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Absence in Mahesh Dattani’s Bravely Fought the Queen

The preponderance of absence is an unequivocal dramatic trope in Bravely Fought the

Queen.1 The title draws our attention with its reference to a valorous queen. Further re-

evaluation reveals the inescapable influence of the poem ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ by Subhadra

Kumari Chauhan, a well-known hindi poet. The title is a literal translation of the first line

from the poem which reads,’ ... khoob ladi mardani who toh Jhansi wali Rani thi’. The

title, reminiscent of the poem, significantly drops the epithet ‘manly’.2 The reason for this

conscious change is to interrogate the implications of manliness itself. The play

delineates the compromised private lives of two sisters in stark contrast to the callous

profligacy of two brothers who are also their husbands.

According to Derrida meaning lies not in ‘real presence’,3 but in the differential

structures of speech. Derrida argues that the intellectual tradition of the West has been

characterized not only by logocentrism but also phonocentrism, that is, the subordination

of the written word to living speech. This was, he points out, emphasized particularly by

Plato (Phaedrus) who regarded writing as a kind of alienation from speech and prey to

abuse and misunderstanding, in that meaning has been divorced from its original source.

Paradoxically Derrida adds, writing is needed to preserve meaning in absence of speech

and the ‘presence’ in it. He claims that these opposing good and bad aspects are

articulated in the double meaning of the word ‘Pharmakon’ used by Plato: ‘poison’ as

well as ‘cure’. Derrida argues that if we examine a text with this in mind we shall

discover this and similar oppositions, as well as other problems and tensions. ‘A text is

not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its
composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.

Its laws and rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply

that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be

called a perception.’4

In Bravely Fought the Queen Dattani uses onstage absence not in opposition to presence,

but as an inevitable pointer to it. The absence of characters from onstage action provides

stimulus for the events that occur. The non perceivable causes represented by the absent

characters produce the effects seen by the audience. Significantly, the absence of men

from the first act and the absence of women from the second act integrated through the

split level stage blends the implicit and the explicit levels of discourses. The telephonic

conversations foreground the viability of heard speech over physical presence on stage.

In the first act, the deferred presence/absence of Baa, presented through the

overwhelming sound of the bell tampers with the presence of the three women characters,

Dolly, Alka and Lalitha. Baa precariously occupies the liminal space between presence

and absence enforcing invisible matriarchal imperatives on Dolly and Alka. The sound of

the bell ruptures the possibility of a harmonious relationship between the three women.

Baa’s absence contaminates the presence of the other characters by disrupting an

unhindered, unified presence on stage. Lalitha acts as a catalyst for the two sisters to

unleash their guarded secrets. Lalitha’s presence has been cleverly deployed as a platform

to play out their guarded secrets and fantasies. Sridhar’s wife, Lalitha fills her vacant

existence with her husband’s work, writing poetry, making small talk and neurotically

fussing over her bonsai. As the plot unfolds the absent characters erupt as ghosts from the

past. Praful, the absent manipulator of events, represents violent patriarchal hegemony.
The non-presence of Praful does not mitigate the violent recapitulation of events which

informs the present status of Alka in her alcoholic outbursts.

Praful’s absence allows the women and the men to speak uninhibitedly. His absence

promises presence deferred without certainty. It is hard to imagine Alka’s rancor without

imaginatively constructing Praful’s relentless act of violence against her. The violent and

insensitive subjugation of Alka when she returns home with another boy portrays Praful’s

need for self-preservation through complete denial of Alka’s dependence on any man

other than that chosen by him. The threat of burning her face implies erasure of a

woman’s face and hence her identity.

Alka (sarcastically). For you, he is the descendent of a saint! A saint!

(Laughs hard.)Like my husband. Such close friends! Friends from college.

(Dolly gives her a look of warning.) I didn’t tell you. That time when you

came home to…….Nitin and Praful were talking. I came home from

school with the neighbour’s son on his scooter instead of walking with

you. I told him to drop me before our street came. He didn’t understand

and dropped me right at our doorstep. Praful saw. He didn’t say a word to

me. He just dragged me into the kitchen. He lit the stove and pushed my

face in front of it! I thought he was going to burn my face! He burnt my

hair. I can still smell my hair on fire. Nitin was right behind us. Watching!

Just… Praful said,’ Don’t you ever look at any man. Ever.’1( BFTQ 31)

Violence operates as a powerful sub-text in the play. Bonsai, a significant symbolic trope,

represents the outcome of violent subversion. The grotesque looking tree is deliberately
acclimatized to its environment and adapts its growth accordingly, even bearing fruit and

turns into a dwarf, stunted in every way and yet surviving:

Alka. You said you make bonsai?

Lalitha. Yes. I’ve got a whole collection.

Alka. How do you make them?

Lalitha. You stunt their growth. You keep trimming the roots and bind

their branches with wire and…stunt them. (BFTQ 16)

….

Dolly. Does it need to be …cut or bound any more?

Lalitha. Oh no. It’s completely resigned to its new shape. I suppose

something happens inside it and…it decides to change its size. All it needs

now is a little nourishment occasionally. (BFTQ 33)

It is again in the last act when violence re-appears glaringly when Jiten murders the old

beggar woman. Daksha transformed as an object of mimicry by Dolly appears as an

embodiment of internalized violence and suppression. Jiten’s abusive brashness and

oppressiveness found gruesome expression in hitting a pregnant wife resulting in the birth

of a spastic child Daksha.

Dolly (to Lalitha). You want to see her dance? They teach her dance

where she goes! Only they call it physiotherapy. I’ll bring her tomorrow

from her … special school and she will dance for you! Like this…
She demonstrates a spastic’s uncoordinated arm and neck movement with

her eyes dilated. Laughs and turns around. (BFTQ 97)

Tendulkar’s Silence the Court is in Session5 is a play which treats absence as an integral

structural motif. Absence has been regarded as functional to unravel the inherent

hypocrisies of patriarchy. According to Veena Das, in her “Women Characters in the

Plays of Tendulkar’:

It is important here to note that these changes become verbalized only in the absence of

Prof Damle. If he were present, the typical backbiting attitude of the self-righteous male

world would not have helped reveal the truth.

Leela Benare, the protagonist, relives the agonizing details of her past life for which she

is persecuted in a mock trial. She is ensnared in the craftily executed mock trial whereby

she is held responsible for crimes she has not committed. The absence of the male

characters proves that the onus of preserving the so called moral paradigms falls solely on

the women. The maternal uncle, who had used Benare as a fulfillment of his lust and Prof

Damle, who hailed from the seemingly respectable praxis of the academia too had failed

to shoulder the responsibilities of the unborn child conceived out of wed-lock. Both were

conspicuously absent when Benare is being reproached publicly. Absence is intrinsic to

the play’s ideological framework. The predicament faced by women in plays like Silence!

The Court is in Session and Bravely Fought the Queen is reminiscent of Ibsen’s A Doll’s

House6where Nora realizes the need to define her identity cutting herself off from

patriarchal codes of conduct. Her absence from the domestic sphere becomes a necessary

precondition to inscribing her presence. The exit which she decisively executes is
structured, ironically, on absence. The absence of a valid social framework for

foregrounding female identity becomes a major concern in all these plays.

The first act in Bravely Fought the Queen conforms to the notions of physical presence

integral to the performance-oriented concept of drama. Praful and Daksha transform into

cultural prototypes for the victimizer and the victimized. Alka and Dolly, victims

themselves enact more than just the roles assigned to them. They become surrogate

representatives of the absent characters, Praful and Daksha. Baa in the first act is reduced

to a screaming bell to amplify the voices of those so far unheard and largely silenced.

Praful by default is the absent partner in the homosexual relationship that existed between

him and Nitin. Desire often misplaced becomes one of the major concerns in the play and

often borders on the wrong side of the binary; normal/perverse, moral/immoral.

Kanhaiya, Praful, the autorickshaw driver with strong black arms, and the prostitute

whom Sridhar uses as an object to vent out his revenge on Jiten, all remain absent,

endorsing their illegitimate presence.

Like Pinter, Dattani stylises all the most familiar conventions of the stage- the treatment

of the stage setting, personal relationships and language. In his plays these conventions

are heightened, intensified and taken beyond what is normally expected of everyday

events. Structurally Bravely Fought the Queen belies normative stage conventions. The

introduction of the multiple stage levels dissolves the presence/absence dichotomy. The

level which is highlighted incorporates the absence and the imminent presence of the

level which remains in darkness, waiting for exposure.


In the theatre, the actor’s body is the major physical symbol; it is distinguished from

other such symbols by its capacity to offer a multifarious complex of meanings. The body

signifies through both its appearance and its actions. Absence of the characters can be

defined as regards their non-presence or their non-existence, often presented through

surrogate representation. In Bravely Fought the Queen some of the characters exist in a

past which seems in discord with the present and can be re-created only through vague

replication. Such characters in spite of remaining absent, form a crucial connect with the

audience invoking history, and hence, a relevant cultural context. The histories of women

like Jhansi ki Rani and Naina Devi enable the reinstatement of interest in these

characters. They offer potent redemptive opportunities in the present where women have

either been victims of prejudice or punishment or have been denied opportunity to speak.

Dolly. Me? Dressed as a brave queen?

Alka. I would like to come dressed like that! Dolly, can I come as a queen

instead of you? Please?

Alka. Oh good. You make a tin plate armour for me. And a sword. A

cardboard sword, of course. And I will move it and swish it about, like

this…(Demonstrates) (BFTQ 78)

The reference to Naina Devi’s royal lineage, her ability to transcend gender barriers,

social taboos and emerge as a great thumri singer reflects on the sorry plight of the two

sisters who have little at their disposal except vain discussions. Both these idealized

women offer inchoate possibilities of fulfillment. The references transport the two sisters
to a state of surrealistic rapture evident in their mock mimicry of the ‘Rani of Jhansi’ for

the masked ball. The masked ball symbolically encapsulates the theme of camouflage

which is integral to the overall structure of the play.

Absence of the old beggar woman approximates to a tragic presence in the final act as she

is mercilessly run over again and again by Jiten. She shuttles between visibility and non-

visibility. In the first act her mitigated presence becomes available to the audience

through Dolly’s subversive denial and subsequent indifference:

Dolly. That wretched woman is back. Where’s that watchman? She sneaks

in all the time.

….

She keeps shuttling between my house and Alka’s. Very clever. She

comes in late and leaves early. (BFTQ 24)

The undesired presence of the old beggar woman is shrouded in obscurity and her death

in Jiten’s unexplained misdemeanor. Her death, however, reinforces her presence with

resounding certainty. She becomes a symbol of marginalization. Her anonymity and

invisibility acquire a contingency hitherto suppressed even by the other women

characters. Her low economic and social status deprives her of agency. She embodies

muted vulnerability which contests the image of the queens’ (Rani of Jhansi and Naina

Devi) royal background. Dattani here draws an eclectic range of characters that cut across

class and caste barriers. Dolly and Alka don’t belong to the polarization presented by

royalty and abject penury. Economic independence, however, eludes them. Although

their husbands belong to the business fraternity we cannot ignore the constant threat of
expulsion from home that looms over Alka. Hence, the two sisters and the old woman

share the same insecurities of homelessness, despondency and imminent absence.

The act of murder is a heinous assertion of male supremacy precipitated by the firm-

footed rebuttal from Dolly in the last act: Dolly. No! I will not let you get away so easily!

They were your hands hitting me! Your feet kicking me! It’s in your blood! It’s in your

blood to do bad! (BFTQ 97)

The final catharsis that she forces Jiten to go through is a way to resolve the knotty affairs

from deep-seated agonies in past. It is his last attempt to show his brazen nonchalance

which has been convulsed by Dolly’s incriminations. Daksha, the incapacitated child is a

product of the violence that he unleashed on his pregnant wife. As he undergoes an

emotional turmoil reliving those guilt laden moments he is palpably perturbed. Unnerved,

he heads out running pitilessly over the old woman: Sridhar. He’s running over her! He’s

running the car over a beggar woman! Over and over! ...He’s killed her ! He’s …..he’s

gone!(BFTQ 98)

The act of repetition suggests Jiten’s emphatic efforts to delete all past memories. Killing

an old beggar woman is an easy way out because the regular legal trappings of a murder

can be easily evaded. Moreover, she is an embodiment of his guilt and a source of his

catharsis which centers on the paradox of violence begetting violence and the

objectification of women.

Baa’s husband represents her traumatic past which is construed through her

schizophrenic recapitulations. She becomes the ‘mad woman in the attic’7 who has

suffered the loss of agency and hence identity. Gilbert and Gubar analyse images of
female characters in their restricting historical, economic, social and cultural context.8

Assuming the influence of gender on creativity and on the anxiety of authorship, they

make their classic argument (a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism) that 19th-

century female writers bridled against misogyny and submerged their rage beneath

orthodox male formulas. As if to raise consciousness they uncover and foreground this

female subtext. Baa’s schizophrenia is the result of denial and emotional deprivation she

has received from her husband. Baa’s breakdown is a breakdown of rationality. The

disembodied images which haunt Baa repeatedly reflect the loss of self she is inching

toward. The dismembered recovery of the past obsessively imaged in her husband’s

display of violence finds a reiteration in the last act where Dolly suffers from similar

physical oppression – foregrounding the culturally ingrained stereotypes of women.

Jiten is a prototype of his father’s brusqueness. Jiten’s presence reflects his father’s

absence evident in the vaguely revealing regressions of Baa. Her frenzied re-membering

is symptomatic of the patriarchal domination which continues to torment her even in its

absence. Jiten’s violent subjugation of women is in continuum with his father’s heavy-

handedness in treating Baa:

Baa. You hit me? I speak only the truth and you hit me? Go on. Hit me

again. The children should see what a demon you are. Aah! Jitu! Nitin!

Are you watching? See your father!(jerks her face as if she’s been

slapped.)No! No! not on the face. I beg you! Hit me but not on….aaaah!

(Covers her face weakly as her screams turns silent and the light on her

fades out.)(BFTQ 57)


Jiten, hitting his wife is a replication of the atrocities meted out on women in the family.

Baa is unable to stop this abominable legacy in spite of being a victim and a vehement

opponent herself. Instead of putting an end to this oppression she herself becomes its

bitter reminder: Baa. No! Jitu, hit her on the face but not on the …stop it Jitu! On the

face, only on the face! Enough ! Stop!( BFTQ 97)

The dead husband is an imperious man with a dark countenance who was against Baa’s

singing inclinations. Having left her ambition to become a singer she is divorced from her

own identity and lives her life vicariously through her children. He ensured that Baa

forsake her career as a singer and confine her interests within home, the well cordoned

private sphere. His darkness is heightened when contrasted with his wife’s fairness. Re-

constructing the father as a dark man may be understood as synonymous with asserting

her relationship with the external world, or the other. Nitin is regarded as beautiful as he

has taken after her and not inherited his father’s looks. She detests the smell of tobacco

which lingers even in his absence. Given in to violence, her husband is the symbol of

uncouth brazenness which, to her dismay seems to have influenced Jiten:

Baa. …He has my blood! Don’t kiss him! You will leave tobacco on his

cheek. Don’t spit! Oh, the whole house smells of you! I have married such

a villager! Aah! You slapped me. The men in our family are decent. Wait,

where are you taking my Jitu? jItu, wait!(BFTQ 69)

The vivid descent into the past is one of the ways in which life is breathed into the absent

characters. This drive for self-knowledge through the act of looking-back is more than a

search of identity. It is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated


society. Although invisible herself, Baa carries the acerbic legacy of the past and

ironically becomes its unwitting defendant. Similar dramatic conduits are employed to

configure the image of Dolly and Alka’s mother who is accidently discovered through a

letter from Baa’s cousin in Ahmedabad. The letter contained the whole history of their

family. The visibility of the letter or the written word foregrounds both, the implied

absence of its sender and a social context hitherto cloaked in oblivion. Praful’s deceptions

are revealed not through the delayed presence of the absent characters but through a letter

which reverses the hegemony of the spoken word over the written. The absent mother’s

identity is established leading to a series of invectives transposed on those present; Dolly

and Alka:

Baa. Your mother is a keep….a mistress! My sons have married the

daughters of a whore!

Dolly. Your mother never understood that. She blamed it on us.

Ba. Jitu. Throw him out of the house!

Dolly. She turned her anger on us. (BFTQ 96)

The play covertly treats catharsis as its principle motif as the two sisters rediscover their

past and renew their bonding. The absence of sisterly love which often borders on one

upmanship and bitter bickering initially, in the first act, is replaced by a deep sense of

mutual understanding by the end of the play. The indifference that we find in Alka’s

behavior can be attributed to the disregard and subjugation she suffers from her husband

and her brother. Dolly is unable to connect with Alka as grounds of communication
scarcely existed between them. With Lalitha as an interloper they can voice their

grievances and reconstruct their relationship symbiotically.

Nitin. Let’s go. There’s something I want to discuss with you.

Alka. Oh. Something ….serious?

Nitin. Yes.

Alka (a little frightened). No I-I want to be with Dolly for a while.(BFTQ

82)

Another play which regards invisibility or absence as indispensable is Where There’s a

Will9. It is a comedy with slight farcical touches but regards patriarchy as an invariable

source of domination even in its absence. The story revolves around a supposedly self-

made industrialist, Hansmukh Mehta with the typical problems of familial expectations;

his languid wife Sonal; his spendthrift son Ajit; and a scheming daughter-in-law Preeti;

and last but hardly the least, his mistress Kiran Jhaveri. The highly dissatisfied

Hansmukh is particularly unhappy with the manner his life has been spent. With no one

to live up to his expectations he decides to revenge himself on his “avaricious” family by

virtually eliminating them from his will, something they will discover only after his

death. When he does die, Dattani’s stage directions read thus: The two women start

sobbing. Lights fade out on them. Spotlight picks up Hansmukh, or rather, his ghost. He

stands arms akimbo .And for the first time in the play, he grins from ear to ear.10

Hansmukh Mehta exercises hegemonic power over the rest of his family to perpetuate his

own conception of the self, which, he has in turn, received from his father. The will
becomes the iconic instrument of power and shapes and reshapes the destiny of the

family members after his death. The will becomes an embodiment of his absent

physicality on the stage. The spectral presence of Hansmukh is unable to exercise any

control and hangs himself upside down from the tree. The bonding between his wife and

mistress is a reworking of female camaraderie which asserts itself only in the absence of

the overbearing patriarch.

What prevents these characters from being fully present? Absence precipitates desire and

suggests imminent presence. In Bravely Fought the Queen the absence of characters does

not defer meaningful interpretation but makes space for further investigation. Baa

experiences absence, in schizophrenia, a fundamental absence of linearity in experience,

a tragic outcome of physical suffering and terror. Presence and absence coalesce to make

the drama an ideological apparatus, a powerful statement on subversive gender roles. The

presence of images offers no more than hallucinations, figures inscribed in the corners of

sleep, hence detached from any sensuous reality.(Madness and Civilization, p 100)

Kanhaiya, the idealized lover encapsulates the dreams and fantasies of women who have

been denied legitimate means of fulfilling their desires. The non-fulfillment of dreams is

tragically compensated by their illusory presence which traumatically precipitates into

absence itself.

___________

Notes & References :


1. Mahesh Dattani, Bravely Fought the Queen, Penguin, New Delhi 2006,. All

quotations have been taken from this text, hereinafter cited as BFTQ, followed by

the relevant page number.

2. The literal translation of the poem’s title should have been, ‘bravely fought the

manly queen’.

3. Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet, Derrida, December 20, 2012.

<http://www.philosophos.com/philosophical_connections/profile_130.html

4. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans.Barbara Johnson, Northwestern University

Press, ChicagoIL, 1988.

5. Vijay Tendulkar, Collected Plays in Translation, Oxford University Press, New

Delhi, 2004.

6. Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House, UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. 16

May 2008. Retrieved 14 December 2009.

7. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer

and Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven,

1979.

8. Gilbert and Gubar examine the works of, among others, Jane Austen, Mary

Shelley, and Charlotte Bronte.

9. Mahesh Dattani, Collected Plays, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2000.

10. Ibid., p. 478.