Silence! The Court is in Session

by

Vijay Tendulkar

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Silence! The Court is in Session: Act One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Samant and Benare unlock and enter an empty meeting hall. Samant carries a lock and key, a toy parrot, and a book. Samant notices Benare is sucking on her finger, and wonders if she caught it in the door’s bolt. He warns her that the door is finicky, and it is easy to accidentally lock oneself inside the room. Benare explains her finger is fine, and, in fact, she’s feeling “wonderful” for the first time in days.
Samant’s question about the door foreshadows its eventual malfunctioning, which will trap the cast in the hall. Benare currently has many secrets, most of which pertain to the ways her life is falling apart. She is looking for a husband and feels “wonderful” now that she’s alone with a new eligible bachelor. 
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Samant had picked up Benare and the rest of her troop from the train station, but Benare had rushed ahead with him. She tells Samant she liked leaving everyone behind, while she imagined going “somewhere far, far away” with Samant. He is confused. Benare tells Samant she thinks he is a “very pure and good person.” She asks about his wife, but he explains although he makes a decent living, he has never married.  
Unbeknownst to Samant, Benare is on the hunt for a husband. Her personal life is in shambles, and she needs to support of a friend or a lover. Benare’s questions and comments are all her attempts to discover Samant’s relationship status and then compliment him in hopes he’ll like her.
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Samant moves the conversation to a magic show he saw in the meeting hall. As Samant talks about it Benare moves close to him and asks him about the performance. Embarrassed, Samant backs away, Benare moves closer again, but when Samant merely continues to talk, displaying “complete innocence,” Benare backs away and begins to complain that her colleagues haven’t arrived yet.
Benare attempts to subtly communicate her romantic interest to Samant. When he fails to pick up on her signals she immediately turns away and, although she had been happy to be alone with him, now she is frustrated that her colleagues are late.  
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Samant still wants to talk about the magician, but Benare has moved on. She is a schoolteacher, and—in reference to her delayed colleagues—insists that she’s never been late to school or fallen behind in her lessons. She notes that professionally there is “not a bit of room for disapproval.”
Benare takes great pride in her work. A schoolteacher, she attempts to use her professional successes to bolster her status outside of the classroom. 
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Samant asks if Benare is a schoolmarm but she corrects him, preferring to call herself a teacher. She tells Samant how she loves the children she teaches, and how they don’t “scratch you till you bleed, then run away like cowards.” Suddenly, she becomes warm and asks Samant to open the window.
Benare dislikes the term schoolmarm because it suggests an older, conservative woman. When she alludes to people scratching her, she is referring to her colleagues, both at work (as she has been fired and harassed her for perceived immoral behavior) and in the Living Courtroom.
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Benare’s mood brightens again and she begins to wander around the room. Samant suggests she sit down, but Benare explains that when she’s teaching she never sits down. She continues, explaining she’d “give the last drop of [her] blood” to teach her class, but that this has made her fellow teachers and supervisors jealous. Benare continues, frantically, that there is an enquiry into her because of “one bit of slander,” but that she hasn’t hurt anyone. If anything she’s only ruined her own life, which is hers to ruin.
Benare continues to demonstrate how invested she is in her work, and how important her work is to her well-being. As a middle-class woman who earns her own income, her work is a huge part of her identity and her distress at potentially being fired is understandable; this would rob her of her economic security. Her passion at work makes it unlikely that her persecution is justified.
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Benare places her hand on her stomach as she delivers her monologue. As she trails off, Samant stands awkward and embarrassed. He offers to go find the rest of the troop but Benare asks him to stay, as she doesn’t like being alone.
By placing her hand on her stomach as she speaks, Benare accidentally suggests one of her secrets—her pregnancy out of wedlock.
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Samant asks Benare is she is feeling well. She says she is, and sings a song to prove it, about a sweetheart who “wants to marry me / But Mummy says, I’m too little / To have such thoughts as these.”
Through song, Benare reveals more of her secrets. This song suggests her own secret affairs, in the present with married Professor Damle and in the past with her uncle. 
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Benare wonders if Samant understands the event happening that evening. He knows it has “something to do with the court,” and Samant clarifies it’s a living courtroom, whose goal is “spreading enlightenment.” Benare beings to joke about the fellow members of her troop—calling Ms. Kashikar “Mrs. Hand-that-Rocks-the-Cradle” although she has no child, insulting Rokde, whom she says the Kashikars have turned into a slave, and mocking Sukhatme’s unpopular law practice and Ponkshe’s academic failings. Finally, Benare notes there’s an “intellectual,” who refuses to face real problems, but who will not be attending today.
Benare is one of several characters who mocks her colleague’s professions. Among a group of people who all occupy a similar space in society, degrading one another’s jobs is an easy way to assert social dominance. Benare’s jab at the intellectual is an insult directed at Professor Damle, who will later be revealed as the father of her child, who was uninterested in helping her raise it.
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Benare hears Sukhatme, Ponkshe, and Rokde arrive outside, and suggests to Samant that the two of them hide and surprise the others. Benare and Samant hide behind a door as the others arrive carrying suitcases, a microphone, and other costumes and equipment. They jump out in surprise, but only Benare finds it funny.  Sukhatme jokes that Benare is a child at heart and doesn’t want to grow up. Benare insists that as a teacher she is very serious, but that everyone should take be joyful when they can. She then pivots, adding that no should have “false modesty or dignity” or care about others, and wonders if when someone’s life is over if anyone will “give you a bit of theirs?”
Benare continues to hint at her secret troubles—her firing and her pregnancy. She continues to double down on her claim that she was a good teacher, as such a position gives her social capital. When Benare references false modesty, dignity, and a lack of empathy, she is referencing her friends and colleagues who know or suspect her condition yet refuse to help.
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Samant begins to quote Tukaram, a great sage, but Benare cuts him off, explaining that she, “a living woman,” is speaking from her “own experience.” She insists that life must belong to the individual who is living it, and that “every moment” is “precious.” 
Benare is frequently frustrated by men who claim to understand her experience as a woman better than she herself does.
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Ponkshe returns and Sukhatme jokes that although Ponkshe has failed his science exam twice, and works as a clerk, not a scientist, he looks good in the witness box. Rokde laughs, and Ponkshe turns on him, arguing that at least he, Ponkshe, didn’t rely on the charity of the Kashikars, instead using his own father’s money.
The members of the Living Courtroom enjoy knocking each other down by insulting each others’ professional accomplishments. Each member has failures to mock, and so no one is safe. Notably, instead of attacking Sukhatme, who is of the same class, Ponkshe punches down, insulting Rokde.
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Benare reinserts herself, telling the men that, surprisingly, she was quiet and reserved as a child. She describes putting fresh covers on her schoolbooks and inscribing the first page with a poem that ended “this book is mine / Till I am dead!” The books were torn and lost over time, but Benare asserts that she is not dead.
Here, Benare’s schoolbooks seem a stand in for her body and her psyche. Over time, as she’s aged and endured various traumas, the book of her life has been torn and damaged; however, she remains alive and resilient.
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Rokde likes Benare’s poem and tries to commit it to memory. Excited by an opportunity to play the role of teacher, Benare offers to tell the men a story and has them sit like children. Annoyed, Ponkshe leaves the room. Benare begins a poem, about “a battle … where / Defeat is destined at the end…” but then changes her mind midway through and begins a song. 
The poem Benare recites is a poem by the author Shirish Pai, which Tendulkar had read and which, in fact, inspired him to create the character of Benare. Through poetry, Benare can say what she really thinks—how she feels her life is a constant uphill battle, but she plans to forge ahead anyway.
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Karnik, an experimental theatre actor, enters. Sukhatme stands and asks Karnik if he thinks the room is suitable for their trial. Karnik thinks it is. Benare exclaims, “our mock court tonight should go over well! Just like a real one.”  The last members of the troop, Mr. Kashikar and Mrs. Kashikar, have yet to arrive because Mrs. Kashikar wanted her husband to buy her a floral garland. Benare comments how “full of life” the couple must be, buying gifts for each other. Karnik, however, argues that when he sees a husband and wife acting lovingly in public he assumes they’re concealing something in private, and insists he suppresses the urge to buy garlands for his wife.
Benare’s comment about the realistic appearance of the court foreshadows how the day will devolve into an actual persecution of her own supposed immorality.  Karnik assumes that demonstrating affection in public is always an overcompensation for private troubles. Suggesting the Kashikars’ marriage is troubled is yet another way to take down a member of the theatre troop, as stable marriages, like successful careers, help elevate an individual’s social status.
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Benare says if she were Karnik she’d buy his wife daily garlands. Sukhatme enters the conversation, and tells Benare that she could buy gifts for her husband, wondering, “what that most fortunate man will be like?”
Benares’s colleagues know she is unmarried, and although this was increasingly common in India at the time, more conservative people would see Benare’s singleness as a personal failure.
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Benare changes the conversation and asks Samant (whose name she has forgotten) to start setting up chairs. Samant, who has set up some of the chairs, addresses Ponkshe as sahib and tells him to sit. Ponkshe is flattered but declines. Ponkshe asks Samant if there is tea in the meeting hall and is upset that there is no available sugar.
The speed with which Benare has forgotten Samant’s name demonstrates how he was only important to her as a potential husband. Ponkshe is flattered by honorifics, and likely especially flattered that he is the only one Samant has addressed in such a way. This underscores the characters’ concern with social status.
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Mr. Kashikar and Mrs. Kashikar finally enter. Kashikar double checks that Rokde has brought all the baggage because in the past Rokde has forgotten important items. Kashikar goes through several items with Rokde who looks “increasingly miserable and irritated.”
By insisting that Rokde is bad at his job, or else highlighting past failures, the Kashikars keep Rokde down socially and emotionally, allowing them to better control him.
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Mrs. Kashikar tells Benare she meant to buy a garland for her, too, but Benare brushes her off. Benare insists she never wants garlands and earns her own living, anyway, and chooses not to spend it on garlands.
Mrs. Kashikar subtly insults Benare by bringing up the garlands, reminding Benare that she, Mrs. Kashikar, has found a husband, while Benare remains alone.
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Karnik, Kashikar, and Sukhatme consider the organization of the courtroom. Karnik points out where “President Johnson” will stand and Samant is amazed and confused. Rokde explains Karnik will play him, and the real Lyndon B. Johnson will not be joining them.
The Living Courtroom often performs a real trial based on a Lyndon B. Johnson court case. Samant, less worldly and educated than his peers, doesn’t understand that Johnson will not actually attend.
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Rokde, suddenly remembering, goes to Mrs. Kashikar and informs her Professor Damle hasn’t arrived. Benare becomes silent, then goes to talk to Ponkshe who refuses to engage with her. As Rokde worries that Damle will miss the performance, Ponkshe finally begins speaking, asking Benare what had happened to her friend, who was in trouble and whom she had tried to set up with Ponkshe.
It will later be revealed that Benare approached Ponkshe asking him to marry a “friend” of hers who was pregnant and in distress. This friend was, in reality, Benare, which Ponkshe understood. By bringing up her struggle he doesn’t want to help her, but instead shame her and remind her of the power he has over her.
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Mr. Kashikar and Mrs. Kashikar, Sukhatme, and Karnik discuss Damle. Kashikar is worried but Sukhatme insists he’ll be able to figure out a way to go forward with the trial even if the counsel for the accused—Damle’s role—remains unfilled. Sukhatme says he can be both prosecuting and defense attorneys. 
Damle has not arrived, likely because, as the audience will discover later, he impregnated Benare and does not want to be confronted. He probably feels guilty or hopes to avoid scandal and protect his reputation.
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Rawte, another member of the troop, who plays the fourth witness, has the flu and must be replaced. Rokde begs to play the role but Karnik and Kashikar shoot him down, forcing him to stick to his current minor role as usher. Sukhatme suggests Samant, who has no acting experience. Mrs. Kashikar asks what Benare thinks of Samant, and she responds that she thinks he’s “lovely,” clarifying that she is only referring to his fitness as a witness.
Although Rokde has been with the troop for some period of time and desperately wants a bigger role in the production, the members of the cast are committed to denying him what he wants. By exerting this control and keeping him in a less important role, they also suppress him socially and assert their own social dominance through the production itself.
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Sukhatme asks Samant his name, and promises that, although the local has never even seen a court or even a mock trial, Sukhatme will have him “word-perfect before the show.” Kashikar suggests rehearsing, and Benare agrees, as she’s forgotten a book to occupy her. Kashikar jokes she must be reading “True Stories,” like his wife, but insists he is too busy with work to “do more than look at the pictures.” Mrs. Kashikar objects, but Kashikar silences her.
The glimpses the audience gets into Mr, Kashikar and Mrs. Kashikar’s marriage are bleak. Although both are relatively conservative, subscribing to the idea that women belong in the home and men outside of it, Mr. Kashikar cruelly asserts his dominance over his wife at every possible opportunity.
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Benare complains that the troop has performed their planned trial, about atomic weapons, seven times already. Sukhatme suggests creating a new, imaginary case to pass time and teach Samant about the court. Karnik says this is called “a Visual Enactment,” but Sukhatme doesn’t understand giving a complicated name to a simple thing, insisting “this is just a game.” 
Throughout the events of the play, even as Benare becomes more emotionally affected, everyone else will insist it is “just a game.”
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Ponkshe and Mrs. Kashikar send Samant to get cigarettes and pan. Benare leaves to room to wash her face and freshen up. While she’s gone Karnik, Sukhatme, Ponkshe, and Kashikar decide to keep the same cast as before but find a new accused. Karnik reveals he has heard some gossip about Benare from Rokde. Ponkshe says he has some news about her, too. Finally, Sukhatme suggests Benare as prisoner. Everyone agrees. Mrs. Kashikar thinks it will be interesting and different to have a woman on trail.
Ponkshe and Karnik will later reveal that they have privileged information about Benare’s pregnancy and employment prospects. Although ostensibly her friends, they clearly disapprove of her lifestyle and want to use the framework of the court to shame and make an example of her.
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Kashikar agrees that a new accused would add variety, and Mrs. Kashikar supports him, but Kashikar immediately chastises her for speaking up. Sukhatme suggests Rokde, but although Rokde is enthusiastic Ponkshe shoots him down. Kashikar wants to be the accused but cannot also be the judge. Kashikar also dismisses Mrs. Kashikar when she volunteers, criticizing her for always “wanting to show off!”
Once again, Kashikar unfairly puts down his wife. Although she is acting unremarkably, vying to be the accused just like everyone else, Kashikar seems to resent his wife seeking attention not just because he dislikes that behavior, but because he always wants to the be the center of attention himself.
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Kashikar wants Benare to be charged with something of “social significance.” The men huddle, and Ponkshe gives suggestion the audience is unable to hear. The group breaks up and arranges the furniture to look more like a court. Ponkshe then instructs the others to go into the wings, while he and Kashikar stand out of sight. 
The point of the Living Courtroom has always been to bring cases of “social significance” to public attention.  However, an outsized concern with public education leads to a total lack of concern for Benare, who will be on trial.
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Benare returns newly clean, singing about a parrot and its friend, a sparrow, who has been crying because “someone has stolen my nest away.”
This song, which Benare sings again at the end of the play, reveals her inner troubles. The song represents her own journey as someone who has lost all security and hope and fears losing her child.
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Ponkshe ambushes Benare and announces that she has been “arrested on suspicion of a crime of extremely grave nature,” Benare stiffens. Kashikar moves to sit in the judge’s chair as the players in the wings arrive and assemble the wooden bars of a dock around Benare. Sukhatme enters in his lawyer’s robes. Samant has returned but only watches. Kashikar announces that they are accusing Benare of infanticide.
Although Benare has not aborted a fetus or killed an infant, she is concealing a pregnancy; as such, the charge of infanticide hits close to home. As the play progresses, the other members of the Living Courtroom will increasingly use the mock trial is a cover to impose their own very real moral expectations onto Benare.
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