02 Aug 2017
7 min read
In Ubahang Nembang’s The Journey, we experience, through the viewpoint of the buffalo-protagonist , the emptiness left behind in a village that its inhabitants have abandoned
The buffalo’s journey is not one without a purpose. He is looking for a home, for a past that is long gone. He wants to go back to his life of domestication—or domesticity—but what he fails to understand is that there is no domesticity to go back to.
Form meets function in the pages as the narrative fluidly moves between the present to the past and back again
The buffalo has lost his human companion, the boy who fed him salt under a tree. And with that loss, he has also lost his sense of time and the ability to comprehend change. He scours the ruins of a culture that once was—where people herded, and cared for, other buffaloes like him. In The Journey, Nembang fleshes out this theme to create a fantastical children’s book, one which also addresses an issue very real to Nepal. This is a story about how Nepali village-society is changing.
The main driver of these social changes is the out-migration that is taking place in the villages. Through the close third-person point of view of the buffalo, we get to understand a world that once was and the disrepair and ruin that it has fallen into. By having us live the poignancy of such a loss through the buffalo, a difficult truth we humans probably don’t have the strength to process, we can get past both our stoic and our readily sentimental gaze, and we are forced to confront the loss in all its pain.
To create the dilapidated, forlorn world—one that seems to exist out of time—Nembang makes use of the subtle textures of watercolours and flowing images. Form meets function in the pages as the narrative also fluidly moves between the present to the past and back again. The past is rendered in basic grey/white/sepia tones: the choice of tones selected for these flashback frames says much about Nembang’s maturity as an aritst. The hackneyed way would have been to sentimentalise the past, perhaps by creating melodramatic scenes. But Nembang represents the past by imbuing it with just the right amount of wistfulness. As for the present that the buffalo is meandering through, Nembang goes with an impressionistic style that brings together both the ruins and the sense of the confusion in the animal’s mind. The confusion in the buffalo’s mind is personified by the ever-present mist in the forest that clears only when he comes face to face with the absence that occupies what was once home.
The buffalo has lost his human companion, the boy who fed him salt under a tree. And with that loss, he has also lost his sense of time and the ability to comprehend change
But that confrontation doesn’t lead to his realising the absurdity of the present. The buffalo will undertake the same journey over and again, always hoping for a different result. Nembang, thus, suggests a Sisyphean existence for the buffalo, one made worse by the animal’s melancholy.
Time, for the villagers who have left for greener pastures, probably used to signify moments of meaning: when they get their first job; when they had made enough to send money back to their family; to mark the moment when they had finally paid off the loan they took to go abroad. But for the buffalo, time, in the present, is meaningless. Even so, for him, there is at least a meaning to the past: but what for the villagers? If they were to never return to the village, time as it pertains to their village— past, present, future—doesn’t mean anything.