It must take tremendous courage, initiative and talent to produce a play like Dukh Darya. Madeeha Gauhar and her husband Shahid Nadeem are to Punjabi theatre what Shakespeare was to The Globe. There is no better example of their fertile collaboration than their latest offering, Dukh Darya. The format of this play follows a pattern and structure recognisable as Shahid’s very own – as individual and unique to him as a signature would be. At one level, it is a dramatic narrative, at another a reminder of the rich heritage of Punjabi geet. In Dukh Darya, Shahid Nadeem presents three separate narratives. The main character is Kausar – a young Kashmiri girl from our side who jumps into the river between the two Kashmirs to escape from her hostile in-laws. She is washed on to the far bank, arrested and jailed by the Indian authorities. She is raped in custody, has a girl child and then tries to return with her daughter to her own home. The Pakistanis refuse to allow the daughter in because she is an Indian, and the Indians refuse to let Kausar stay because she is Pakistani. Shahid uses this predicament as a single symbol of a crowd of such women who found themselves on the wrong side of the 1947 divide.
Madeeha Gauhar uses her cast sparingly and creates a credible illusion of activity, time and dramatic movement by dividing her stage into separate areas and levels
The hapless mother and daughter seek refuge at a dargah which, though nominally of a Muslim divine, is managed and looked after by a Hindu jogi. There she encounters an elderly jogini who has reconciled herself to a life trapped on the wrong side of the cruel border. The third narrative is recited by the jogi, which is a recounting of the tragedy of Sita – who, rejected by Ram (despite her loyalty to him during her imprisonment by Ravana) chooses to sacrifice herself rather than remain on unforgiving Earth.
It is entirely Madeeha Gauhar’s inspiration that weaves these three strands into a composite, cohesive pattern. She uses her cast sparingly and creates a credible illusion of activity, time and dramatic movement by dividing her stage into separate areas and levels: the foreground being where the characters sit or sleep, the middle ground the site of the pivotal drag and the background of the elevated bank of the river, which the audience never sees but whose flow is a continuous theme in the play.
Each vignette of the play is memorable but two in particular linger in the mind long after the curtains close. The first is when the character personifying Sita uses the long sari as a cover to protect her reputation and then as a winding sheet. The second is the finale when Kausar and her daughter, rejected by both sides, debate the choices open to them for escape from their predicament. As they are discussing the options, the audience realises that there is only one option for them – the one Kausar chose when she jumped into the river at the beginning of the play. And the audience waits for the inevitable, even as the characters themselves edge closer to their inexorable destiny. That is superlative drama, and both Madeeha and Shahid are to be lauded for making Dukh Darya such a supreme theatrical experience.
Shahid Nadeem on Dukh Darya:
It is said, “Truth is stranger than fiction”. Truth can also be more dramatic, more meaningful. But then, what is fiction, but an edited, glossy version of reality? When I first learnt about Shehnaz Kausar’s story, I instantly realised that it was more than a story of one woman’s suffering and her struggle for justice.
A Kashmiri woman, taunted and tormented for being infertile, is driven to jump into the river dividing the two parts of the disputed territory of Kashmir. However she ends up on the other side of the border, is arrested, interrogated and eventually raped. She gets pregnant, a proof of the horror of rape in custody but also belying the allegations of infertility. She gives birth to a beautiful baby daughter, Mobeen, who is brought up in Jammu jail until Shehnaz is released and arrangements are made for her repatriation. However, another shock is awaiting her. According to the laws governing the two countries, she, as a Pakistani, can return to Pakistan but not her daughter, an Indian-born citizen with an Indian father. Officials of the two governments haggle over rules regarding the citizenship and identity of the hapless mother and daughter.
Naturally, Kausar’s ordeal attracted the attention of human rights and peace activists and her case became a rallying point for those who wanted to expose the absurdity of religious, political and gender divides and the suffering and sorrow that they cause.
The Kausar story stayed with me for a couple of years. It took me to Jammu, where I met Kausar’s lawyer Sawhney and the Jammu based writer, Khalid Hussain. Rao Abid Hameed of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), who played a vital role in enabling Kausar to come to Pakistan with Mobeen, was also very helpful.
Dukh Darya is more than a dramatic presentation of Shehnaz Kausar’s story. I have tried to link it with the suffering of women during Partition, especially those forcibly repatriated, leaving their children behind. In fact, I have gone further back in history and mythology, in search of the source of the river of sorrow.
Madeeha Gauhar on the bonds of sorrow that unite the lands on either side of the Indo-Pak barbed wire
When Ajoka embarked on its historic tour of Indian Punjab with the play Bullah in November 2003, it was the first time that a Pakistani group crossed the Wagah border to perform in East Punjab. During the memorable tour we had the rare opportunity to travel all over East Punjab, including bustling cities, small towns and dusty villages. Looking out of the bus window, while journeying from one city to another, the undulating landscape seemed all too familiar to me. Sometimes our route took us along the G.T. Road, sometimes it meandered alongside silt-laden canals and sometimes through the lush greenery of fertile fields. Often I noticed some dargahs sheltering under ancient banyans nestling amongst basanti mustard fields. I even saw one small dargah behind the barbed wires of an army cantonment. The shrine or dargah is a quintessential part of the Punjabi landscape. One was aware of the fact that there were hardly any Muslims living in Indian Punjab, having left at the time of Partition in 1947. But these dargahs were apparently being looked after- the diyas were lit, bright green chaddars covered the graves, the sweet scent of incense and the colourful marigolds and roses – they were all there, as it should be.
My curiousity aroused, I ventured forth to visit a few of these dargahs. I wanted to find out how this tradition had been kept alive in absence of the original keepers. I discovered that many of these small shrines were now being looked by non-Muslims Sikhs, Hindus and even Christians, who had taken on the responsibility of performing the rites and rituals observed at these dargahs as diligently as any Muslim Mujawar would have.
The reverent crowds bearing offering of flowers, incense and chaddars were no different from those we see here, except that they were almost all non-Muslim. The qawwals singing Bulleh Shah and Baba Farid were also non-Muslim, and it was there, standing in a dargah near the border, that the full force of the Sufi and Bakhti message came home to me. For someone coming from across the border, where religion has become a most divisive force, this was a strange experience: the realisation that what I was experiencing was a living manifestation of the syncretic culture which had been a tradition of the region. This is what the Sufis and Bakhtis preached through their poetry and this is what had been destroyed when the rivers of blood started flowing.
Kausar’s story, her ordeal, the questions of the identity of her daughter Meera Mai’s profound suffering and Jogi Mukhtar Nath’s evocative stories – all come together in the play. And what better place than in the dargah of an unknown Muslim saint, which is being tended to by a Hindu jogi. Countless such dargahs dot the Punjabi countryside along both sides of the border and as many untold stories wait to be told. One such story is that of Sita, the wife of Ram, who is one of the central figures of the Ramayana.
On one of many trips of Amritsar I learnt of the existence of Valmiki’s Ashram at Ram Tirath, which is where he was supposed to have written the Ramayana, that great epic. According to this tradition it was in this ashram that Sita sought refuge after being exiled from Ayodhya by a doubting husband. It was here in the Punjab, in the ashram that she supposedly gave birth to Luv, the legendary founder of Lahore. I visited Ram Tirath, which is situated somewhere near the border between Lahore and Amritsar and found that the ashram still exists. The jogis who came to Ram Tirath from Tilla Jogean in Pakistan at the time of Partition now look after Valmmiki’s ashram. Sita’s story was told to me by one of these jogis one sultry August evening at Ram Tirath. It was while listening to the jogi’s narrative that I thought of bringing together the stories of Kausar, Meera Mai and Sita. Although these women belong to different times and eras, the river of sorrows flows through their lives, merging their stories into one narrative: into Dukh Darya.