Silence! The Court is in Session takes place in India during the mid 1900s, a time when women were entering the workforce but many people, men and women alike, still held traditional views of gender roles—men earned money and were allowed to move and behave independently, while women were relegated to domestic tasks like child-rearing. Silence! contains just two named female characters, Leela Benare, a single (but pregnant) teacher and independent spirit, and Mrs. Kashikar, a married woman in late middle age. The two women are opposites, one leading a relatively progressive life, the other a traditional one. The characters in the play turn against Benare because of her liberal lifestyle, reflecting the reality that, during the 1960s in India, independent women like Benare were perceived as a threat to be contained. The play reveals that mainstream middle-class society was not ready to accept those who, like her, represented a new progressive future.
The conservative cast of Silence! often brings up the importance of motherhood during the mock trial in order to shame Benare for the false charge of infanticide. Their praise of motherhood is distinctly not a praise of women in general, but rather an attempt to keep women in line with their prescribed role in society. Sukhatme, a lawyer in real life and in their mock-trial, claims that “motherhood is a sacred thing,” something “pure” that “our culture enjoins us to the perpetual worship” of the mother figure. He adds that mothers are meant to weave “a magic circle with her whole existence in order to protect and preserve her little one.” Kashikar, who plays the judge in the mock-trial, recites a poem that says, “Mother and / The Motherland, / Both are even / Higher than heaven.” Although ostensibly praise, by treating the prototypical mother as essentially divine, she is robbed of free will, stripped of her ability to make mistakes or live a life that others do not see a “pure”—that is, a life that goes against the grain of tradition and social propriety.
Sukhatme thus argues that Benare “has made a heinous blot on the sacred brow of motherhood.” Though this is done in the mock trial, it resonates with Benare’s real life situation as a woman pregnant out of wedlock. Her “crime” is made worse by her intention to raise the child while unmarried, thereby asserting a sense of feminine independence. Whether or not the characters are all aware of Benare’s situation, there is clearly genuine resentment bolstering their savage mock trial attacks. The other characters see Benare—an unwed yet content and independent woman in her thirties—as a subversion of cultural norms and criticize her over the course of the play for running “after men too much” and acting outside the “moral conduct of a normal unmarried woman.” Although they rarely say it explicitly, they also assume motherhood takes place only within the context of marriage, and fear that, if women begin to have children outside of marriage, the whole institution—including men’s authority—will crumble.
Women’s bodies are also constantly discussed throughout the play, and the men (and even the traditional Mrs. Kashikar) clearly have little respect for Benare’s bodily autonomy. For one thing, they decide she will be the accused in their mock-trial despite her wishes. Later, the men notably declare that the proper punishment for Benare (now accused, in a moment of reality and performance blurring, of becoming pregnant of out wedlock) is to be forced to get an abortion—robbing her of any agency whatsoever and shaming her by denying her the right to fulfill her supposed destiny as a woman. Ironically, Benare herself is somewhat excited by the idea of having a child. Yet the men around her take the one thing women are supposedly respected for—the ability to give birth—and use it as leverage towards their own ends.
Similarly, in her final monologue a distraught Benare expresses her anger that the father of her child, Professor Damle was only interested in her body during their affair. “Again, the body!” she screams. “This body is traitor. 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.” declares, “only one thing in life is all-important—the body!” While resenting the fact that her body in this society is treated as the domain of men, Benare tries to reclaim a sense of power by appreciating her body’s ability to carry her son. And by committing to raising her child alone, Benare is implicitly fighting back against India’s repressive ideas of womanhood.
As much as Benare struggles as someone who has not followed the traditional path for women, choosing not to get married and choosing to get a job, Silence! depicts the lives of more traditional women as unenviable alternatives. Kashikar has little respect for his wife, seeing her as his property who he expects to be subservient to him. He constantly criticizes her and talks down to her, and gives her very little autonomy. When she proposes being the accused in the mock-trial, Kashikar tells her “No!” and complains that “she can’t get among a few people without wanting to show off!” A showoff himself, Kashikar likely resents being occasionally overshadowed by a woman he doesn’t respect. When Benare won’t reveal her age in court, the men and Mrs. Kashikar mock her, overestimating her age as an insult. Mrs. Kashikar judges her to be “over thirty-two” by looking at her face, but when she won’t answer, they write it down as “not less than thirty-four.” The men of the court also mock her by asking “how [she] came to stay unmarried to such a mature-such an advanced-age?” They dislike that she’s independent past the traditional age of marriage and attempt to shame her for it. The men resent Benare’s freedom. They complain, “She’s free allright—in everything!” implying that she’s a sexually loose woman, which they relate to her unmarried status and her career. Sukhatme meanwhile argues that a “woman is not fit for independence,” explicitly stating what the assembled cast has been dancing around.
Benare is an independent woman, who is punished for her independence. In a society slowly shifting away from traditional gender roles, she is a pioneer, who struggles to pave a path for herself and her unborn child. Although harassed and degraded, Benare is depicted as strong and just.
Women’s Roles in Society ThemeTracker
Women’s Roles in Society Quotes in Silence! The Court is in Session
SAMANT. […] I mean to say, I’m not in the habit of walking so fast. You do set a very lively pace, very lively.
BENARE. Not always. But today, how I walked! Let’s leave everyone behind, I thought, and go somewhere far, far away— with you!
SAMANT [in confusion]. With me?
BENARE. Yes, I like you very much.
SAMANT [terribly shy and embarrassed]. Tut-tut. Ha ha! I’m hardly…
BENARE. You're very nice indeed. And shall I tell you something? You are a very pure and good person. I like you.
SAMANT [incredulously]. Me?
BENARE. In school, when the first bell rings, my foot’s already on the threshold. I haven't heard single reproach for not being on time these past eight years. Nor about my teaching. I’m never behindhand with my lessons! Exercises corrected on time, too! Not a bit of room for disapproval—I don’t give an inch of it to any one!
SAMANT. You're a schoolmarm, it seems?
BENARE. No, a teacher! Do I seem the complete schoolmarm to you? SAMANT. No, no… I didn’t mean it like that…
BENARE. Say it if you like...
SAMANT. But I didn’t say it at all! A schoolmarm just means … someone who—teaches—instructs!—children—that’s what I meant to say...
BENARE. They’re so much better than adults. At least they don’t have that blind pride of thinking they know everything. There’s no nonsense stuffed in their heads. They don’t scratch you till you bleed, then run away like cowards.
BENARE. I’m used to standing while teaching. In class, I never sit when teaching. That’s how I keep my eye on the whole class. No one has a chance to play up. My class is scared stiff of me! And they adore me, too. My children will do anything for me. For I'd give the last drop of my blood to teach them. [In a different tone]. That’s why people are jealous. Specially the other teachers and the management. But what can they do to me? What can they do? However hard they try, what can they do? They're holding an enquiry, if you please! But my teaching’s perfect. I’ve put my whole life into it—I’ve worn myself to a shadow in this job! Just because of one bit of slander, what can they do to me? Throw me out? Let them! I haven’t hurt anyone. Anyone at all! If I’ve hurt anybody, it’s been myself. But is that any kind of reason for throwing me out? Who are these people to say what I can or can’t do? My life is my own—I haven’t sold it to anyone for a job! My will is my own. My wishes are my own. No one can kill those—no one! I'll do what I like with myself and my life! I'll decide . . .
SAMANT. You’re quite right. The great sage Tukaram said… at least I think it was him—
BENARE. Forget about the sage Tukaram. I say it—I, Leela Benare, a living woman, I say it from my own experience. Life is not meant for anyone else. It’s your own life. It must be. It’s a very, very important thing. Every moment, every bit of it is precious—
MRS KASHIKAR. I say, Benare—[stroking the garland in her hair] I did mean to buy a garland for you too—
BENARE [in Ponkshe’s tones]. Hmm! [Ponkshe bites his lips angrily.]
MRS KASHIKAR [to Mr Kashikar]. Didn’t I, dear? But what happened was that—
BENARE [laughing heartily]—The garland flew away—pouf! Or did the dicky-bird take it? I never want garlands. If I did, couldn't I afford to buy them? I earn my own living, you know. That’s why I never feel like buying garlands and things.
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!
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.’
It’s all become quite unexpectedly enjoyable—the whole fabric of society is being soiled these days, Sukhatme. Nothing is undefiled anymore.
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.
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.
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.