A heavily pregnant young woman is suffering severe abdominal cramps. The young husband is worried and the woman is scared stiff. Everyone can guess that this is a sign of labour pain, yet they try to hush it away, explaining it to something other than labour.

Why is everyone so scared? Because the young lady is supposed to deliver later and not now as that is the rule established by the “Council”, the despotic body that keeps the entire village in an ambience of constant fear and terror where, it has been declared that any sign of the slightest noise will bring the avalanche waiting precariously close, to come down and crush the village and its residents to death.

So, all deliveries can and must happen only during the three months when the village need not be in any fear of the avalanche coming crashing down. So, during the nine months of danger, villagers must talk in whispers, must not cry, or laugh or even sneeze loudly. Why? That is precisely what Dhawsh, Ensemble’s new play is all about. The play has been translated jointly by Sohag Sen and Kaushik Basu and was staged in Bengali for the first time in Kolkata.

The young woman belongs to a family where three generations live under the same roof and have their normal squabbles, arguments and debates but only in whispers. If anyone raises his/her voice, the others “hush hush’” him/her at once, warning that Death is imminent because loud sound/noise/music will invite the wrath of the avalanche. Which also means that music is banned, by suggestion, including the reciting of poetry or musical performances.

Dhawsh is the Bengali word which in English, translates as Avalanche. This Turkish play, authored by the late Tuncer Cüceno?lu, a playwright whose plays were staged in 35 countries and received a total of 32 awards at home and abroad. He was born on April 10, 1944 and passed away in 2019.

France recognised him as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Azerbaijan calls him The Turk Chekhov or maestro. Ensemble is an established theatre group based in Kolkata, founded and directed by Sohag Sen, that has been performing for the past 38 years. In 2018, Dwarfnoglu became the first Turkish writer to perform the play in India, with the LSR Dramatic Society performing it in New Delhi.

Dhawsh is basically about how a self-appointed, absolutely despot of a “Council” can hold an entire village in a constant state of fear, drilling into their naïve heads that there is an avalanche that will come rolling down on them at the slightest trace of sound, noise, laughter, cries and even conversation. It is only after the snow melts, and the village trough gets filled to the brim when the danger has supposedly moved away, according to the Council, and then the sounds of life are allowed. Militia are forever on guard and a midwife is called in to find if the pains are fake or real.

Within this ambience of fear, panic and terror, the play offers glimpses into the otherwise normal family with the nonagerian grandfather (Asit Bose) who keeps talking of the “good old days” and doses off to sleep in the middle of his sentence, his cigarette held between his fingers. He has to be literally spoon-fed by his grumbling wife (Sohag Sen) but is loved by the middle-aged son.

The single-set play is set with a high bed which the young lady uses to lie down on, a sofa used by the grandmother to lie on as and when, or sit up to munch biscuits, and some tea things in the background with a dinner table right in the centre laid out with a proper tea service. There are some rifles and guns hanging on one wall as a symbol of the old man’s military past. How, when, why and whether they will be used in the present is the twist.

Two militia men wait near the entrance guarding the family. The actors, held together with the brilliant performance of Sohag Sen as the grandmother, and Asit Basu as her doddering husband with a lot of spirit, courage, and anger veiled by age, come together after 50 years to set the stage on fire.

The other actors offer wonderful support. The actors who portray the members of the Council and its President are designed as caricatures to look funny and satiric, adding some comic relief to this very serious play. Mention must be made of the wonderful sound design (Koushik Bose) and the sound effects (Kaushik Sajjan) as sound has a special role to play here.

The sound of drops of water falling into the trough becomes the theme sound of the play. The music, used sparingly, is mood-centric, lending itself to the dramatic narrative seamlessly. Since this is a single-day play, the lighting is normal and almost uniform.

There is a trough in the village and the villagers are made to believe that as long as the trough is not filled with water from the melting snow, the cries of the young woman and those of her baby may cause the avalanche. So, they constantly keep a watch on the level of water in the trough which is always just four inches below the brim.

The play opens in this sitting-cum-drawing-cum-dining room with the pitter patter of water on the soundtrack dropping into the trough visited every few minutes by the father and his son to find out whether the trough has filled to the brim. This adds to the mood of pervasive fear the people live in, dotted with that faint ray of hope.

These inhuman strategies of control are just the tip of an iceberg. Man and wife cannot consummate their marriage till after a certain time fixed by this ‘council’, and a baby cannot therefore take birth nor can a woman get pregnant before a period decided by the “council.” The possibility of a premature birth is not accepted. If anyone gets pregnant or delivers a baby before the fixed time, the woman is buried alive, baby and all.

This is the story used by the Council about an incident that happened fifty years ago to keep the villagers constantly in fear. No one has actually witnessed this and it is based only on hearsay. The villagers are so terrorised that it does not occur to them to question these “rules” or, even to try and check whether the avalanche story is true. Their lives are trapped between the Devil and the deep sea and all normal human emotions are sucked into that fear.

The Council is informed by the stern-looking midwife that the young lady is indeed pregnant and is ready to deliver much before the scheduled time. Enter the Council along with its top-hat wearing President who speaks mostly in a language that can be termed “gibberish”. His minister informs that he refuses to speak in the common language spoken by people below him in status and class.

This marks the beginning of a lot of punch and satire. From the time the President makes his entry till the end when we see that though the young lady delivers the baby, the avalanche remains as quiet as it always is if it is! Realisation dawns that the fear was pure manipulation. When the family realises that it has been tricked, the Council and the President cow down in fear. The grandfather picks up the gun to threaten the Council while the clever grandmother takes the President’s top hat, dons it herself and marches across the room.

Spellbinding in every way, Dhawsh is a political play, true. It is also a futuristic performance. But take away the politics and you find whatever power can achieve, it can never be forever. The play has a moral lesson. You do not need an Adolf Hitler or a Mussolini or a Joseph Stalin to manipulate not only your life but also your death.

An avalanche, fictitious or real, can do it through a group of evil men with equal success. Dha in lucid terms elaborating on how the best way to crush people is by taking away their courage and instil fear in its place – with that, you eradicate their culture, memory and identity.