Few things are more excruciating than watching your own people fade away both physically and emotionally as they succumb to senseless violence and hatred. Intizar Hussain’s “Shehr-e-Afsos” is one such city of sorrow, which dwells on the harrowing events of 1947 and 1971. The ravages of time at both historical occasions and the agony of losing a sense of right and wrong at both times, makes viewers deeply reflect on the ideas of identity, homeland and what it means to lose a sense of both. The play takes a deeper look at the thin line between love and cruelty, which disappears under the garb of historical and political events making us completely apathetic to everything else that once used to matter. It is not clear whether the writer is talking about 1947 or 1971 specifically, as the events are the same, suffering is similar and the aftermath is also not very different. The script by Intizar Sahib is abstract and rather onerous to comprehend at times, but is nevertheless extremely forceful in its political subtext.
The book written by Intizar Sahib after the events of 1971, proves to be just as relevant for 1947 as well. The play is focused on three individuals, sitting in the dark under a tree trunk, negotiating the identity of a dead body lying next to them on the ground. Their conversation is sad and dark, and the topography of the act could not be grimmer. The three men who don’t have any names, are discussing death and destruction brought upon Shehr-e-Afsos, where many had to go through an internal turmoil of watching their own kith and kin die in front of them, and their guilt of doing the same to their “enemies” to seek revenge. An endless saga of bloodshed leaves only dead bodies, and even those who are alive, are nothing more than ‘walking dead.’ The three men have different, yet identical stories, and the reference to “maskh shuda chehray” (disfigured faces) crops up time and again in their conversation, and portrays the identity crisis that comes with leaving one’s homeland. The first two can no more identify themselves or their dead bodies, and the third man is on a mission to find himself again. He has lost all sense of identity and reason, and is adamant that he is only lost but not dead, only to realise towards the end that his fate is not very different from the other two men.
In Intizar Hussain’s work, a greater philosophy is at work, which seeks to go beyond the concepts of just right and wrong, and digs into the deepest human scars left by events like the Partition of India in 1947, or the separation of East Pakistan in 1971. The concept of identity is so intricately and beautifully captured by Intizar Sahib’s prose, that it makes one reflect on not only the past, but also the present. War and destruction do not bring a migration of one’s choosing, but is merely a survival technique, thus making the loss all the more keen and distressing, leading to a complete sense of loss and emptiness as illustrated by the third man.
An interesting act during the play was the reference to mustard fields, with a wonderful performance in the background depicting the times of communal harmony, and a city that celebrated life and love. The play delineates how a prisoner disconsolately looks at the fields through the window of his cell. Madeeeha Gauhar later explained that Intizar Sahib wanted to depict a prisoner of war, who had returned home after a long ordeal but only as a captive. “The immense pain that such a person goes through, cannot be described through mere words or plays,” she added.
The play was a tribute to Intizar Sahib, and Madeeha Gauhar has skillfully directed what could be best described as a creative rendering of the original script on stage. Although written after 1971, it could be any city of the past or present, living through the sorrows of war, separation, hostility and massacre. Intizar Sahib’s beautifully crafted story, and the detail of Ms. Gauhar’s direction, are evident in the way the play draws the audience into the story. The story seems complicated, but has been beautifully presented. Kudos to Ajoka for their efforts in reviving Urdu Literature and Theatre in Pakistan!
All pictures provided by Usman Javaid and Bilal Mughal.
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