MANJULA PADMANABHAN’S ‘LIGHTS OUT’: A CRITIQUE OF URBAN HYPOCRISY
Durgesh B. Ravande
Manjula Padmanabhan is among the fewest contemporary playwrights who have added fruitbearing possibilities to the theatrical development in the country. R. K. Dhawan rightly observes: “Very recently Indian English Drama shot into prominence. Younger Writers like Mahesh Dattani and Manjula Padmanabhan have infused new life into this branch of Writing”. (19)
Padmanabhan’s Lights Out is based on an eye witness account; the incident took place in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, 1982. The characters are placed here between complete, unnoticed silence and palapable, horrifying screams. A group of urban middle class people watch brutalization of a woman in a neighbouring compound but fail to perform any meaningful action. The play also proposes a complete negligence towards a woman’s (Leela) fright and sensitivity, by her husband.
In the first scene of the play. Leela’s worry for ongoing crime, night after night, in neighbouring compound is clearly seen in her expression; “When you were away on tour, I couldn’t sleep at night! And with all the windows shut with all the curtains drawn, with cotton in my ears – the sound still came through! Even in the children’s room, on the other side of the house, I could hear it!” (138) Her request to call the police is denied on the basis, ‘police generally ignores the complaint’. Bhaskar (Leela’s husband) takes the stance: “I don’t want to stick my neck out, that’s all”. (140)
Being a woman, Leela finds it difficult to keep herself as a passive observer of a woman being molested just outside her house. The rude and loud voice dreads her continuously. Leela is informed by her husband about a guest coming that night for dinner. He suggests her: “Baby, you must learn to ignore it now, I insist”. (143) She replies: “If it takes so much effort to ignore something, isn’t that the same thing as not ignoring it?” (144)
Bhaskar’s reaction to the incident seems callous and insensitive.
The arrival of the guest, Mohan Ram commences the second scene. Mohan is being told already about the screaming by Bhaskar. Mohan is curious to know about the horrible incident rather to help the victim. His hypocritic nature can be seen clearly in his expression: “But–why not? What harm is there in watching?” (149) Bhaskar and Mohan’s attitude insinuates the typical urban middle class mentality which prefers to discuss rather to perform. Mohan’s declaration: “Personally, I’m against becoming entangled in other people’s private lives. Outsiders can never really be the judge of who is right and who is wrong”. (153) communicates his unwillingness to act practically in the favour of the victim. Bhaskar tells Mohan about the assailants and their naked appearance. The shamelessness of these assailants becomes the subject of their discussion.
It panics Leela to listen to their discussion. No interfere of people or even of police makes Mohan to consider the incident as, ‘a religious ceremony’. Bhaskar concedes with Mohan and takes the incident as a ritual. They successfully turn the seriousness of the subject to triviality.
The bizarre sounds of women open the third and last scene in the play. The sound is truly ragged and unpleasant. The sound begins with distinct words – “Let me go! Help me!” and it ends into a general screaming, sobbing; with a jagged tired edge to it. At the dining table Leela is found with hollow eyes and tension. The screaming makes no difference for Bhaskar and Mohan. Another woman character, Naina appears on the stage, She is Leela’s school mate. Like Leela, she is also anguished by the sounds while the men Bhaskar and Mohan are fascinated and morbidly curious. Their attitude signifies escapism. While willingness of Leela and Naina to help the victim discovers their womanly affection.
Surinder – Naina’s hasband, appears on the stage with his violent passion. He plans to kill them all. His exasperation is seen clearly in his expression: “let’s go and wipe them out!” (181)
His compassion for victimized women is in vain. Though he reacts differently than Bhaskar and Mohan; he fails to instigate any decisive action. He embarks on the journey of passionate expressions only. No one goes to the aid of the victims. Meanwhile the screaming stops as the rapists run away from the place.
Lights Out appears to be more in the nature of a discussion play. Mahesh Dattani aptly observes it as, “a play that deals with urban dilemma”. (xii) It is an ugly face of urban society that has been effectively mirrored through this play.