Before Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan begins, the audience is plunged into complete and total darkness in the Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI) theatre. When a spotlight comes up on writer and performer Dipti Mehta—her face partially obscured from our view by a colorful, bejeweled scarf—her figure is the only limb of reality extended to us in the alien space. The beginning of her one-woman show is not the only time the audience feels that Mehta is rescuing us.
The plot chronicles the life of a young girl named Rani, during the days leading up to her ‘first sale.’ Hers is the world of the courtesan, and she is about to join the adults who work in the trade.
Secondary characters include Rani’s mother, Chameli, a veteran prostitute sold by her own father at age 13. Now as an older woman, she presides over the little world of her daughter; their family friend Meena, a eunuch who helped raise Rani; and Shyam, whom Chameli raised but who now aspires to pimp out both Chameli and Rani.
Mehta plays all these roles herself, and those of prospective buyers. Her extended solo makes the isolation of the world she portrays palpable —alone onstage, her characters live isolated from men and women leading ‘civilian’ lives of marriage and babies, careers and education.
Her main character, Rani, sharply feels this isolation: Her youth and inexperience is impossible not to find endearing. The tensions of the world Mehta explores are present in her titular character as well–Rani is also streetwise, using the kinds of words that young women are not supposed to use, understanding the desires of lecherous men she meets on the streets.
The supposed isolation of the world onstage is challenged by the presence of the audience in the Montreal theatre. As mature and capable as Rani seems, the audience very much wants to intervene: To stop the sale, to whisk Rani away, to rescue her. But we cannot.
The powerlessness the audience feels watching the plot progress is not the lesson to be taken away–rather it is the coal with which Mehta hopes to light a fire in audience members. The play’s program included research from the United Nations estimating that 24.9 million individuals are in forced labour situations, largely women who have become the victims of human trafficking. For every girl whose fate is sealed, there are thousands more who can be saved by intervention from those with the resources to do so. Panelists at a talkback after the show included an advocate for human trafficking and forced prostitution in Montreal. Her inclusion emphasized the message of the play: This issue is both locally and universally urgent.
Honour is not a lament, but rather a call to action. The issue of human trafficking, though dire, is not hopeless. Mehta’s performance, encompassing seven characters throughout the play, stands in stark contrast to the coerced position of her heroine. Her agency is exercised every time she slips out of a character and into a new one.
In her first appearance as the mother, Chameli, Mehta states: “This is the reality of a woman’s life: She pays for the sins of others.”
But each time her female characters do so, Mehta pulls a scarf from the lines suspending them around stage. By the last scene, she has gathered them in her arms, bearing their weight just as women are expected to bear debts; as the lights come down for the final time, she turns her back to her audience, and lets them fall.