Nepali Times
Into the heart of darkness


When Ashmina Ranjit organises a show, you can bet it\'ll be quite a show. Nothing is ever ordinary in Ashmina\'s works. But when the lights faded out at the performance of Tamas: The Darkness in Gurukul\'s Sama Theatre, what the audience didn\'t expect was for the darkness to stay.

Sounds of sobbing, screaming, crying and grating of chains filled the murky velvety darkness. The audience sat (some with goosebumps) waiting, wishing for something to happen, for the horrible noise to end, for the darkness to go away. But it just went on and on.

After an eternity, the darkness gave way to the filmed figure of Ashmina chained to many chains, sobbing, screaming, crying and dragging the chains as she moved like a caged animal pacing its enclosure. Her shadows played on the background as she stepped on stage, dressed in black, pacing back and forth, reading from papers.

 Gai ko char ota khutta hunchha , she began. The audience teetered on the edge of bursting into laughter. . duita sing, duita ankha ra euta puchhar . The ode to the cow is a national ditty and like the national anthem, all Nepali school students are required to memorise it by heart as an example of good essay writing. That is as far as the Nepali school system goes with creative writing.

But Ashmina is just warming up. Some cows are tall and some cows are short. some cows have big eyes and some have small ones. Wait a minute, that was never a part of Mahendra Mala , where did that come from? Cows are simple and calm animals. Cows do not usually attack.Because of their importance, Nepal recognises cows.The law sentences a cow-killer for life.In this way, cows are treated as Nepali subjects. They are simple, docile and useful. Simple, docile and useful. Cows.subjects. Cows.subjects. Hey aunsibaro gai tiharo bhailo. 

The bewildered audience filed out. Even the applause after the performance had been thoughtful, muted. To say You are a cow in Nepal is a compliment that means you are reliable, dependable, unquestioning, docile, simple and useful. To say You are a cow in English is an insult. To box the whole situation and Nepali society into one hackneyed essay might seem too simplistic but it is powerful, easy to relate to and as absurd as the times we live in.

Nothing after February First made any sense to me, Ashimina told us after the show, as much as the nonsensical editorials and news published in the papers afterward. I was in New York on 1 February. The initial sense of shock gave way to tears of anger and frustration when all connection with home was cut off. Nothing has pained me as much as the pain I felt then.

Suffocating in America where she was on a Fulbright scholarship, Ashmina was unable to concentrate. She needed to express her alienation and that was how Tamas: The Darkness came about . Freedom of expression is so important, she adds, I needed to take that pain and use it to free myself from it. Using the essay on the cow seemed only too obvious because it is the paradox within which our understanding of the east and west is strung, finely balanced.

Her conviction grew stronger as differences in viewpoints raged when she talked to Nepalis in America or Americans who knew Nepal. By the end of April, she had staged the play at New School University and Bard University. Bringing it home achieved her next objective-to let darkness merge with itself. She plans to perform it once again in a public space.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)