Wheels of injustice roll on
- Laati ko Chhoro, a realistic portrayal of a Dome community, suggest that those in the fringes are caught in a vicious cycle of marginalisation and oppression, and there is no easy way out
Sep 9, 2017-The moment Bisanath Babu (Tika Pahari) makes his dramatic entry in the new play Laati ko Chhoro, you sense that there is something sinister afoot. Yet Bisanath projects a countenance that almost convinces you think otherwise. He appears to be a world-weary, unerring gentleman—a saviour of the dusty town of Sundar Bazaar where the play is set. We learn right from the onset that the community is currently undergoing a crisis—the marginalised Dome community is landless, they have been unjustly denied fundamental rights, and they want justice from the local Panchayat. The grievance is raised by Surja Dome, a partly literate and a wholely rebellious man. Bisanath Babu passes a decree that the crisis be solved through negotiation with the officer at Malpot Office.
The sequence paints a realistic—that is to say, a grim—portrait of Sundar Bazaar, and also introduces the audience to the class divide in the community: the aristocrat (represented by Bisanath Babu); the middle-class, represented by, among others, Ram Prasad Sharma, a high school teacher (played by Sandesh Lamichhane), Pandit Chandrakanata Jha (Roshan Subedi), and merchant Sitaram Agrawal (Rajan Kafle); and those representing the lower rungs of the social strata: Pavitra (Pashupati Rai), a single woman accused of being a witch, the tea vendor, Mithalal Yadav, and the barber (played by Milan Karki).
The titular Laati (everyone in the village calls her so), played by Kenipa Singh, cannot speak, of course, and is also somewhat unhinged. “If only she could keep herself clean, how beautiful would she look,” one of the villagers says. So she quickly catches eyes of the men in the village. Some months later, it is revealed that Laati is pregnant with child. But whose child is it? The question is brought in front of the Panchayat. Before the Panchayat meeting, the teacher Ram Prasad confesses secretly to Bisanath that the child is his, and begs to be excused. So does Pandit Chandrakanta, and then Sitaram and even the policeman Prem Bahadur Thapa (Rear Rai). Despite multiple confessions, the Panchayat instead decides that the father of the child is Surja Dome. The innocent man is then beaten mercilessly for raping Laati, as the real culprits watch on.
Laati ko Chhoro is set on a similar setting as Tandav Theatre’s Loo, staged a couple of months ago at Mandala Theatre. Both the plays, the realistic depiction of marginalised communities, suggest a similar conclusion: That those in the fringes are caught up in a vicious cycle of marginalisaion and oppression and there is no easy way out. Sundar Bazaar might be fictional, but it could also be any of Nepal’s many communities in the margins.
It is worth noting that the play introduces production design as an independent department for the first time in Nepali theatre, and its effect is apparent. The set of Laati ko Chhoro is one of the best in Nepali theatre of late. The physical structures are not just alluded to but are constructed on stage. Take for instance the chautari, where the barber has an open-air saloon. So realistic is the set design that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it were actually a physical infrastructure and not a prop for the drama. The makeshift hut which Pavitra calls home is also a real hut, where you could actually spend a night.
On the acting front, Tika Pahari, as Bisanath Babu, delivers a fine performance of course. But it’s Kenipa Singh as Laati who steals the show. Portraying a character like that is definitely hard, but Singh carries it out seemingly easily. While Prakash Dahal as the policeman renders an energetic performance; his character is the typical quirky character who thinks he is witty but actually is quite stupid. And the audience seemed to enjoy his idiosyncrasies.
The highlight of the play, and the crux of the issue it raises, comes after Laati gives birth to her child. No one knows who the child’s father is and this creates another crisis of justice in the community. Naturally, it is upon Bisanath to put matters to rest. Once the Panchayat meeting is held, Bisanath gives two minutes for Laati to speak, even though it is abundantly clear that she can’t. Laati takes that moment to grab the metaphorical child, made of straw, and ferociously tears it. This is analogous to how Nepali society continues to pretend to give voice to the voiceless-- a poignant moment on the play, in which silence says much more than dialogues ever could have.
The play ends in a sequence that is real and damning at once. Some ten years have passed at Sundar Bazaar since the inquest, and Bisanath now represents the community in the national parliament. He returns to find Laati ko Chhoro has grown up. His failure to provide Laati due justice has gone unpunished, as have the perpetrators of the crime. The havenots continue to remain trapped in the margins, while the hypocritical Bisanaths continue to flourish. All this, meanwhile, is being observed by a pair of muted Buddha eyes, subtly placed at the stage’s background.
Published: 09-09-2017 09:05