Jointly authored by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, Betrayed By Hope is a play on the life of the nineteenth century poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873). The play is based on extensive research by the authors spanning a period of nine years. A five-act play, the plot is structured around Dutt and the fictional character, Rubina Rahman or Rubi, a young researcher from Bangladesh; the poet is the subject of her research. Instances from Dutt’s personal life are interspersed with his journey as a writer who began by writing in English and later made a transition to Bangla. Extensive use of the epistolary form in the play creates a life-like picture of Dutt; on stage, he reads from letters written to Gourdas Bashak (his classmate at Hindu College and lifelong friend), other associates and later, in days of penury, to the social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Each of the five acts map different phases of Dutt’s life. Biographical progression is interrupted by Rubi, the Sutradhar or the narrator in the play. This dramaturgic device brings out different aspects of the writer’s life, while also providing pause moments to the audience to think about questions raised by Rubi. Act I presents a forty-five year old Michael Madhusudan Dutt looking ponderously at the work of his youthful days. The scene shifts to the young man of 17 years, enthused with the idealism of the Romantic poets, his teacher David Lester Richardson and Henry Derozio’s Young Bengal Movement. These ideas appeared unrealizable in the orthodox Hindu society of the day and Dutt soon converted to Christianity; he was subsequently ostracized by his family and had to leave Hindu College. Letters written to his friend Gourdas Bashak speak of loneliness, an intense intellectual conflict and anxiety post-conversion. His father, Rajnarayan Dutt, stopped paying for his education and Dutt left Calcutta and shifted to Madras (now Chennai).
In Act II, Dutt’s letters to Bashak give an insight into his state of mind as also facts about his marriage to Rebecca Thompson, a woman ‘of English parentage’. However, soon Dutt leaves his wife and their four children and moves back to Calcutta where he is joined by Amelia Henrietta; she was his lifelong companion. Dutt’s abandonment of his family disturbs the Sutradhar, Rubi—‘I am no longer a neutral researcher; I confess to having lost the academic distance necessary for a scholarly project. I am literally boiling with rage at our hero’s convenient double standards, at his hypocrisy, his selfishness.’ Rubi’s interventions create a dialogue between the respective time periods of these two characters.