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Stuti Goswami
Date of Publish: 2016-07-30




An individual is able to act on the basis of the circumstances he/she finds himself/herself in and the options that are available within which he/she has to make a choice. In other words it is in the exercise of choice that freedom lies. However, from Philip Petit’s discussion of freedom in A Theory of Freedom: From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency, we can also say that there can be different factors or forces due to which the idea of freedom as an exercise of choice can be viewed: underdetermination, ownership, and responsibility. Underdetermination implies that an individual’s action and the exercise of freedom are sought to be undermined or threatened or limited by external factors, factors over which the individual may or may not have control. Ownership implies that an individual sees his/her action as something he/she has willed (irrespective of external factors). Responsibility implies the extent to which an individual’s action is analysed and evaluated. An individual is responsible for his/her action that he undertakes (presumably) by exercising his/her will in the face of circumstances that may be helpful, detrimental, or challenging.  From another perspective, we can also speak of freedom at the macro and micro levels. When equated with societal and individual freedoms respectively these macro and micro level-freedoms are often found to be at odds. Corresponding to these different facets and kinds of freedom we have different pursuits of the same. The efforts of a community against an oppressive foreign rule, of a group or set of people against oppressive sections of the society, of an individual against the injustices prevalent in society or injustices meted out to him/her are different forms of pursuit of freedom. Some of these comprise the ‘greater’ pursuits that involve a large number of people and resources and leave wider and deeper impacts in space and time while there are others that concern individuals, particularly people whom we may term the little men and women of society, the marginalized ones, people whose lives are considered miniscule in the grand scheme of things. But for these people, their struggles are equally if not more significant. Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s play Lobhita portrays these diverse notions through the experiences of its titular character Lobhita Barua. This play was published posthumously in 1948.

In the play Lobhita is a young girl of a nondescript village Phuloguri. Due to war, her father dies in his own courtyard and Lobhita is forced to leave her home like thousands of others evacuated to safer places. Golap, a policeman who is in love with her, arranges for her to stay at the mouzadar’s home. However, the independent minded Lobhita refuses to cower to the landlady’s ill treatment. She leaves that house and by a twist of fate stays at the house of Elahibaksh an elderly Muslim gentleman. Afraid of social censure Golap hesitates to accept Lobhita, at which she frees herself from the relationship and enters service as a nurse serving British Indian army. However, she is captured with a few others by the Japanese and INA forces. Eventually she becomes a nurse with the INA. In the final act, Lobhita even takes up arms against the British forces and dies on the battlefield, dreaming of freedom.

Unlike the First World War, the Second World War was fought on a greater magnitude and a vaster geographical-cultural plane. While Indian soldiers as part of the British Indian army fought in both wars, the Second World War was fought in the northeastern frontier of colonial India including Assam. In this war, Imperial Japan aided Indian revolutionaries who sought to liberate India from British rule in forming the Indian National Army or the Azad Hind Fauj. The INA was formed in 1942 under Mohan Singh and then led by Subhas Chandra Bose from 1943. Together these armies attacked the northeastern frontier of British India and initially made significant incursions. While the Muslim League supported Britain’s involvement in the war, the Congress had initially offered conditional support to Britain. But its demand for independence was rejected by the British. The failure of the Cripps’ mission’s soon after this resulted in the launch of the Quit India movement in 1942. This saw imprisonment of the leaders of the struggle and suppressive measures of the government against peaceful demonstrations. This period also saw the rise of socialism in the country. The Communist Party of India was established in 1921. But Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose’s support saw the rise of socialism in the country. Followers of socialism supported the cause of Indian farmers and peasants who were oppressed by zamindars and the landed gentry. These broader cross-currents did not leave the rural parts of Assam untouched. This is reflected in the play through the remarks and discussions of different characters. Significantly, the playwright focuses on dialogue more than actions and therefore in the play there are lengthy dialogues and long drawn discussions that convey the playwright’s concerns and his message to the audience. In Lobhita Agarwala draws characters from a wide spectrum of Assamese society—from simple village folk to village elite like the mouzadar and village headman to profiteering traders to police constables to volunteers of the Indian National Congress to doctors and nurses engaged in medical services in the war. There is also an Assamese leader of the INA who motivates Lobhita and other nurses to join the fight against the British. It is interesting that there are long motivational speeches of a volunteer of the Congress party and a leader of the INA, each speaking of freedom from the oppressive British rule, though from different perspectives and by adopting contrasting paths.

            The playwright explores how the individual freedoms of the little men and women of the world—belonging to places that barely if ever find place in the maps and in the grand scheme of things—are eroded by the same grand schemes. On one hand, there is freedom struggle from British rule, where millions of men and women of all ages and all walks of life offered passive resistance, enduring pain and suffering. In this, their experience and pursuit of freedom was part of the collective experience. On the other hand, these people suffered both at the hands of the invading Japanese soldiers and the soldiers of the British Indian army as well as those from other armies that were a part of the Allied forces. The soldiers of the British Indian army fought a battle for freedom on behalf of a foreign ruler while being bounded by servitude themselves. The Indian soldiers ended up threatening and even harming their own countrymen. There were also those Indian soldiers of the INA who fought against the   forces in the War. The too fought for freedom from British, with objectives similar to that of the Indian National Congress but they chose force against non-violence. They believed that through the Japanese aid they could free their country from the British. Then again, there was oppression of the local agents of the government—the village headman and the mouzadar, who lived comfortably, imbibing oftentimes the attitude, if not ways and tastes of the outsiders. Through Lobhita’s experience and encounters with many of these characters, Jyotiprasad highlights the cultural intersections and ideological ferment of those times. And how the pressure from these different forces contributed to the loss of individual freedom of the simple village folk, uprooted from their homes and hearths and their roots. Lobhita’s efforts are in asserting her personal freedom, which seems miniscule compared to all the freedoms that were asserting themselves over her life and the lives of thousands like her and which seemed small price to the wagers of the bigger battles for freedom. And yet, in her efforts Lobhita emerges ennobled. She refuses to cower to pressure from many of these forces. She refuses to occupy that marginalized position hitherto the region and its people long seemed to (especially in their minds). She is proud of her Assamese heritage and asserts the strength of an Assamese girl. She loses her life at the end of the play, and as the audience is well aware, in a losing cause; for the Japanese and INA’s advances are thwarted and defeated by the British and American forces. Of course eventually India wins freedom from British rule. But it is in Lobhita’s ability to choose from her changed circumstances and the consequent actions that he undertakes is what sets her apart and reminds the audience that ultimately the greater pursuits of freedom of the country could be realized  only through sacrifices of the personal freedoms of the little people whose villages and names barely found their ways to the grander narratives.


(Stuti Goswami is a Guwahati-based bilingual writer and translator and currently a PhD Research Scholar at the Department of English, Gauhati University.)



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