The play is centered on a mock-trial, which, although ostensibly fictional, ends up prosecuting one of the actors, Benare, for a real “crime”—being an unwed mother. However, although the members of the mock-trial’s cast claim to be investigating a fabricated crime, they are genuinely concerned with law and order. The point of their mock-trial, which tours the countryside and generally is based on historical cases, is to bring causes of “social significance” to the attention of the public and to educate an audience in morality. However, while claiming to be on the side of morality over the course of their trial, the cast unfairly persecutes Benare, perverting the meaning of guilt and innocence. Their cruelty towards Benare reveals how they’ve mistaken retribution for subjective crimes for true justice and social good. Benare’s peers are clearly less concerned with true justice than they are with petty punishment.
The actors in the mock-trial claim they have a responsibility for social good. Early on, the men at the center of the play, specifically Ponkshe and Karnik—who notably have first and second-hand knowledge of Benare’s pregnancy—decide to change the trial from one about nuclear weapons to one about infanticide. Although an about face from their original trial, this is still a charge of “social significance” in India. Kashikar argues the charge of infanticide is “important from the social point of view,” and that in choosing it he was “consider[ing] society’s best interests.” Yet instead of teaching the audience about morality, this play is instead intended to punish Benare—who is in pregnant out of wedlock and as such a threat to the men’s image of a moral society. Kashikar comments, after Samant gives some (fabricated) evidence about seeing Benare with Professor Damle, that “the whole fabric of society is being soiled these days […] Nothing is undefiled anymore.” So severe is the charge that, in Benare’s sentencing, Kashikar argues that the crimes Benare has committed cannot be forgiven. Thus, despite the troop’s purported mission, there is no possibility for education in this trial: there is only punishment.
Indeed, the members of the mock-trial are less interested in allocating blame than they are in breaking down Benare specifically, mistaking cruel retribution for genuine justice and confusing their desire to punish an independent woman with a desire to actually improve the society they live in. Benare recognizes that Professor Damle (the father of her child) is just as guilty as she is, remarking early in the play “he’s not here today. Won’t be coming either. He wouldn’t dare!” Unfortunately, she is the only one who seems to understand that her pregnancy is not the result of her actions alone. Sukhatme and Mrs. Kashikar insists that “Professor Damle is a family man,” whereas Benare is never referred to with positive terms. That they do not blame him equally for impregnating Benare underscores how little they care about actual fairness or justice.
This double standard has been true throughout Benare’s life. As a teenager she was seduced by and had a relationship with her maternal uncle. Although contemporary readers will recognize the power imbalance between a predatory adult man and a teenage girl, Benare’s castmates (and much of society) place the blame on her. Benare is devastated by the dissolution of this relationship and tries to end her life after her uncle leaves her. Even so, her castmates remain unsympathetic, arguing that her past is “smeared in sin.” Again, their perception of guilt and innocence has clearly been warped to reflect decidedly unjust societal norms.
The members of the mock-trial are so concerned with the consequences of alleged misbehavior that they fail to instill any actual “social good” through their performance. They only want to punish Benare for her perceived crimes, and do not realize that the guilt and shame she already feels are doing the work for them. In a scene that Samant invents when he is called to testify—a scene that actually seems to detail a real interaction Benare had with Professor Damle—Benare cries, “if you abandon me, I shall have no choice but to take my life.” Samant knows what Benare also senses: how difficult life is for unwed mothers, how few options are available to her, and how unkindly society will treat her and her child. Benare carries a bottle of Tik-20 in her bag, a powerful poison that she plans to use to commit suicide if she cannot find another way out of her troubles. She understands the social consequences of her pregnancy and contemplates killing herself, calculating that death might be easier than a life as a “sinner.” Such a “punishment” is horrifically disproportionate with her “crime.”
Still, those around Benare repeatedly emphasize the gravity of her transgression. Kashikar notes that he overheard the chairman of the education society, Nanasaheb, discussing Benare on the phone and saying, “it is a sin to be pregnant before marriage. It would be still more immoral to let such a woman teach, in such condition! There is no alternative—this woman must be dismissed.” Benare is punished not only socially, but professionally for her pregnancy. Sukhatme argues, “Tit for tat! As you sow, so shall you reap […] that’s the rule of life,” essentially arguing that women’s jobs are to uphold the values of society—that is, to ensure social good—and so by becoming pregnant outside of marriage, Benare is actively degrading society and therefore deserves punishment.
Benare senses this injustice, however. Regarding being fired from her job, she wonders, “for what sin are they robbing me of my job?” She adds, “I did not teach any of this to those young, tender souls. I swallowed that poison, but didn’t even let a drop touch them.” She knows she was a good teacher, but unfortunately many believe that she will pass on her “sin” to her students. Whatever genuine social good she accomplished in the classroom is, in the eyes of society, outweighed by her guilt. This, in turn, points to a deeply regressive and misguided conception of justice in this world—one that focuses on the shallow appearance of morality at the cost of actual compassion.
Guilt and Innocence ThemeTracker
Guilt and Innocence Quotes in Silence! The Court is in Session
BENARE. But Samant, ‘spreading enlightenment is also one of the Prime Objectives behind our programme’. So our chairman Kashikar will tell you. Kashikar can’t take a step without a Prime Objective! Besides him, there’s Mrs Hand-that- Rocks-the-Cradle. I mean Mrs Kashikar. What an excellent housewife the poor woman is! A real Hand-that-Rocks-the- Cradle type! But what’s the use? Mr Prime Objective is tied up with uplifting the masses. And poor Hand-that-Rocks-the- Cradle has no cradle to rock!
SAMANT. You mean they have no—[He rocks an imaginary baby in his arms.]
BENARE. Right. You seem to be very bright, too! Mr Kashikar and the Hand-that-Rocks-the-Cradle, in order that nothing should happen to either of them in their bare, bare house—and that they shouldn’t die of boredom!—gave shelter to a young boy. They educated him. Made him toil away. Made a slave out of him. His name’s Balu—Balu Rokde. Who else? . . . Well, we have an Expert on the Law. He’s such an authority on the subject, even a desperate client won't go anywhere near him! He just sits alone in the barristers’ room at court, swatting flies with legal precedents! And in his tenement, he sits alone killing houseflies! But for today’s mock trial, he’s a very great barrister. You'll see the wonders he performs! And there’s a‘Hmm! with us! [Puts an imaginary pipe in her mouth.] Hmm! Sci-en-tist! Inter-failed!
SAMANT. Oh, it does sound good fun!
BENARE. And we have an Intellectual too. That means someone who prides himself on his booklearning. But when there’s a real- life problem, away he runs! Hides his head. He’s not here today. Won't be coming, either. He wouldn’t dare!
SUKHATME. Why are you so grave all of a sudden? After all, it’s a game. Just a game, that’s all. Why are you so serious?
BENARE [trying to laugh]. Who’s serious? I’m absolutely—light- hearted. I just got a bit serious to create the right atmosphere. For the court, that’s all. Why should I be afraid of a trial like this?
SUKHATME. Kashikar, you've really picked some charge! A first-class charge! There’s no fun in a case. unless there’s a really thundering charge!
KASHIKAR. Did you notice, also, Sukhatme, that this charge is important from the social point of view? The question of infanticide is one of great social significance. That’s why I deliberately picked it. We consider society's best interests in all we do. Come on, Miss Benare. Rokde, my gavel.
SUKHATME. Motherhood is pure. Moreover, there is a great—er —a great nobility in our concept of motherhood. We have acknowledged woman as the mother of mankind. Our culture enjoins us to perpetual worship of her. ‘Be thy mother as a god’ is what we teach our children from infancy. There is great responsibility devolving upon a mother. She weaves a magic circle with her whole existence in order to protect and preserve her little one—
KASHIKAR. You've forgotten one thing. There’s a Sanskrit proverb, Janani janmabhumischa svargadapi gariyasi.
Both are even
Higher than heaven.’
MRS KASHIKAR [with enthusiasm]. And of course, ‘Great are thy favours, ‘O mother’ is quite famous.
BENARE. Order, order! This is all straight out of a school composition-book. [Bites her tongue ironically.] Prisoner Miss Benare, for abrogating the authority of the court, a reprimand is once more issued to you! [Pretends to bang a gavel.]
SUKHATME. I am deeply grateful, Milord, for your addition. In short, ‘Woman is a wife for a moment, but a mother for ever.’
I think he’s gone there, inside. I'll do it myself. [At a bound, goes and fetches the dictionary. Placing his hand on it] I, Raghunath Bhikaji Samant, do hereby swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. True enough for the trial, I mean. Of course, what’s true for the trial is quite false really. But I'm just taking the oath for practice. [His hand is stall on the dictionary.) You see, I don’t want the sin of falsehood. [In apologetic tones] I'm quite religious . . . The oath’s over. Now. [Enters the witness-box again.] Go on. [This is to Sukhatme; then, to Mrs Kashikar] You see? I'm not frightened. I just get confused because I’m new to all this. [To Sukhatme] Well, you may go on.
It’s all become quite unexpectedly enjoyable—the whole fabric of society is being soiled these days, Sukhatme. Nothing is undefiled anymore.
SUKHATME [Looking at Benare as he puts on his gown ceremoniously]. Milord, in consideration of the grave aspect which the case before us has assumed, it is my humble submission that if your lordship were to wear your gown henceforth, it would appear more decorous.
KASHIKAR. Exactly. Rokde, give me my gown.
[He puts on the black gown that Rokde unpacks and hands to him. After that, his gravity and dignity increase.]
SUKHATME. Mr Samant, Mrs Kashikar, Ponkshe, Karnik, seat yourselves there exactly as you should. [He straightens up, closes his eyes, and meditates for a while. Then, slapping himself piously on the face, he raises his hands to his forehead in prayer twice or thrice.] My father taught me the habit, Kashikar, of praying to our family god at the beginning of any new enterprise. How pure it makes one feel! The mind takes on new strength.
All right. She’s not less than thirty-four. I'll give it to you in writing! What I say is, our society should revive the old custom of child marriage. Marry off the girls before puberty. All this promiscuity will come to a full stop. If anyone has ruined our society it’s Agarkar and Dhondo Keshav Karve. That's my frank opinion, Sukhatme, my frank opinion.
MRS KASHIKAR. What better proof? Just look at the way she behaves. I don’t like to say anything since she’s one of us. Should there be no limit to how freely a woman can behave with a man? An unmarried woman? No matter how well she knows him? Look how loudly she laughs! How she sings, dances, cracks Jokes! And wandering alone with how many men, day in and day out!
SUKHATME [Disappointed at the ‘proof’]. Mrs Kashikar, at the most one can say all this shows how free she is.
MRS KASHIKAR. Free! Free! She’s free allright—in everything! I shouldn't say it. But since it’s come up in court, I will. Just hold this a minute.
Discipline means discipline.
KARNIK. For instance, the accused had attempted suicide once before.
SUKHATME [Radiant]. That’s the point! There is a precedent for the bottle of T1K-20.
KARNIK. I can’t say that exactly. I can only tell you what happened. My information is that the accused attempted suicide because of a disappointment in love. She fell in love at the age of fifteen, with her own maternal uncle! That’s what ended in disappointment.
MRS KASHIKAR [Totally floored]. Her uncle!
SUKHATME. Milord—her maternal uncle—her mother’s brother. What an immoral relationship!
KASHIKAR. In other words, just one step away from total depravity. Fine, Sukhatme, very fine!
SUKHATME. Milord, why do you say ‘fine’? The present conduct of the accused is totally licentious. We know that. But it now seems that her past, too, is smeared in sin. This shows it as clear as daylight.
SUKHATME. Do you know the accused?
KASHIKAR. Only too well! A sinful canker on the body of society— that’s my honest opinion of these grown-up unmarried girls.
The woman who is an accused has made a heinous blot on the sacred brow of motherhood—which is purer than heaven itself. For that, any punishment, however great, that the law may give her, will be too mild by far. The character of the accused is appalling. It is bankrupt of morality. Not only that. Her conduct has blackened all social and moral values. The accused is public enemy number one. If such socially destructive tendencies are encouraged to flourish, this country and its culture will be totally destroyed […] Motherhood without marriage has always been considered a very great sin by our religion and our traditions. Moreover, if the accused’s intention of bringing up the offspring of this unlawful maternity is carried to completion, I have a dreadful fear that the very existence of society will be in danger. There will be no such thing as moral values left. Milord, infanticide is a dreadful act. But bringing up the child of an illegal union is certainly more horrifying. If it is encouraged, there will be no such thing as the institution of marriage left. Immorality will flourish. Before our eyes, our beautiful dream of a society governed by tradition will crumble into dust. […] Woman bears the grave responsibility of building up the high values of society. […] ‘Woman is not fit for independence.’ . . . That is the rule laid down for us by tradition.
Life is a book that goes ripping into pieces. Life is a poisonous snake that bites itself. Life is a betrayal. Life is a fraud. Life is a drug. Life is drudgery. Life is a something that’s nothing—or a nothing that’s something. […] Sack it from its job! But why? Why? Was I slack in my work? I just put my whole life into working with the children . . . I loved it! I taught them well! I knew that your own flesh and blood don’t want to understand you. Only one thing in life is all-important—the body! You may deny it, but it is true. Emotion is something people talk about with sentiment. It was obvious to me. I was living through it. It was burning through me. But—do you know?—I did not teach any of this to those tender, young souls. I swallowed that poison, but didn’t even let a drop of it touch them! I taught them beauty. I taught them purity. I cried inside, and I made them laugh. I was cracking up with despair, and I taught them hope. For what sin are they robbing me of my job, my only comfort? My private life is my own business. I'll decide what to do with myself; everyone should be able to! That can’t be anyone else's business; understand?
It’s true, I did commit a sin. I was in love with my mother’s brother. But in our strict house, in the prime of my unfolding youth, he was the one who came close to me. He praised my bloom every day. He gave me love…. How was I to know that if you felt like breaking yourself into bits and melting into one with someone—if you felt that just being with him gave a whole meaning to life—and if he was your uncle, it was a sin! Why, I was hardly fourteen! I didn’t even know what sin was—I swear by my mother, I didn’t! […] Again, I fell in love. As a grown woman. I threw all my heart into it; I thought, this will be different. This love is intelligent. It is love for an unusual intellect. It isn’t love at all—it’s worship! But it was the same mistake. I offered up my body on the altar of my worship. And my intellectual god took the offering—and went his way. He didn’t want my mind, or my devotion—he didn’t care about them! [Feebly.] He wasn’t a god. He was a man. For whom everything was of the body, for the body! That’s all! Again, the body! [Screaming.] This body is a traitor! [She is writhing with pain.] I despise this body—and I love it! I hate it—but—it’s all you have, in the end, isn’t it? It will be there. It will be yours. […] And now it carries within it the witness of that time—a tender little bud—of what will be a lisping, laughing, dancing little life—my son—my whole existence! I want my body now for him—for him alone.
Prisoner Miss Benare, pay the closest attention. The crimes you have committed are most terrible. There is no forgiveness for them. Your sin must be expiated. Irresponsibility must be chained down. Social customs, after all, are of supreme importance. Marriage is the very foundation of our society's stability. Motherhood must be sacred and pure. This court takes a serious view of your attempt to dynamite all this. It is the firm opinion of this court that your behaviour puts you beyond mercy. And, what is more, the arrogance with which you conducted yourself in society, having done all these things, that arrogance is the most unforgivable thing of all. Criminals and sinners should know their place. You have conducted yourself above your station. The court expresses its indignation at your presumptuousness. Moreover, the future of posterity was entrusted to you. This is a very dreadful thing. The morality which you have shown through your conduct was the morality you were planning to impart to the youth of tomorrow. This court has not an iota of doubt about it. Hence not only today’s, but tomorrow’s society would have been endangered by your misconduct. It must be said that the school officials have done a work of merit in deciding to remove you from your job. By the grace of God, it has all been stopped in time. Neither you nor anyone else should ever do anything like this again. No memento of your sin should remain for future generations. Therefore this court hereby sentences that you shall live. But the child in your womb shall be destroyed.