Review of our Kozhikode performance of ‘Afterlife of Birds’ in Hindu

Director Abhishek Majumdar’s ‘Afterlife of Birds’ is unpretentious story-telling.

“Courage is simple.” But “it is not a poem with rhyming lines,” says Niromi to Ajanthi. Courage and cowardice, success and failure, freedom and entrapment, these seemingly definitive concepts swell and blur in ‘Afterlife of Birds,’ directed by Abhishek Majumdar, and staged by Indian Ensemble.

The play has an airy name and despite its grave theme – stories of those linked with terror – the narrative is never bogged down by the subject, primarily because Majumdar digs deep into the people behind the causes. So there is Niromi, the Sri Lankan Tamil who joined Eelam as an 18-year-old because her friend Ajanthi joined it. “Can she come and go?” Niromi asks for Ajanthi before they are recruited. Niromi holds on to this child-like zest and innocence till the end. Then there is the young boy with a cherubic face, the son of the feted Rashid ‘bandwallah,’ who vows to his love: “I will be a ticket checker in a cinema hall in my next life.” But for now he is recording what could be his final video before he goes to blow himself up at Rajpath on Republic Day.

PERSONAL TALES

‘Afterlife of Birds,’ performed in Kozhikode as part of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala recently, is set on the night of January 25. Two distinct stories are on a crossroads that night and unfold to reveal their link. The set is bare and simple. The two ends of the stage function simultaneously as Rashid’s room and Niromi’s prison cell. Niromi, having spent 17 years in jail after a failed attempt to blow herself up at another Republic Day, will be released the next day on pardon – “Leave, not pardon,” as she likes to call it.

‘Afterlife of Birds’ doesn’t delve into the causes – be it the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka or the outfit of which Rashid’s son is a member of. But it darts vigorously into the personal stories of the people who are part of it. Probably that’s the play’s triumph. There are no justifications for any actions, no lengthy sermons, just intensely personal stories. The faceless “terrorist” acquires a human face and stories like yours and mine.

If Ajanthi, the more committed one in the beginning, leaves the outfit and settles in London, gets married and has three children, Niromi, the unlikely one, stays on. “It is a habit, it is who I am. Earlier, I was with you, now I am with them. I will be with them till the end,” Niromi tells Ajanthi. For Rashid, the disillusionment is intense. His life’s investment – the name he garnered as the flautist of the band, which is an inevitable part of the Republic Day parade – is sullied by the dubious links of his son. On the eve of Republic Day, he is slapped by a policeman and his priceless act of courage – sabotaging Niromi’s attempt to bomb the parade – is forgotten.

‘Afterlife of Birds’ works also because it doesn’t glorify anyone or anything. If Rashid averted a tragedy by spotting Niromi, he says it was merely an accident. Overwhelmed by the occasion when he marched before world leaders, he kept looking straight when the others turned right and ended up finding Niromi.

NO DEFINITE RIGHTS

There are no definite “rights” in the world Majumdar creates. So if Ajanthi, the deserter, becomes the “poor fighter” in her own eyes, to Niromi’s son, Dilip, Ajanthi comes across as “the better mother.”

‘Afterlife of Birds’ treads through ambiguities with confidence. Rashid cannot understand how he fails to fathom his boy, who has always been “an average son, an average brother and an average student.” And when he forsakes the parade, he tells his assistant, Chaubey: “If you see him at the parade, tell him to come home.”

The play thrives on powerful performances. Arundhati Nag gets into the skin of Niromi. Through an effortless performance, she brings out the complexities of Niromi, for whom being released from the prison is finally “being trapped.” Revathy is precise and earnest as Ajanthi. So is Sandeep Shikhar as Rashid. The supporting cast also perform their roles to perfection. ‘Afterlife of Birds’ doesn’t preach, it merely tells stories.

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