Chapterwise description of Harvest


Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest is important in the canon of Feminist Theatre as they encapsulate what Helen Keyssar describes as,

Productions of scripts characterized by the consciousness of women as women; dramaturgy in which art is inseparable from the condition of women as women; performance ( written and acted) that deconstructs sexual difference and thus undermines patriarchal power, scripting and production that present transformation as a structural and ideological replacement for recognition; and the creation of women in the subject position (Keyssar,1996,1).

The main theme of Harvest is about organ transplant and its abuse, the subtext focuses on how women are treated as possessions of men who harvest future generations from their bodies but refuse the same women even a modicum of autonomy in life.

The play shows how feminist playwrights like Padmanabhan have not only used innovative techniques but have also adapted some conventions of the proscenium to effectively establish their agenda. This paper also makes an effort to illustrate how certain aspects of language have been adapted to enhance characterizations and how techniques as diverse as realism, social gest and alienation effect have been yoked together for this purpose.

Like other feminist plays, Harvest starts media res, at a point where a crucial decision has to be taken. Light’s Out is set in the affluent upper floor apartment of Leela and Bhaskar. The first scene establishes the fact that Leela is traumatized by the disturbing activities and cries for help emanating from the neighbouring building. Her dishevelled appearance and tense words are proof of her fear which she describes as a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. As soon as she sees her husband Bhaskar her first words are to find out whether he has informed the police about the disturbance which has been going on for some time. In total contrast, Bhaskar is relaxed and interested only on unwinding. He asks their servant, Frieda, for his evening tea as he starts reading the newspaper and casually informs Leela that he had forgotten to call the police. Leela gets very agitated at his words and attitude as she had been able to convince him only after a lot of arguments. But her agitation and anger have no effect on her husband who tells her to relax with some Yoga. The first scene of Harvest shows Jaya waiting anxiously for her husband Om. She keeps looking out of the window with worry written large on her face. Her anxiety is better understood when we realize that the job that they are hoping for is of selling his organs. Om decides to do this in spite of Jaya not agreeing to it. He even makes her promise not to tell his mother about it. The playwright shows the limbo that the two women are in. They have no autonomy or deciding power in their own homes and are prime examples of, in psychoanalyst Jean Baker Miller’s words, “the submissive group”(qtd. in Roy,1999,42). They are bogged down by female passivity, inability to act, to decide and to think. The women show a reluctance to voice their disagreement and frustration strongly. Their sentences are, at this point, hesitant, broken and incomplete, ex. Leela’s “Did you……do it?” Oh…..Bhaskar”, and Jaya’s” what they say in their room—none of your business”

Padmanabhan’s plays are realistic in style and content. They are realistic to the extent that they portray the lives of common people through incidents dramatized in a believable manner but realism in the conventional sense is circumvented by the fact that the issues discussed are totally women-centric and told from their point of view. In Light’s Out the reactions of women to rape i.e of repugnance and horror at the crime, are given cognizance and all other attempts to treat it differently are rejected. Harvest puts the spotlight on the effect of organ sale on women and their struggle to mitigate the repercussions. Recognizable settings, characters and events reaccentuate the newness of the material on stage. It is typified by juxtaposing and maintain continuity of incidents from scene to scene and references to popular culture like newspaper reading, tea, gossip sessions, job hunting, cooking and childcare. This makes the audience forget the difference between the stage and themselves and end up caring about it as much as their own lives. This, according to Michelene Wandor,

“though disguises the construction of the world and makes it appear seamless and natural and hence appropriate, it puts ordinary and working-class people at ease and makes them more receptive to political and social ideas and behaviours that they may otherwise avoid”(Wandor,1993,55).

Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away- that’s how daring a feat, how great a transgression it is for a woman to speak even just open her mouth in public. Double distress, for even if she transgresses, her words fall almost always upon the deaf male ear, which hears in a language only that speaks in the masculine ( Cixous,1997,351).

The dramatization of their helplessness serves the dual purpose of creating empathy of shared experience with the women in the audience as well as emphasize their future transformation more effectively.

Naming is a powerful ideological tool. It is also an accurate pointer to the ideology of the namer. Different names for an object represent different ways of perceiving it. An example from another area of violence illustrates this; how do you refer to a person who seeks political aims using aggression? Is s/he a terrorist, guerilla freedom fighter, rebel or resistance fighter?

Different connotations of legitimacy and approval are carried by these labels. The naming of the assault and its participants as those of religion also works in giving it a positive hue( Clark,1998,184).

Padmanabhan goes a step further to show how this process, appropriated for countless ages by men, becomes a double-edged sword in their hands. When the women refuse to be distracted from their conviction of going to the police the men change tracks and say that even if they accept that the incidents may have sexual overtones it cannot be rape as the women being tortured seem to be cheap “whores”(40). In their opinion, prostitutes who sell themselves have no right over their bodies and so cannot be raped and only decent women can be raped. Kate Clark, studying the reports by the newspaper The Sun on male physical violence against women, describes how the messages that a popular newspaper engenders in it’s reporting of such crimes are critical. The Sun refers to attackers of wives, brides, housewife etc. as fiends and monsters, but where the attacks were on blondes, unmarried women, Lolitas ( in Sun language, a sexually active underage girl)the attackers were named sympathetically or in terms of normality (184).

Harvest, however, presents an empowering scenario of the naming process. Throughout the duration of the play, Virgil, the foreigner buying Jaya’s husband’s organs, persists in pronouncing her name as “zhaya”. But at the end of the play when Jaya finally meets him and realizes that it is in her power to decide the further implementation of his plans she refuses to go any further until he pronounces her name properly. In the face of her adamancy, he is forced to bow to her wishes and says it correctly. “zhaya”. But at the end of the play when Jaya finally meets him and realizes that it is in her power to decide the further implementation of his plans she refuses to go any further until he pronounces her name properly. In the face of her adamancy, he is forced to bow to her wishes and says it correctly.

Silence is the other aspect of language that is prominent in these plays. It is a well-documented fact that society’s linguistic registers like religion, political rhetoric, legal discourse, science and literature of mass reach like poetry and theatre lack contributions by women. While women’s silence in the public sphere can be explained to a certain extent by their subordinate position relative to men, silence in everyday life is a little more complicated. Gal, in her essay on problems in the connection between language and gender, notes that silence has more meanings than just powerlessness. She gives instances like a confession to a priest, therapist or an officer of the law, where silence is a strategy of resistance to the oppressive power. Conversely, it can be a weapon used by the powerful, seen in such phrases as “strong silent type”. The power comes from emotional distance or unavailability and this kind of behaviour is usually seen only in men (426). It is interesting that all the above manifestations of silence, powerlessness (Frieda), power (male characters) and subversion (Naina, Jaya) can be observed in these plays. Padmanabhan uses it further as a route to escapism when the world becomes too hard to handle for the women living in it.

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Padmanabhan does not shy away from using strong language. The female characters mouth bold words like arse, pimping rascal and wetting yourself without any inhibition. The dialogues, hard as shrapnel, do not allow any margin for the sensibilities of the audience. The playwright uses a language with no circumlocution and adopts a language of power/men.

In Harvest, there is a scene where one of the neighbours, Bidyut Bai, after using the freshly installed toilet in Jaya’s house, tries to leave the place as inconspicuously as possible. When Om stops her and asks her as to who invited her in, she tries to feign ignorance about the entire thing. So also when there is a discussion about going abroad and Om tells his mother that no one travels abroad nowadays because of poverty, Jaya says “ not whole people anyway”. Ma understands this as “knot-hole people”, or dwarfs, in her language. This kind of levity provides a break in the otherwise serious atmosphere and by bringing down their defences it aids in making the people in the audience more receptive to the ideas of the playwright.

Research has shown that Brechtian techniques apply well to Feminist Theatre as they provide ample scope to isolate and address issues and bring out the ideology behind the theatrical endeavour clearly. Janelle Reinelt has found that “Brechtian Techniques, in particular, social gest and alienation effect, provided the means to reveal natural relations as the basis of social reality, to the foreground and examine ideologically determined beliefs and unconscious habitual beliefs and perceptions and to make visible those signs inscribed on the body which distinguish social behaviours in relation to class, gender, and history….(they) offer a way to examine the material conditions of gender behaviour ( how they are internalized, opposed and changed) and their interaction with other socio-political factors such as class”(154). This study shows that these techniques have been used ably by Padmanabhan in her plays which problematize both gender and class. Social gest and alienation effect works well for Feminist Theatre as they stimulate the audience to participate in the action on stage by thinking about the problems. Social gest is the gest that is relevant to society, the gest that allows conclusions to be drawn about social circumstances. This makes it the right platform to expose the various kinds of challenges faced by women in a patriarchal society and which demand validation. Four such gests that have been studied in this paper.

I

When Naina, brushing aside the objections of the men, looks out of the window to ascertain for herself what actually is happening, she is horrified to see three men holding down a woman while the fourth violates her mercilessly. The sight of this extreme torture shocks her into inarticulateness. Saying “some one’s being……They’re- they’re” she starts retching. This gest is very important because while it underlines the horror and revulsion that Naina feels for the crime it also gives a hint to the reaction that the playwright hopes to provoke in the spectator. The gest works to shock the spectator into stepping back and analyzing about all the horrific stories s/he reads and hears about instead of passively slotting it away as another statistic in the everyday hurly-burly of life.

II

The vignette where Leela is seen collecting arms for a retaliatory attack. In a matter of minutes, she arranges for acid and knives. There is an expression of glee on her face as she does this. Leela is a woman who is caught between her abject fear and the denial of autonomy to find a solution to the circumstances responsible for those fears. Given the total invalidation of her wishes by her husband, Surinder’s idea of a violent response gives her a sense of validation. The scene dramatizes and warns society about the reactions one can expect from women who are continually denied a voice.

III

The gest which underlines the effects of the vice-like grip of poverty and patriarchy is where Jaya angrily wipes off the kumkum mark on her forehead saying “ my forehead burns when I say the word sister”, when she comes to know that Om, without her knowledge, has declared her as his sister to the company employing him to donate his organs. Om does this to circumvent the precondition of the company that the donor has to be unmarried. This gesture, usually associated with widowhood, is useful in making the audience critique the mental anguish of Jaya who does this when her husband is still alive. For Jaya, the word ‘sister’ being used in connection to herself and Om is like a death knell to her marital relationship. Her actions create an empathy in the audience as it is on the basis of this relationship, a large part of her identity, that Jaya is living in that home. The pain that this distortion of relationships causes is reinforced when Ma says “ But these aren’t words! They are people”. The word ‘sister’ negates the very foundation of her life and so the gest forms a point of enquiry into the circumstances forcing Om to take such a decision. For a person like Om, unemployed and struggling to provide two square meals to his family, calling his wife ‘sister’ on paper is a small price to pay if it ensures financial solvency. The gest problematizes the desperate situation in the modern-day society which forces a man to choose between being cut up/ dying one day at a time and abject poverty.

IV
The gest which encapsulates the joy of having the autonomy to decide the course of one’s own life comes at the end of Harvest. It is interesting to note that it comes at a point of direct confrontation and when Jaya’s life seems to be at stake. Jaya comes to know that she has been the actual target of the organ buyer, Virgil and that after using the bodies of both Om and Jeeten, he is now intent on impregnating her with his seed mechanically to propagate his race, irrespective of her wishes. Once she realizes his designs, she locks herself in a room and counters his threats with her own conditions. Knowing fully well that she is the most important factor for the implementation of his plans she tells him that she will agree to conceive his child only if he comes to her and goes through the natural process of conjugation and that she will commit suicide if any other means is forced upon her. Saying “ This game is over! Either you have to erase me and start again or…..You must accept a new set of rules”, she settles down in front of the T.V to wait for him. She tells him that she does not want to be disturbed anymore and that she is going to enjoy herself for the first time in her life, eating for three and taking three baths a day. As she does this, joyous music fills the stage to signify her moment of empowerment. Everybody in the audience would have gone through a situation of intense dilemma and the relief that comes with the decision to face the consequences, good or bad, of one’s actions and beliefs. So the gest connects the audience to the character and her struggle for control over her body and wishes. Jaya’s empowerment comes from the fact that she is ready to win by losing. She is willing to go through the agreement but on her terms.

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One’s understanding of the alienation effect, an important Brechtian Technique, is that it prevents the audience from involving itself totally in the action on stage and remaining as passive observers. It is a device to create a critical audience separated mentally from the character on stage. Alienation effect or Verfremdungs effect is a tool to enable the audience to analyze the problem being presented rather than become emotionally involved in the story of the characters. This could be in the form of props, songs, direct interaction by the actors with the audience etc.

In Harvest, a fictitious atmosphere is created by the presence of a white faceted globe which looks like a Japanese Lantern, which lights up, moves in slow circles and also vertically. Throughout the play, the characters on stage are seen talking to the image of a beautiful woman called Ginni, the alleged buyer of Om’s organs. The movement of the globe creates a disconnect in the realistic aspect of the play. It also draws the attention of the audience towards the illusory nature of economics which society sees as the basis of success. It lights up the irony that the people who have the money to buy organs are dependent on those very sellers for their existence. By breaking the wall of suspension of disbelief, intrinsic to realism, this dramatic technique makes it possible for the audience to question the effects of poverty on man. When Jaya realizes that Ginni is actually only an animated front of an old man called Virgil she strikes the globe to break it. This act shatters any acceptance of the globe as an intrinsic element of the play and pushes the person watching the play out of the comfort zone of his own life into thinking about people like Om, living desperate lives, where relationships, ethics and even basic humanity are forgotten in the struggle for survival. The shattering also brings into focus, quite strongly, the strength of Jaya who holds onto her dignity and humaneness in spite of all the trauma and disillusionment that she faces. The loud sound and jagged light forces the audience to ask is Jaya (as her name suggests) victorious over the forces trying to exploit her ?. The lighted, flickering globe moving around on the stage creates an eerie but contrived atmosphere and this ambience negates any notions of the play being only a piece of evening entertainment and refuses to absolve the audience of active participation. The end of the play where images are created out of thin air, the shattering of the globe along with the guards shouting for Jaya to open the door are enough to disturb the complacency of the spectator and provoke him/her into thinking of some kind of intervention to the chaos on stage. It forces the spectator to imagine her/himself in Jaya’s shoes and taste for a brief moment her desperation.


Themes of the play


Harvest and the Evils of Globalization

Globalization is evil because it does not foster the humanity of things in the world. What it drives towards is for the greater benefit of the developed or the First World countries. Khor (2005:1) opines that: The reasons for the changing perception of and attitude towards globalization are many. Among the important factors is the lack of tangible benefits to most developing countries from opening their economies, despite the well-publicized claims of export and income gains…. The economic losses and social dislocation that are being caused to many developing countries by rapid financial and trade liberalization, the growing inequalities of wealth and opportunities arising from globalization; and the perception that environmental, social and cultural problems have been made worse by the workings of the global free-market economy and the soaring degree of attack by elements of terrorism are some of what have characterized globalization today. It means developing nations have faced more problems than ever as a result of the phenomenon of globalization.

Neocolonial intervention

It is into this world of disorder that Inter Planta Services brings apparent order and respectability. Om is hired to donate the healthy organs of his body when required by the receiver. There occurs a radical change to their dingy room and it acquires an air of sophistication. The most important installation, however, is the contact module placed at the centre of the room to facilitate communication between the receiver and the donor. The contact module and the apparent order brought in by Inter Planta seem to create turmoil in personal relationships. Since Inter Planta needs only the services of the bachelors, Om is forced to conceal the fact that he is married and hence Jaya masquerades as his sister. Om and his family members appear to be unable to question the complete hijacking of their personal lives by Inter Planta. It is worth noting that while the receiver can see Om, his family members and all other aspects of his life, the donor Om, gets to see only the face of the receiver and her sugary voice(that too deceptive). The donor and his family is kept under the constant gaze of the receiver as the module can rotate round to face each corner and can flicker to life at any moment. Ginni (Virgil) informs Jaya that the contact module had spied on them, “Always I listened in to you, Zhaya. I heard every word in the room- even when the Module was off, it recorded.” (Harvest 94).

Constant gaze of colonies

The contact module thus seems to become a sort of demigod. It does not fail to remind Om that the slightest trace of dishonesty on his part can be detected. It induces a feeling of helplessness in the family. They are powerless to resist even as it begins to encroach upon their private lives. “Every sneeze, every belch” (Harvest 94) is noticed. The situation becomes unbearable when Ginni demands an accurate report of every sneeze and every smile. She compares Om’s flat to a “human goldfish bowl” (Harvest 43) which she can observe and amuse herself with.

Panopticon

To this vision of powerlessness, we could associate Jeremy Bentham’s concept of ‘Panopticon’ as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”. French philosopher Michael Foucault looks at this as the paradigm of a sophisticated mechanism of observation and surveillance, as the ultimate surveillance system. This architectural Panopticon is a circular edifice with a tower at the centre that ensures constant observation of the inmates in the isolated cells of the outer ring, by a supervisor in the tower at the centre. The supervisor remains invisible to the inmates. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without their being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Foucault terms this system of observation which renders the invisible power at the centre as ‘panoptic’. This could be read along with Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘Cultural Hegemony’ (control through consensus). Contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the operation of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more. Manjula Padmanabhan’s living room is reminiscent of the panoptic mechanism.

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Panoptic power relation in family

The victory of panoptic surveillance technique is evident when Om discourages Jaya’s decision to nurse Jeetu back to health after Jeetu’s return to home from a miserable existence on the pavements. Om sees this as a display of sentimentality, a weakness which he knows Ginni will disapprove of. It is apparent that Om is prepared to renounce familial ties even without Ginni asking him to do so. Michel Foucault described the implications of ‘Panopticism’ in his 1975 work Discipline & Punish The Birth of the Prison – “the major effect of the Panopticon is to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”. Om is, without his conscious knowledge, being made the tool for power. A miniature version of the panoptic system can be perceived in Om’s mother’s total absorption in the fantasy world. She willingly shuts herself off from all outward manifestations of life. She is unmoved even as she sees her son Jeetu being taken away by the guards for an organ transplant by mistake. The Super Deluxe Video Couch she orders for herself is representative of her self-imposed withdrawal. Om’s mother’s renunciation of the world is complete, unhesitating and unquestioning. She chooses for herself electronic annihilation. Jeetu in turn is also not able to resist the phoney allurements offered by the screen image of Ginni, who is later described as nothing but a “computer-animated wet dream” (Harvest 95). Actually, the receiver was an old man, Virgil, who had deliberately misled Om Prakash and his family, by projecting the animated image of the seductive and lovely Ginny.jeetu donates his organs willingly and is destroyed.

Amongst all these characters, the only one who is able to resist the inhuman situation is Jaya. She realizes that she has lost every member of her family- Om Prakash, her husband; Ma, her mother-in-law; and Jeetu, her brother-in-law. Now it’s her turn, but she decides enough is enough and says that if she is pushed against her will, she will kill herself, as she has nothing to lose, but in the process, she will defeat the designs of the rich receiver. It is evident that she cannot resist the first world power structure through nothing but death when she says,

“I’ve discovered a new definition for winning, winning by losing. I win if you lose. (Harvest 100)… If you want to play games with people, you should be careful not to push them off the board. You pushed me too far. Now there’s nothing left for me to lose. (Harvest 101)… I am not willing to caretake my body for your sake! The only thing I have left which is still mine is death. My death and my pride.” (Harvest 101).

Silence

Silence is the other aspect of language that is prominent in these plays. It is a well-documented fact that society’s linguistic registers like religion, political rhetoric, legal discourse, science and literature of mass reach like poetry and theatre lack contributions by women. While women’s silence in the public sphere can be explained to a certain extent by their subordinate position relative to men, silence in everyday life is a little more complicated. Gal, in her essay on problems in the connection between language and gender, notes that silence has more meanings than just powerlessness. She gives instances like a confession to a priest, therapist or an officer of the law, where silence is a strategy of resistance to the oppressive power. Conversely, it can be a weapon used by the powerful, seen in such phrases as “strong silent type”. The power comes from emotional distance or unavailability and this kind of behaviour is usually seen only in men (426). It is interesting that all the above manifestations of silence, powerlessness (Frieda), power (male characters) and subversion (Naina, Jaya) can be observed in these plays. Padmanabhan uses it further as a route to escapism when the world becomes too hard to handle for the women living in it.

Padmanabhan’s plays are realistic in style and content. They are realistic to the extent that they portray the lives of common people through incidents dramatized in a believable manner but realism in the conventional sense is circumvented by the fact that the issues discussed are totally women-centric and told from their point of view. In Light’s Out the reactions of women to rape i.e of repugnance and horror at the crime, are given cognizance and all other attempts to treat it differently are rejected. Harvest puts the spotlight on the effect of organ sale on women and their struggle to mitigate the repercussions.

Recognizable settings, characters and events reaccentuate the newness of the material on stage. It is typified by juxtaposing and maintain continuity of incidents from scene to scene and references to popular culture like newspaper reading, tea, gossip sessions, job hunting, cooking and childcare. This makes the audience forget the difference between the stage and themselves and end up caring about it as much as their own lives.

Conclusion

The conclusion says that the inmates of the Third world are trapped under the unrelenting gaze of the First World. This total deprivation of privacy can be interpreted as the ultimate form of surveillance. The only way one can salvage one’s sense of pride and self- esteem is through a willingness to die if the need arises- and through great courage and self-control. It is this panoptic nightmare of total visibility which Harvest seems to highlight. The horror of a callous acquisitive culture is what makes this play a shocking revelatory experience.

Padmanabhan has futuristically exposed the macabre that may likely befall the developing world if critical attention is not given to the phenomenon of globalization. This is what is expected of a visionary playwright of her own class and clout. Other writers have also exposed their fear and reservations for this generation that is highly disillusioned. Martin (2007:7), in this book, “the Meaning of the 21st Century” warns us that we are living in a “make-or-break century”. We are travelling at “breakneck” speed into an age of extremes –extremes in wealth and poverty, extremes in technology and the experiments that scientists want to perform, extreme forces of globalism, weapons of mass destruction and terrorists acting in the name of religion. If we must survive, then we are expected to manage this situation. It is the frank position of the paper that the humanity in us should continue to be encouraged ahead of the globalization of the world. This means that humanity should be put first before inventions, profits, politics, etc. People should uphold what fosters the humanity in the world and not how much we connect in the world. The humanity of things will mean shaping a new global system that will manage globalization and post-unipolar world. This will mean the need for genuine reform of our political and economic institutions so as to make them fit for a new age. Also, it should also mean that concerted effort is channelled toward solving the political and environmental problems that will fit into the interconnected and highly complex global age. There should be the reconstitution of the membership of the United Nations Security Council to include emerging powers like India, Japan, Brazil, Nigeria etc. because of their current level of development. This should be corroborated with deliberate effort to always seek the consent of both major and minor powers as decisions are taken on global issues. There should be more drama on globalization and its impact and effects on cultures and social life of nations. It is in the spirit of trying to change the fortunes of the developing countries that Padmanabhan wrote her play. This is because developing nations are the ones that are badly affected by the phenomenon.

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