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Depiction of Individual Identity and Social Existence in Vijay Tendulkar’s A Friend’s Story

The publication of his A Friend’s Story also brought a turning point in Indian theaters as they shocked the sensibility of the conventional audience by projecting the realities of life, human relationship and existence. The play depicted the tension between individual identity and social existence. Though he remains a detached observer and exposed vices and weakness of society and individuals, he has some compassion for the victim of circumstances. He is an individualist and presents individual versus society. He stands for individual freedom and his Mitra is also working hard for it. The play deals with a bold theme of lesbianism and peoples got surprised to witness a lesbian on stage that left her to flow with the stream and rebel with the society. The action of the play moves round the central character of Sumitra Dev, i.e. Mitra in the play. Mitra is a carefree girl with a loud laughter and dares to see directly into eyes. She is quite careless of social norms and moral values but got trapped by society with its norms to dominate.

Unable to withstand the mental torture imposed on her by society, Mitra struggles with her own self but ultimately opts for self-destructive acts. The play and its stage history stand as an important documentation of post-Independence India’s homoeroticism both in life and in fiction. Homosexuality is generally considered taboo by both Indian civil society and the government. Though in recent years the attitudes towards homosexuality has shifted slightly, it was not so in the 1980s. Guided by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, homosexuality was then strictly considered to be an unnatural act and thus illegal. The law treated homosexuality as a criminal offense punishable up to life imprisonment. All theories and cultural/political creations treated heterosexuality as the norm as opposed to homosexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality is always examined as an institution that powerfully affects mothering, sex-roles, relationships and societal prescriptions for women. On the other hand homosexuality among women or lesbian existence is usually treated as a marginal or less ‘natural’ phenomenon. In fact, in almost every country and every culture, homosexuality and more specifically lesbianism is ostracized and hounded by law. They are inhumanly branded as ‘queers’ and ‘aberrations’ – precisely what they are not. In actuality homosexuals, whether male or female, are normal human beings. Just because they love their own kind, they are marginalized. Such demarcations continue in the name of tradition and culture. India for the past hundred and fifty years has persistently followed the tradition of the new homophobia. Addressing the social scenario of the 1980s and the condition that laws are supposed to represent socially acceptable do’s and don’ts, Tendulkar dealt with the discourse on Indian homosexuality by framing/structuring his play as a social reaction to Mitra’s life as a lesbian. Thus what we get from A Friend’s Story is a sharp remark that the nature of romantic love can be either heterosexual or homosexual.

All the male characters of the play and specially Bapu ultimately come to represent a homophobic society that keeps its blinders on to naturalize straight relationships as the norm, even if these should lead to tragic end. History records that a rich diversity of sexualities and genders has existed in our culture for thousands of years. But instead of respecting this diversity, discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have continued within the patriarchal society of India in the recent history. Though since 2009 India as well as many Western countries has legalized the Gay Act, in many communities including the South Asian, discussions of gay and lesbian lives continue to be dehumanized or marginalized. In spite of legal assurance, ill treatment of lesbians is a burning issue in most communities. So, the fiction of Tendulkar’s A Friend’s Story is still a truth for many lesbians.

A Friend's Story is a discussion on homosexuality in heterosexual society. Vijay Tendulkar through the protagonist Mitra mirrors how heterosexual society is ruthless towards homosexuals how they are not accepted in the society. They suffer psychological insecurity and guilt. Tendulkar has raised an untouched issue in this play. In our Indian society it’s not only taboo to be that but even writing about that comes in the realm of taboo. Tendulkar has knitted a love story which is an unusual story of females. Sumitra Dev was different from other girls but there was a masculine vigour in her stride and speak. She was unable to understand herself, cracked her head, brooded so much that it ate into her brain, she could not think any more. She concluded that she was deficient in some way. Something had to be corrected … (AFS, 432). Mitra experimented herself with her servant then she understood that she is different. It was impossible for her to go through… She was different…. She could never become a man's partner in this…never… (433). The truth was not digestible by her and she decided to kill herself. She committed suicide but was rescued by her family. When she was still recovering she got a chance to act in a play that took a male role. She readily accepted. Sumitra was commendable in her male role. Nama played heroine role and Mitra madly falls in love with her. When she is desolated by Nama and Bapu, she commits suicide. It was very clear from Mitra's words that what was Bapu's place in her heart she had given him a position of mother, one who gives life. It's not easy to confess, everything to everyone that ease had developed between them because of Bapu's good nature. Bapu had treated Mitra as a human being rather than a friend and that was more essential for her.

Tendulkar's Sumitra is a reflection of Indian society who is victimized for being different, being non-traditional in her sexuality. Its not easy to live in the society being 'different' from others. The protagonist is in turmoil of conflicts in her mind. She wants to follow the pattern of behaviours the society as set forth and falls as a victim to the expectations society creates. Mitra tried to be a woman dressed like a woman and tried to concentrate on men. She was able to attract men but failed to get attracted. Tendulkar through Mitra mirrors how heterosexual society is ruthless towards homosexuals how they are not accepted in the society and they suffer psychological insecurity and guilt. Wadikar rightly points out that the analytical studies of Vijay Tendulkar's plays reveals that the dramatist has a desire to strive for perfection of life. He aims at creating a kind of emotionally refined, integrated and conscious world (Wadikar). Mitra's serious thoughts: “who makes us the way we are and sends us here? Why are we what we are? Why do we become own slaves? We have to search for our own answers. No one can help (424). The helplessness of Mitra, the inability to change her fate and futility of her existence is expressed. She is suffering from identity crisis so is every human being. The Dammapada quotes: “You are your own refuge, there is no other refuge. This refuge is hard to achieve.”

Tendulkar had written A Friend's Story at a time when the play was not accepted but now the situation has changed. The play would be accepted and even 'Mitra' would be accepted. But still may not be the conservative minds. . . As Mina Kumar opines “Now in modern India Lesbianism is well received." India's first married lesbian couple Savita and Veena were given police protection and moved to a safe house amid fears the two women would be targeted in an honour killing. Savita, a 25 year old student at Choudhary Charan Singh University and her 20 year old wife Veena, were married by a court in Haryana, close to New Delhi. (Dean Nelson). In a path-breaking judgment, the Delhi High Court on 2 July 2009 legalised gay sex among consenting adults, holding that the law making it a criminal offence violates fundamental rights. However, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, will continue for non-consensual and non-vaginal sex.

The play is centered on a lesbian relationship and the crises in one’s life out of it. It is social as well as psychological study of an individual who is struggling hard to retain its position. The concept is not new for India and has its historical relevance. But recently it is termed as abnormal, unnatural and unhealthy. The myth, that same-sex love is an imported disease for India, has created an atmosphere of ignorance which has proved dangerous for many Indians:

In such an atmosphere, homoerotically inclined people often hate themselves, live in shamed secrecy, try to cure themselves by resorting to quacks or forcing hemselves into marriage, and even commit suicide, individually or jointly. Their families frequently react with disgust born of ignorance and blame themselves as failures. (Ruth xxiv)

Tendulkar has raised an untouched issue in the play AFriend's Story (1982). He has dared to bring forth a deviant relationship that is homosexuality. In our Indian society it’s not only taboo to be that but even writing about that comes in the realm of taboo. When women writers write about sexual love that too between two women it is considered total obscene. This is evident by Kamala Das's candid autobiography My Story (1976) which was controversial and even more when Shobha De wrote Strange Obsession (1993). Homosexuality was not new to India; it can be said by some of the historical evidence like temple sculptures at Khajuraho and Konark. Ancient and medieval texts constitute irrefutable evidence that the whole range of sexual behaviour was known in pre-colonial India. Vatsayana, a Hindu sage has written on homosexual acts in his Kamasutra. Emperor Babur's autobiography Tuzuki-Babri gives details of his attraction towards a teenage boy. Under British rule homosexuality was an offence. Chapter XVI, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a piece of legislation in India introduced during British rule of India that criminalises sexual activity "against the order of nature." (Fom Wikipedia) In her short essay Mina Kumar says: “Lesbians in Indian texts and contexts” explains how non Brahminical traditions generated positive images of lesbianism” and antrism's valorization of women and sexuality further provided a religiously sanctioned role for lesbianism. Homosexuality was illegal in India but in foreign countries it was common in the times of World War II. “In 1969, Lesbian and Gay street people, Puerto can drag queens, and bar gays fought back against a routine police raid at the stone wall Tavern in New York City... (Dellamora). Same sex couples have been fighting for the freedom to marry since the dawn of the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement. This struggle is important to the movement because of the myriad rights and responsibilities married couples enjoy and because of the special status marriage has in America. (Johnson) Obama stands first U.S. president who had publicly expressed support for gay marriage. Recently Obama said in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts: "It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

The work awakened people of their long sleeps. It brings a turning point in Indian theaters as they shock the sensibility of the conventional audience by projecting the realities of life, human relationship and existence. The playwright depicted the tension between individual identity and social existence. Though he remains a detached observer and exposed vices and weakness of society and individuals, he has some compassion for the victim of circumstances. He is an individualist and presents individual versus society. He stands for individual freedom and his Mitra is also working hard for it.

Mitra is not a fictitious character; Tendulkar was in his teen when the character Mitra of A Friend’s Story came to his life. He went with his sister to watch a melodrama in annual day celebration of her college. It is where he met Mitra. Tendulkar described her performance as:

To my amazement she looked like a man and an old man at that, though not as old as the character in the play. Her youth showed through. The face looked rugged with a white mustache and make-up. The gait and manner were unmistakable masculine. (Tendulkar xv)

Many years later Tendulkar again comes to know of her through her old friend. He also come to know of her character traits and, also that, she had a craving for a girl, and has an affair with her which ended in a major crisis for Mitra. It practically finished her life. It is with the comments of Bapu that Tendulkar‘s Mitra develops and came into existence in the play. This is Mitra’s love story Mitra—Sumitra Dev…. She was different from all the other girls, or so I thought. The other girls were the helpless, touch–me not kind. But there was a masculine vigor in Sumitra Dev‘s stride and speech (419).

Mitra is a carefree girl with a loud laughter. She dares to see directly into eyes. Though looks like an attractive lady she is masculine in her behavior. Bapu strengthen this trait of her behavior by giving a reference to an incident of a photograph. Bapu found a photograph of Sumitra Dev. He picks it up and hid it in his notebook. He was shocked to see a woman with hairy bare-chasted men with cigarettes in their mouths (420). His reaction was- Chee… chee… very bad. What if it had fallen into a stranger‘s hands? (420), but he was more surprised to see that Mitra is not worried at all about the photograph. She casually offered him a cup of tea and tells Bapu that My mother used to say, I had hoodwinked God to be born a girl. I was always with the boys. Used to play all their games from marbles to gillidanda. Even Kabaddi (422).

She keeps surprising Bapu and audience by proposing for friendship and paying the bill. When enquired about the photograph, she plainly answered, one of them is my cousin. He’s in the army. The other is some army friend of his. They had both come down on holiday. Great fun (423). With this meeting Bapu comes to know of Mitra differently. Not entirely different, but more real. It was in this sense that Mitra began to seem more true and real to me (423), said Bapu.

The play offer a study of a being who herself is conscious of the fact that she is distinct from other girls having a stubborn nature like that of a boy—always following her instincts. She is reckless in the sense of being quite careless of social norms and moral values (428), but is continuously trapped by society with its norms to dominate. This struggle for power among society and Mitra to control can be properly seen when a girl who is very buoyant and carefree, hesitate to tell Bapu about her real self:

SUMITRA. (with intensity) Who makes us the way we are and sends us here? Why are we what we are? Why do we become our own slaves?
SUMITRA. We have to search for our own answers. No one can help One is alone. (424)

She is aware of the social dominance and its power. She is aware of the fact that if society will exercise its power what will happen of her. She is continuously struggling with herself and is scared too. She says, Don‘t think it’s easy. You don‘t know me. If you get to know me, you‘ll just scream (425). In spite of her efforts she fails to tell Bapu about herself. Society attains so much power and keep on pushing her so much hard that she swallowed poison. She is under the spell of complete emotional hegemony where the real difficulty is in staying alive…. You want to know why I did it. Even if I explain it, will you be able to understand? (430), and it’s only when she realized that Bapu will not be among society to punish or blame her. She tells Bapu about her real self. Mitra told Bapu that though it is strange for her too but in company of boys she never feels any sort of excitement what a girl should have felt. For her, men were good company but as they treat women are somewhat weird and unpleasant for her.

But the Homophobic society, who named women as Devi, mother-goddess etc. to highlight her as a sacrificing idol, a giver, could not accept her challenging the social norms. Mitra’s rebellious attitude towards this inculcation seems to be the reason of their anger. Thus seeing her carefree, they tried other ways of dominance. They sought to stamp her mind with the fear of men; at a time she didn’t know why men were dangerous. She followed their rules without protest. Then they fenced her in. She found it very difficult to live in that world of enclosed pens, but she did. (431) Nobody was willing to understand her suffocation and help her out. She suffered because she dares to question. She suffered and concluded that she was deficient in some way. Something had to be corrected… (432). She is conditioned to a level in this social hegemonic discourse that she made an experiment (432) with herself. Despite of her different attitude and rebellious behavior she is scared and took a promise from Bapu that he won‘t stand with society to ruin her after knowing that she has broken social norms meant for girls in society. She tells Bapu that she tried to use herself as a thing for an experiment while trying to be in the main stream of society. The burden was so much on her that:

She . . . decided to meet him . . . (Swallows hard.) . . . decided . . . resolved . . . got ready . . . and he got to know . . . and she got to know . . . This is not for her . . . she‘s not among these who . . . . It was impossible for her to go through. . . And she realized that she was different . . . she could never become a man‘s partner in this.. . Never . . . (433)

Mitra, though seems to be of stubborn nature, rebellious and doing what she want to do but Mitra is a subaltern in social hegemonic discourse. The parents finding their daughter different, tried to marry her to some decent boy without caring for her natural strife and desires. Not only they but Sumitra herself also made experiment to settle down with the current of society though she knew the fact that she would not be able to handle it. It is only Bapu who is sensitive towards Mitra. Pande is also part of the Homophobic world who maintains their hegemony, laid rules for others but is concerned for themselves only. When Bapu is worried for the pain of lesbians, Pande said: it must be very difficult for a man caught up with such a dame. Poor bastard, he can neither chew nor swallow (434), and also refused to talk about them as a dirty talk (435). Not only this he claims to be madly in love with Mitra but when come to know of her real self, he just elope. Later when comes back he keeps abusing her without any reason. When she was played with by officers in drunken state, he suggested others keep drinking, drink while you watch. You will enjoy it more (492).

Nama is part of the society who is somewhat a boneless character and introduced to complicate the situations further. Mitra pursue and wins Nama and used Bapu‘s room for their meetings. Dalvi when comes to know of their affair abused Mitra and took the Nama away. Mitra uses every weapon, including anonymous letters and blackmail to win Nama and threw Dalvi out of her life. Nama continues her relationship with Dalvi as well as with Mitra. But when Dalvi left Nama, the lesbian relationship seems happy.

Mitra is a complex character of the play. In the beginning of the play she was abused and dominated but later she showed another aspect of her character. As the play grows she created a counter voice and get ready to fight with dominance of society represented by Dalvi. She throws Dalvi out of Nama’s life by writing false letter. Whenever Dalvi come back to abuse her she stands confident and ready to fight with him. In her aggression and hatred for social dominance, she resembles Arun Athavale of Kanyadaan, who to take revenge from society and exploited other weak character like Jyoti. Mitra also tortured Nama as revenge from society.

Though Mitra’s hunger for power keeps on trying hard to attain it but Dalvi and society have their own ways to snatch it out of anybody else’s hands. The newspaper published a story of two women similar to Mitra and Nama. Mitra’s father withdraws her from college and Nama was sent to Calcutta to get married. Mitra follows her to Calcutta and get thrown out of her house too for this. Mitra came back defeated and Dalvi is very happy. He tells Bapu that he will not let that lesbian bitc to take admission in any college; I will dispatch letters to any college where she gets admission. I have already got the letter cyclostyled. I will make everything public (480). With Dalvi‘s attitude Tendulkar succeed in showing how society keep things in order.

Dalvi is very happy at his revenge and compared her to beast when Bapu called her a wounded sparrow (481). Despite of Bapu’s efforts Mitra left for Calcutta and in his despair Bapu also break off relationship with her. Sometimes later he met triumphant Dalvi and Pandey and through them he comes to know that Mitra has become an alcoholic and drinks every evening at the army club, in the company of officers who exploits her sexually. Bapu cursed himself for leaving her in her testing time and later get the news of Mitra’s committing suicide.

Mitra is quite bold and outspoken characters in the play but she does get defeated at the end. She presented herself confidently but like many Mitras of today, accepts social dominance at last. Though the play gives reference to sometimes during World War II for time but Rohini Hattingady rightly says, “While reading Mitrachi Ghosta again today, one feels that if the references to the time in the play are deleted, the play is of today’s because things have not changed much in the past few years for a different person”. (Hattingady 596)

Though it is already known that these attractions for same sex are of two kinds; one based on circumstances, and the other physical hormonal imbalance. But it is the person who is always blamed for. Mitra also belongs to the second category that comes to know of her real self while growing up only. She looks around and realized that she is different and cannot live the way society or people want her to live. But it is always she who is humiliated, blamed, thrown out of society and destroyed for being a rebel in society. Dalvi representing society did his best to ruin her. He is very much determined to do what he can do. He says that I‘ll go to the hostel. I’ll find her there. I will not rest till she’s kicked out even from there. (489). He has nothing to do with Mitra as has already ditched Nama and many other girls. But calls Mitra, very dangerous character. (489) When Bapu asked him about Nama and other girls, he plainly said, that’s my business (489). If it’s his business than why is Dalvi interrupting Mitra’s life for nothing. Bapu aptly questions:

BAPU. So, what Mitra does is her business. Why do you butt in?
DALVI. Mitra is a worm, a termite, she’s bitch.
BAPU. But no one has given you the exclusive right to hunt herdown. (489) There seems to be sadistic pleasure in what Dalvi did with Sumitra. He feels victorious on the news of Mitra‘s suicide and excitedly come to Bapu to tell that Bapu in frustration satirically comments; You go to heaven now and tell everyone, drive out the lesbian. Drive out the bitch. (494)

This ironic comment is on society and its ways to maintain its hegemony, and which play every trick to outwit the subaltern who even dares to try to attain a voice. Mitra suffered due to her bold and open voice while raising her voice against predetermined norms of society. A ‘dead silence’ (494), at the end of the play, which suffocates Bapu, symbolizes suffocating humanity. Humanity with Bapu, slumps slowly to the ground with his hand between his knees (494).

But this is just one aspect of Mitra‘s psychologically complex character. She tempts Nama and also forged Dalvi‘s handwriting to end Dalvi and Nama‘s affair. Her behavior raises many questions in one‘s mind. Like Bapu, audience/readers are also with their doubts for her behavior that why Mitra is using another human being as a plaything, strangling her by holding her tight in her hand. She closed all option for Nama to get out of her control. Different interpretations suggest that she is doing this because of her desire to take a dominant role and also her insecurity and craving for Nama made her this much wild. But Mitra herself answers these doubts:

BAPU. There were reasons for what I did, then.
SUMITRA. And there are no reasons for what I do? There‘s can‘t be reasons for the way I behave? (487)

Mitra is pathetic at this. Her difference from other human being is natural. She is not the one who is to blame for this but she is constantly hated, humiliated and alienated for her existence. Her craving for Nama is natural and if Mitra had been a boy she had not suffered the same lot. It is society and its hegemonic discourse which have killed her. Though she accept, I blame myself I tried your patience (486), But the doubt still remain that, is it Mitra or society who is responsible for her and Nama‘s sufferings. She was left alone in the society. Nama ditched her twice first for Dalvi and then for some other Guy in Calcutta to whom she went away to marry with. Nama’s acceptance to Mitra‘s love and friendship and later her refusal caused a great unrest in Mitra. She was continuously hit hard by Nama’s cowardly behavior and Dalvi’s arrogant and abusive treatment. She thus comes out to take revenge from them and society. She was abandoned by everybody. Her family throws her out, her college rusticates her. After this treatment she refused all the social and moral codes for which she at a time even risks for her life. Now she said, ―This much is certain, I‘m not going to die (433). She refused to bend to social norms of the male dominated society and stand with a strong voice and answer Dalvi every time. She ruined herself only when Bapu, who is everything to her, left her.

Through the character of Mitra, Tendulkar throws light on the total indifference and apathy shown towards her by the society. The whole discussion above leads one to say what Emile Zola states about naturalism, very well apts to Tendulkar’s plays. According to Emile Zola, ‘It is necessary to accept nature as she is, without modifying her. The work becomes an official record, nothing more; its only merit is that of exact observation of life as it is.’ This is a play where life is presented as it is, with all its drawbacks, vices and weaknesses. The audience is left to find out their own remedies for the problems that remain burning in all the times and climes.

Works Cited

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  10. _ _ _, Vijay. Preface. A Friend’s Story. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
  11. Wadikar, Shailaja B. Candid Scrutiny. Vijay Tendulkar: A Pioneer Playwright. New Delhi: Atlantic Pub., 2008. Print.
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Srushti B. Chaudhary, Research Scholar, H.N.G.U. Patan