Silence! The Court is in Session is a play within a play, as a group of amateur theatre actors (known as “Sonar Moti Tenement (Bombay) Progressive Association’s Mock Lawcourt”) assemble to present a mock-trial of “social importance” in order to spread “enlightenment.” On the day Silence! takes place, instead of presenting a pre-planned case, they decide to improvise, accusing one of their own, Leela Benare, of infanticide. Through this performance, a play-acted court investigating a fictionalized crime reveals the unmarried Benare’s very real secret pregnancy. Under normal circumstances (i.e. in real life), the court forces its audiences to engage with moral issues and contemporary news items, but the play-acted court that adjourns in Silence! instead becomes a means to harass and embarass one of the members of its troop. Uncomfortable with discussing Benare’s condition explicitly, instead the members of the troop hide behind the mask of “theatre” in order to dig into and criticize Benare’s personal life. Performances, songs, and poems throughout the play reveal what characters are unable to express in everyday life, exposing their inner thoughts and feelings.
Benare, a schoolteacher, often recites bits of songs and poems that she has taught her classes. These pieces of verse reflect her own inner thoughts, which she is unwilling, or unable, to express directly. Early in the play, Benare sings a song in English (the play was originally written in Marathi) describing a sweetheart and a secret: “He wants to marry me. / But Mummy says, I’m too little / To have thoughts such as these.” Benare, secretly pregnant, is also secretly looking for a husband who could help prevent her from becoming an unmarried mother. However, this song also links back to her childhood trauma, when she fell in love with an uncle who manipulated and then abandoned her. At another point in the play Benare sings a song about a sparrow whose eyes are red from crying because “someone has stolen [its] nest away.” Benare, likely, feels like this sparrow—abandoned by her child’s father and in danger of losing her job because of her pregnancy. Benare is in fact at risk of losing everything in her life important to her, a thought she will not express out loud but will say in song. Through performance, Benare is able to grapple with private desires and painful traumas that she can’t express in other ways.
Stage performances also offer characters the opportunity to become what they long to be. Kashikar and Sukhatme in particular become their characters during the mock trial. Sukhatme dons a lawyer’s robe and Kashikar a judge’s wig. When the trial becomes more serious in the third act, Kashikar adds a black judge’s gown that the stage directions note increase his “Gravity and dignity.” Sukhatme is a failed lawyer and so likely appreciates being able to actually try a case, however ostensibly fictitious. The power-hungry Kashikar meanwhile and enjoys having authority over an entire courtroom. Rokde, servant to Kashikar and Mrs. Kashikar, desperately wants to be allowed to participate in the play and sees an opportunity when other cast members do not show up to the rehearsal. Given little status and independence in his daily life, this offers him a potential to be, for a moment, important and free. He already knows the lines of one of the other men by heart, but is rejected by Karnik, Kashikar, and Mrs. Kashikar.
The play-acted trial itself is a way to for the central characters to attack Benare’s life and choices without actually attacking her. Although everyone pretends it is just a game, the accusations and emotions are real; the stage becomes a platform for the actors to express their thoughts and feelings that go unspoken in day-to-day life. Sukhatme repeatedly reminds the group “it’s a game. Just a game, that’s all.” Benare, too, tries to push back and joke, but it is difficult for her to perform nonchalance when her real life is on trial. Still, it is Sukhatme who, a few pages later, argues that the group “need[s] seriousness” to proceed with their trial, undermining his earlier assertion that the trial unfolding onstage is purely fictitious.
A blurry line thus exists between performance and reality. Midway through the play, Sukhatme asks Karnik about his “opinion of the prisoner’s conduct.” Karnik clarifies, “Do you mean, in this mock trial, or in real life?” Sukhatme responds, “In real life, of course.” Kashikar suggess they stick to the trial, but the confusion has already begun. Kashikar pushes back later that they’re getting “onto too personal a level,” but, at least initially, no one seems to understand why Benare is “getting into such a state” when her personal life is used in performance. Eventually, when Benare becomes so emotional that she must leave the room, the group realizes the mock trial has struck a chord and that they are in fact pursing a real “crime,” or at the very least a real instance of unwed motherhood. Ponkshe, Rokde, and Karnik had already suspected Benare’s pregnancy, but her emotional response confirms their suspicions. At the play’s conclusion, a villager interrupts the verdict and everyone breaks character except for Benare. Mrs. Kashikar comments that Benare has “taken it really to heart. How sensitive the child is!” For most of the players, the performance of the trial has given them the opportunity to confirm information about Benare they’d already suspected. For Benare, the trial is a devastating probe into her personal life, made possible only because of the framing of it as a theatrical exercise.
Theatre, poems, and songs within the play thus allow characters to express hidden truths and emotions. By performing as someone else, even someone similar to him or herself (as in Sukhatme’s case) characters are able to be more aggressive, more inquiring. However, the lines between performance and reality are not always clear; for Benare’s fellow players the trial is a kind of game, but for Benare her real life is being laid out for everyone to critique, and the theatrical exercise proves as emotionally devastating and trying as a real trial would be.
Performance and Self Expression ThemeTracker
Performance and Self Expression Quotes in Silence! The Court is in Session
Oh I’ve got a sweetheart
Who carries all my books,
He plays in my doll house,
And says he likes my looks.
I’ll tell you a secret—
He wants to marry me.
But Mummy says, I’m too little
To have such thoughts as these.
Our feet tread on upon unknown
And dangerous pathways evermore.
Wave after blinded wave is shattered
Stormily upon the shore.
Light glows alive again. Again
It mingles with the dark of night.
Our earthen hands burn out, and then
Again in flames they are alight.
Everything is fully known,
And everything is clear to see.
And the wound that’s born to bleed
Bleeds on for ever, faithfully,
There is a battle sometimes, where
Defeat is destined as the end.
Some experiences are meant
To taste, then just to waste and spend . . .
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.
KASHIKAR. Silence must be observed while the court is in session. Can’t shut up at home, can’t shut up here!
MRS KASHIKAR. But I was just telling Samant here—
SUKHATME. Let it pass, Mrs Kashikar. He’s just joking.
MRS KASHIKAR. So what? Scolding me at every step!
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.
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.
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.
The parrot to the sparrow said,
‘Why, oh why, are your eyes so red?’
‘Oh, my dear friend, what shall I say?
Someone has stolen my nest away.’
Sparrow, sparrow, poor little sparrow . . .
‘Oh, brother crow, oh, brother crow,
Were you there? Did you see it go?’
‘No, I don’t know. I didn’t see.
What are your troubles to do with me?’
O sparrow, sparrow, poor little sparrow . . .