Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

V-day in the valley

“My vagina is angry,” bellowed Nikita Tripathi and strutted to the centre of the stage. Tripathi’s monologue, titled “My Angry Vagina”, is one of several from Eve Ensler’s highly acclaimed episodic play The Vagina Monologues, which premiered in New York City’s HERE Arts Center in 1996 and switched to the Off-Broadway Westside Theater for a successful stint. Two years later, Ensler launched V-Day, a global non-profit organization that works to raise awareness around violence against women and girls around the world. And on April 18 this year, V-Day Kathmandu, The Vagina Monologues premiered with a show at the Shilpee Theatre in Battisputali, Kathmandu. How did this come about? I was curious to know.

Bivishika Bhandari, Program Lead at the Hamri Bahini advocacy group, Mai Hoon Hamri Bahini, coordinated the cast of 21 female activist-storytellers, all Nepali apart from two Americans and a German. Bivishika, Gunjan, Kelsey and Akanchha (all of whom delivered monologues on Saturday) were mentors and guides to the rest of the team. Over email, Bivishika clarified my queries, writing that once the auditions were over and the team was finalized, she hosted workshops and group activities in order to create an intimate space. Participants shared personal stories and bonded over common experiences. Choosing women who felt strongly about women’s issues was an important part of the process – some wanted the experience to be therapeutic, some saw it as spiritual, while others just wanted to vent their frustrations.

Tripathi’s monologue, for instance, is a humorous rant against tampons and the tools used by obstetricians and gynaecologists. In this sense, each of the monologues features a specific feminine aspect, ranging across love, lust, orgasms to rape, genital mutilation and the act of giving birth. The common point is honesty. To tell it the way it is. To talk and talk some more. To lift veils, come out into the open and shatter taboos. Sitting on a chair at the centre of the stage, Tripathi play-acted a visit to the gynaecologist, demonstrating how it feels when someone coldly asks you to lie down and spread your legs. On stage though, Tripathi was comfortable, confident and seemed to having lots of fun.

Apart from the theme of discomfort, other recurring themes included self-acceptance, empowerment, and diversity, often using the female genitals as a starting point for conversations, and emphasizing how the vagina and the clitoris should be studied and embraced by both women and men. That it is and should be a source of pleasure and joy, not shame and pain. Judging from the palpable energy of the actors, the electric ambience of the theatre, and the response of the audience, The Vagina Monologues proved that literature and theatre can be powerful mediums for social change.

Saturday’s show stayed true to Ensler’s original script. But in order to contextualize it, the organizers took the liberty to change names and places. Since the play has been translated into over 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries, I imagine that such artistic license is necessary to make it relevant to an audience. For example, “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” deals with the experiences of a female sex-worker who loves to make other women moan. Akanchha, who delivered the monologue, mimicked different kinds of women attaining sexual climax – “the student”, “the newly-wed”, “the shy one” – and ended with a demonstration of how Nepali women might orgasm, “Launa lau, aiyya, aammai!” to roars of laughter from the audience.

Brave, fierce and funny. That’s the tagline for the show. Saturday’s women, all of whom were draped in red and black, rose to the challenge of performing a cutting-edge, controversial play. There was a definite sense of liberation emanating from each actor, and why not? Talking explicitly about something as personal as one’s vagina takes courage. Specially in Kathmandu which – despite shifts in attitudes over the last few decades – remains a highly repressed society when it comes to sexual mores.

There were poignant moments in the show, and some were downright disturbing, but there was mostly laughter. I could not help squeezing a friend’s arm constantly in disbelief, sometimes slapping her thighs, unable to contain my joy. But then, I was also eager for the show to come to an end, and at one point, even considered stepping out to take a break. Why? Let’s just say there was too much vagina in the house for this gay man’s taste.

The proceeds from the show went to Mai Hoon Hamri Bahini, whose advocacy is not limited to policy dialogue but also seeks to change the mindsets of people through everyday actions.