A colleague collared me in the office canteen the other day and said: "I'm so envious of you. You lived four years in Pakistan!"
"Eh?" is right. Turns out it had nothing to do with journalistic curiosity about or obsession with "the world's most dangerous place" and everything to do with something called Zindagi Gulzar Hai. I knew Pakistani television dramas were making waves in India. But like this? She was unstoppable: about the theme - "so identifiable"; the story -- "so well done"; the brevity -- "that's the best part, only a few episodes, not like ours that go on and on for years"; the clothes -- "what innovations yar with the Salwar Kameez"; the acting -- "so natural"; the actors -- "wow! that Fawad Khan!". She helpfully mailed me a YouTube link for one episode. I ended up watching all 26 over two weekends, and then binge-watched 23 episodes of another called Humsafar.
As we brace for another round of 'will they, won't they' meet about Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi as they spend a couple of days in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit this week, Indians and Pakistanis are not exactly waiting with bated breath for a green light from their Prime Ministers. They are, as they have always done, finding their own ways to get around the usual barriers of terrorism and Kashmir, to get answers to the questions that they have about each other. Who are the people on the other side? Are their daily problems different? Do they also have power cuts? Does the water run out in their taps too in the middle of a shower? Do they have colleges that are as difficult to get into and as expensive? Do their parents also worry about getting daughters married? What freedoms do women have? What kind of jobs are valued? Do women work? What clothes do they wear to work? Is everyone religious? It is unbelievable that two countries could be so geographically close and yet know so little about each other. Television soap may not be the ideal place to find the answers, but what the heck, it is better than nothing.
As someone who has clocked less than an hour's worth of Indian television dramas, I was constantly surprised by their popularity at the time I lived in Pakistan. How could anyone want to watch those scheming, overdressed women wearing bangles all the way to their elbows, a kilo of sindoor in their hair, going off to commit suicide holding a mobile phone, I used to think. But clearly, for Pakistani women -- yes, it is true that more women than men watch TV dramas -- it was a window to a slice of life In India, even if not a very accurate one. I realised this when the lady who cooked for me asked if I was keeping a fast for Navratri. I wasn't but lots of Indian Hindus do, and she knew that from the TV dramas. Of course, many believed then that allowing the soaps to be aired in Pakistan was a Musharraf conspiracy to keep people from watching the news, which was at that time all going downhill for him. There were others who lamented that Hindi words were entering the vocabulary and that young girls were getting an unhealthy dose of Hindu culture. And then there were those who wondered what had happened to the Pakistani television drama that was such a sub-continental hit in the late 1980s.
It's good to know it's alive and that the traffic is not one way. From the little I have seen of Pakistani soap the stories are mushy romances, in which the boy is good looking, totally rich, only ever drives a Mercedes, never uses anything but a Mac, and the girl is a high IQ student from a poor family where the father is dead or absent, and the mother is a teacher who has to give tuitions to the neighbourhood children to make ends meet. They don't let you forget that "khamoshi ki bhi eik zubaan hoti hai"; silence can even lead to pregnancy. The attempt to break stereotypes are feeble. And at least in one of the two that I watched the plot is absurd. But as countless viewers in India have pointed out, the stories are told with a light touch, the dialogues are everyday speak, the acting far less laboured compared to the hyperventilation on Indian TV. And look at this way: Indian viewers now know that Pakistani women step out of their homes, they go to offices to work, an arterial road in Karachi pretty much looks the same in evening rush hour as it does in an Indian city, and that public transport is the same as in India -- abysmal. For my colleague, the big discovery was that not a single woman was swathed in a burqa. Every little counts.
Lovely though the Urdu is and half the fun of watching the dramas for a person like me with less than half an acquaintance with the language is trying to understand words like 'beyhiss', imagine if these dramas could be dubbed and shown in other Indian languages. Naseer Turabi's lament for 1971 is the theme song of Humsafar. Why it was chosen for a soc-rom I don't know, but at least for this viewer across the border, Quratulain Baloch's voice wafting in and out, driving home again and again that we were fellow travellers without a meeting of minds, lifted the drama with just that right touch of irony, even if unintentionally.
The last time I ran into my colleague, she had moved on to a new Fawad Khan series, and was asking me if it was possible to get a tourist visa to visit Pakistan.
(An edited version of this was first published in Dawn newspaper on November 25, 2014)
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