s theatre.  The play begins with a sense of suspense that not everything is revealed in front of audience, the characters know more and gradually these details may be revealed. An aura of complexity is developed throughout the play, the “air” is wrong in the house. Binny links the problems of her marital life in some mysterious way with the house, its inhabitants and the “air”. This is an absurdist pattern, the impossibility of understanding and explaining things, as mostly found in plays of Beckett and Ionesco.

Michel Foucault in his essay “The Subject and Power” explains that Power comes when two indispensable elements are involved and one’s actions affects other’s actions and reactions similarly, the fact that we are in the midst of a matriarchal household provides the women the source of her power. The man of the house seems unconcerned with most of the family issues because Rakesh has given the economic arrangement in the hands of the women.

The play oscillates between the naturalist and absurdist discourse. There are also incidents in the play where the family members try to communicate but are unable to interact with each-other, the influence of post-naturalist drama is evident here. They are all incomplete beings of a disintegrated family living in their halfway house. The banalities of house are presented in a manner from where nothing connects with what succeeds or follows from what proceeds (like plays of Ionesco) The conversations also moves from nowhere to nowhere. There is no meaning to any purpose or action. The tin cutter is also used as a symbol in the play where Ashok wants to cut the dismal environment surrounding the house but fails too.

Living a contemporary life in that period of time was like being dependent on a cleft stick. You think it is not possible to survive without holding on to one. People like Mahendranath are ready to suffer a lifetime of pain and agony than to leave the cleft stick and like Savitri keep changing cleft sticks. The main tragedy does not lie in the fact that the stick is cleft but somewhere it is joined.

A similarity can be seen between ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Halfway House’.  Savitri and Mahendranath are like either of the two couple from Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ whose destiny is sealed together. They are tied to live together and no one can survive without another. They closely resemble ‘Pozzo’ and ‘Lucky’ as the audience can never make out whose troubling whom in their case and who should free the other one.The following lines of halfway house, resonates with Act-I where the characters cannot do anything.

“I’ve encountered you before… haven’t I?

-***

– Did you come for an interview?

-***

– It seems as if I have.. might have been another girl!”

The play also resonates with Act II of ‘Waiting for Godot’, the one with two or three green leaves, where a false expectation is created that the situation is going to change but nothing happens. Even when Savitri takes out her festive saree to wear we feel now things will change but ultimately nothing happens implying the futility of human existence.

With the desire to look for “completeness” in “the other’ places Savitri is at the centre of this absurdist drama.

Rakesh has also pointed out the insecurities and anxiety of children as a part of a dysfunctional modern family. Binny and Kinny appears to be the extension of Savitri’s self. Binny’s failing marriage and mental turmoil as well as Kinny’s aggression and unstable mind are part of Savitri’s self. On the other hand Ashok’s disgust towards her mother, not interested in job attitude and indifference towards Savitri’s friends are all a parcel of Mahendranath’s characteristics.

One after another event unfolds in a manner that we sympathize with Savitri and her struggle to make the family function effectively but as the play approach its climax and her true character is revealed even the sacrifices she makes for the family is belittled for their absurdities. The whole play works in a way of undercutting her efforts and reach to a point where inaction is preferred over action.

“It was obvious even then that you didn’t confide Mahendra to be the man with whom you could spend your life with…..Not because you thought I was better than Mahendra but only because.. I was not Mahendra.”

The ‘working woman’ was a new phenomenon of that period (1960s). When assertion of personal rights and individual freedom became important in the unit of family it became difficult to adjust and created a situation of crisis because no one is ready to surrender. The institution of marriage has always worked entirely to the advantage of man. Woman was just a commodity in a man’s world without sense of consciousness of her individuality. As she became a career oriented woman, she’s no longer confined to four walls and she became aware of her identity and therefore in a position to assert her now she’s able move in the same man’s world and meets other men freely. Working women were seen as a threat to the male dominated world and an agent who could destabilize the patriarchal system.

Through the character of Savitri, Rakesh is trying to depict the predicament of a rising new woman. Savitri had dreams and aspirations that no men could possibly fulfill. It was not about Mahendranath not standing up to her expectations but any man at his place could not have satisfied her. A sense of loneliness would have invaded her; this becomes a precursor to the failure of modern day marriages which are meant to fall apart sooner or later. She now has different parameter to judge her husband, instead of seeing who he is she is focusing on who he is not. Savitri turns out to be a very career oriented ambitious woman who wants too much –

“Because the meaning of life for you is how many different things you can have and enjoy at the same time.”

The name Savitri of the protagonist also holds a lot of significance. It’s ironical how a Savitri of tradition had fought the God of death to win back the life of her beloved husband whereas the modern day Savitri is desperate to do anything to remove her husband from her life. Aadhe-Adhure is the tragic concept of living with the no longer valid and exhausted traditional concepts in a modern world.

Savitri’s long dialogues towards the end describe how Mahendranath was reduced to just an object of his friend’s hands and had no individual personality. But at home he was a totally different person. “That same Mahendra who smiles meekly among his friends, becomes a fiend when he comes home.” Binny’s dialogues also throw light on her parent’s abusive relationship. “You don’t know what’s been happening here, you can’t even imagine what it was life…”

The cruel images are used for the Mahendranath and not Savitri. It is about “Daddy’s rages” “when he gagged her and beat her up” “dragging her by the hair to the WC.”  The play does not deal with these cruel images of domestic violence but subsumes it in a hegemonic male-friendly discourse. The onus of tragedy always lies with women.

The play gives a gender-biased representation. While the man’s cruelty is a matter of past, the wife’s sins haunt the family and will keep on haunting forever. Though the women occupy the center stage, it is the man who gets the final verdict.

The words of Savitri shake up the whole edifice of patriarchal system where she not only questions the manliness of her husband, his dependency on his friends but also places her actions as consequences of his (domestic violence).

In the final section Juneja tears Savitri into pieces. He makes some insightful comments on her marriage life. Is Juneja a spokesperson of Rakesh’s own analysis of the couple and we feel so compelled to accept his view as the truth? Juneja’s basis of accusations on Savitri is a disadvantageous position in which Savitri is caught just because of her some weak moments of intimacy with him long ago.

The entire force of Savitri’s decision relies upon Jagmohan who is coming to “fetch” her. The word “fetch” itself speaks about the attitude of the play towards women. The very entry of Jagmohan reflects the futility of Savitri’s efforts. Jagmohan puts out the flame and she is back in her “hell”.

The nature of Savitri’s relations with other men is also not clear. Savitri’s character is left with a lot of uncertainties and ambiguities till the very end. In the end her entire struggle seems to be merely a web of words and her whole life lost in sterile reactions.

Rakesh himself once said “Every one of us is living a life, a life in fragments.”

The return of Mahendranath at the end makes us go around the circle and reach from where we have started, all incomplete beings are back in the halfway house, both of them are back in the “hell’. The hell stands eternal, inviolate. We are till the very end unsure of who is responsible for the ‘hell’ Savitri or Mahendranath. Either can be shown to be ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

Mohan Maharishi’s point in his paper “Experimentation and Innovation: Possible Directions” talks about how Rakesh’s Halfway house is able to touch the very nerve of anxiety and insecurity felt by the middle class during the period of change and coping with the modern life.

The significance of the title of the play is present in Savitri’s utterances. Initially she feels her husband is an incomplete being and this suffocates her but slowly she realizes that all men in her life are alike. They are all fragmented selves.

WORKS CITED

  1. Rastogi, Girish. Mohan Rakesh and his plays. Allahabd: Lokbharti Prakashan. 1989
  2. Kumar, Sanjay. Halfway House: A Critical Commentary. Worldview Publications. 2001
  3. Maharishi, Mohan. Experimentation and Innovation in Indian Theatre. Sahitya Akademi. 1991
  4. Agrawal, Pratibha. Mohan Rakesh. Sahitya Akademi, 1987.
  5. Basu, Kumar Dilip. Halfway House: Some Stray Comments Only. Worldview Publications, 2001
  6. Nigam, R.L. Aadhe Adhure: A Comment. Independence Issue. 1969.

By- Prerna Deep (1496)

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3 thoughts on “The Quest for Satiation- A reading of Mohan Rakesh’s Halfway House”

  1. It is a well researched essay that provides an insight into the intricacies of modern life along with the liberating character of Savitri, a modern woman with some dreams and aspirations. Also, the background to Brecht’s concept of alienation and analogy to Waiting For Godot contributes to a better understanding of this play.

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  2. This research work deals with the concept of disintegration of modern family through the predicament of a working woman along with critiquing the bourgeois society. The comparison provided between the two couples in ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Halfway House’ makes it quite interesting to read. Furthermore, it impresses by using the techniques of absurdity and existentialism. Good work Prerna!

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