Is “Halfway House” primarily about a search for meaning and identity? Give a reasoned answer.
“The crisis of identity and breakdown of communication in human relations and resultant tragic effect of boredom and despair constitute the theme of Rakesh’s play, Aadhe Adhure, which is by far is best play, devastatingly exposing the fragmented personalities and broken images in a disintegrated society.” — N.Choudhuri, (Hindi Drama, Contemporary Indian Literature) Mohan Rakesh’s “Halfway House” can be viewed as an exploration of meaning and identity in the turmoil of changing social and familial structures. Although the play seeks to construct the search for identity within the unfulfilling, incomplete nature of bourgeois existence as a universal non-gendered experience along Existential lines as its primary concern, it eventually deals with many questions on a broader socio-economic context on Realist lines.
In the Prologue itself, the theme of exploration of identity is introduced, when ‘the Man in a Black Suit’ exclaims, “Who am I?” Immediately the declaration takes an Existential tangent as the fruitlessness of such a search for meaning is asserted with the speaker claiming, “This is a question I have given up trying to face.” He establishes the absurdity of identity by calling himself “amorphous” and “undefined”, as someone who like all of us puts on a new mask and gives a new meaning to himself for different occasions – “The fact is that there is something of me in each one of you and that is why, whether on or off stage, I have no separate identity.”He then asserts that no matter what the circumstance, what the situation and the gender, man’s search for identity and meaning in life would always remain an absurd, indescribable, undefined and irrational oddity.
Even the characters of the play are seen to engage in a constant search of meaning and identity in life. In his essay, “Uncertain circumstances, Undefined Individuals: A study of Halfway House”, S.G. Bhanegaonkar points out that modern psychology does not regard escapism as a symbol of weakness but as a sensitive individual’s desire to search for meaning which he does not find in the conditions he is placed in; and hence, the characters of ‘Halfway House’ can too be seen as being in a relentless quest for identity that transcends the turmoil of their fragmented existence. It is in sync with R.L. Nigam’s theory, of the main characters of play being involved in a ‘self-made’ phenomenon of ‘the soul’s search for an alternate sanctuary’ in the absence of the sanctuary of home which ‘stood for a source of solace and moral stay to the individual in moments of crises.’
The search for identity and meaning in Halfway House is best articulated through the character of Savitri who seeks fulfilment and reason in marital bliss – “Why does one get married? In order to fulfil a need….an inner….void, if you like; to be self sufficient….complete.” Since her own husbands fails to fulfil this inner emptiness, Savitri seeks marital happiness beyond conjugal relations in men who possess the qualities she had always aspired for in Mahendranath. Dilip Kumar Basu observes, “The desire to look for “completeness” in the “other” may look like Everyman’s essential and unreasolvable problem, and may vaguely place her in the centre of an Absurdist drama where the search may be considered tragic/ridiculous.” Although the concept of Savitri seeking meaning in life being defined in terms of her relations with men seems problematic in itself, the play tries to trick us into the generalisation that this is nothing but an existentialist quest for meaning in life. She is reported to be overwhelmed by Juneja’s power, affluence and sense of reason. Shivjeet’s intellectual prowess, his university degree and numerous trips abroad enamoured her. Jagmohan’s understanding nature, sense of humour, modernism, elite lifestyle and masculine pride held immense appeal for her. She was supposed to be attracted to her now son-in-law, Manoj too, as his influential status had charmed her sufficiently. Savitri moves from one man to another in search of the perfect partner. The play tries to portray this search as an illusion, an Absurdist attempt by denying Savitri the happiness she is looking for and making her realise that all men are the same and they all of them as in Kirti Jain’s words “want to evade responsibility and to exploit her.”
Mahendranath is shown to search for a new identity and reason behind his existence through his relationship with Juneja. The economic crisis and his losing the identity of being the bread-earner of the family had altered his position in the house into a non-entity and affected his mind and heart adversely “…….silent acceptance, perpetual snubs, constant insults, is all that I deserve after so many years.” He greatly resents his loss of control and influence in the family and is immensely unhappy to be regarded “only as a stamp of respectability to be used only when the need arises.” Under such circumstances of changed power equations, Mahendranath searches for meaning in new relations build on a sense of understanding and mutual respect, as is the case with Juneja. From Savitri’s perpetual insults and accusations and its subsequent repercussions in giving him an inferiority complex, Juneja’s friendship offered Mahendranath the alternate sanctuary of solace and comfort in the midst of an emotional and economic crisis within the family. He began to define himself in terms of his non-utility and unsuccessfulness, and thereby sought solace in temporary acts of rebellion involving leaving the house and seeking meaning and mental peace in his companionship with Juneja. Moreover due to his own lack of conviction and inability to take independent decisions, Mahendranath looked for identity assertion through psychological dependence on others and in the early years of his marriage through a patriarchal control and restriction of Savitri’s autonomy. The fact that Mahendranath finally returns in the end using his own judgement, abandoning Juneja’s advice, establishes the futility of his search and once again, reiterates the Absurdist stance the play tries to partially incorporate.
Ashok and Kinni explore the dynamics of identity on their own in their own world so as to escape from the fearful existence of their wrangling parents. Ashok searches for his identity in an amorphous world, detached from reality and need, in the realm of idleness, impulsivity and romance. For no apparent reason at all, he quits his job at Air Freeze and instead spends his time either in lazing around uselessly or in courting a girl working in the Udyog Centre. The everyday animosity between his parents distorts his sense of ‘home’ and thereby he looks for meaning and identity in an alternate world free of the pressure of shouldering family responsibility and of the tensions within the family. Even the talk he has with Binni about the ‘air’ in the house echoes these sentiments about the search for meaning. The youngest character Kinni on the other hand, searches for an identity through her emerging adolescent sexuality and awareness of this sexuality, in the absence of a secure support mechanism at home, both economically and emotionally. Given the emotional instability in her house and the complete negligence with which she was treated, Kinni sought to define herself in terms of her rebelliousness, growing sexual knowledge, stubbornness, ill-mannerisms and arrogance. In the last scene, Kinni trying to get out when the door is locked from inside and others trying to get in when she locks it from inside is again symbolic of a futile quest for identity and meaning in life, for even her defiance and obstinacy fails to make things any different for the little girl.
Binny too is shown to be in a relentless and shifting quest for a sanctuary, an identity. She elopes with Manoj not in an impulse of love and romantic urge but in search of an abode away from home where she presumed she would find peace and protection. But however, when she experiences her husband’s strict conservatism and fails to find any meaning in Manoj’s restrictive control within their conjugal relation, she looks for answers in a sense of defiance – “He likes my hair long, so I want to cut it. He doesn’t like me to work, so I want a job.” But this again proves futile as she realises she is unable to execute her rebellious tendencies against the sub-ordination by her husband. Ultimately, she just returns to her maternal home in search for that mysterious “something” in their house that is the “cause of all her trouble” and that which refuses to desert her. However, Binni is never shown to exactly unravel this mystery ‘cause’ thereby manifesting the absurdity of the entire process of finding meaning in life.
However, when their search for meaning in life and the subsequent despair and suffering is regarded only along existential lines, it thus forecloses the possibility of ever addressing the cause of the dilemma. All the characters’ quest for an identity beyond the home, the search for an alternate sanctuary besides being analysed as a technique of Absurdist Theatre can also be seen in terms of the alienation that comes with urbanization, the breakdown of joint family and the new emerging power-plays and conflicts within the nuclear family with no viable support system outside.
The fact that Savitri never explores the arena of identity as an independent individual woman, a single working woman; but instead always defines herself in terms of fulfilment in her various relations with different men raises important questions about the status of women as an autonomous individual in society. To quote R.L. Nigam, “The one solution which could have lead to joy and fulfilment, and was available to her all the time, would need for its success, a regenerated society in whose value-system personal fulfilment and interpersonal responsibilities have been harmonised. In the present social scenario, that solution would not work.”
Morever, Mahendranath and Savitri not finding meaning in their relationship can also be seen as the virtual breakdown of marriage as an institution. In our fast-changing society and in the face of belated individualism of its members, the values and regards on which family and marriage have so far rested are fast losing their meaning and significance. Assertion of personal rights and freedoms within a group-unit (family) which necessarily involves inter-personal adjustments produces a situation of crisis because there are no principles to guide these adjustments, which necessarily involves inter-personal adjustments produces a situation of crisis because there are no principles to guide these adjustments which, in present context cannot be thought of in terms of surrender of one or the other party. All relations in the family need to be redefined with new structures of familial division of labour and the rise of the working women. As O.P. Sharma Prakash puts it, “Halfway House is the crisis of dignity of the individual. Modern man demands individual dignity as well as honour of is choice….. It represents the modern sensibility in all its intensity, form and dimensions.” The fact that Manoj blames ‘something’ in Binni’s maternal house as the cause of all trouble and then prevents her from working establishes that the ‘something’ is in reference to her mother’s promiscuity which leads him to infer that letting women out of the house would always come with the threat of her infidelity. Moreover, Mohan Rakesh’s juxtaposition of a monogamous husband with a woman whose defining feature is her promiscuity ironically at a time when the ‘Hindu Marriage Act (1955)’ came into force outlawing polygamy to protect the rights of Hindu women reflects the extent of male anxiety generated by women’s emancipation, whose right to work meant the dissolution of the public-private dichotomy necessary for the maintenance of the family as a private sphere. This anxiety is further elaborated in terms of portraying Kinni as an uncared neglected kid, who returns to a home without the mother and feels lonely and alienated.
Mahendranath’s despair too needs to be identified not just in terms of the emotional crisis that he faces with the breakdown of familial relations and absence of mutual respect, but also the economic crisis which ultimately appears as the root of all problems. Mahendranath loses his position in family, when the roles of provider and receiver are changed, when economic equations of earner and acceptor are altered and redefined in terms of sex and gender. Their current poverty seems to be the result of typical-middle class lifestyle of living beyond one’s means, and the search for identities only arises when existing identities run into conflict with changing economic denominations of labour division within the family itself. Thus, Mahendranath’s yearning for meaning in life has new economic arrangements within the familial space and sheer inability to solve the economic crisis, triggering it.
Even Ashok’s arrogance and refusal to submit to influential people, Dilip Kumar Basu feels can be analysed in the backdrop of “1969 youth revolts in Paris, and things happening in our country.” The young man’s indifference to work is thus to be constructed as a larger question of youth rebellion and mobilisation, than just mere laziness and irresponsibility or a mere existentialist search for identity.
Hence, in conclusion, it can be said that although Mohan Rakesh’s “Halfway House” deals extensively with the question of identity and meaning in life, to situate it solely in an Existentialist dimension and accord it the distinction of being the primary concern of the play, would unfairly downplay many other socio-economic themes that the play encompasses.