Ehtesham Shahid and Amna Khaishgi – an Indian and a Pakistani journalist, respectively – first interacted in late 1999. Shahid was working as a business journalist in Mumbai, when he heard that the Karachi-based magazine SouthAsia was looking for a business correspondent in India. He applied, and got the job. The editor Shahid was working with moved on, and it was Khaishgi who replaced him. The two spoke for work initially, then co-founded a magazine, and somewhere down the line, decided to get married.
“That was the easy part,” said Shahid. “The difficult part was how to do it. We could only meet once before marriage. Amna was in Colombo for a conference and she flew back via Dubai. By this time we had decided we would get married, and I had taken a job in Riyadh. I went from Riyadh to Dubai to meet her.” They were married in 2003 and moved to Dubai, where they continue to live.
Their relationship has inspired Mian, Biwi, aur Wagah, a play by Dubai-based theatre group Goonj Productions, a collective of South Asian performing artistes and journalists of which Shahid and Khaishgi are members. The play travelled to Delhi over the long Republic Day weekend and its story is that of a husband who hails from a small town in Bihar and a Pathan wife from Karachi. Wagah, the town on the border of India and Pakistan, is anthropomorphised as a third titular character in the play. Shahid plays Mian and Khaishgi plays Biwi. The role of Wagah is played by ad filmmaker Majid Muhammad.
A germ of an idea
Director Dhruti Shah D’Souza – also a member of Goonj – first conceived of the play at a private gathering in 2017. The venue for this party was Shahid and Khaishgi’s home in Dubai. “We had read out a couple of these letters in a private gathering of friends who share an interest in literature,” said Shahid.
Shah D’Souza asked them if they would like to develop the idea further and write a dozen more letters to capture the sweet-and-sour experiences of a cross-border couple in this day and age. Shahid and Khaishgi agreed almost instantly. Once the Urdu script was ready, Shah D’Souza proposed Shahid and Khaishgi play the lead roles themselves. Her reasoning was that Urdu is an integral part of the story and she wanted the diction and delivery to be perfect, even if it meant more work for her to train non-actors Shahid and Khaishgi for the stage.
The play first opened in August in Dubai, a “haven for cross-border couples”, according to Shahid.
Beside Shahid, Khaishgi and Majid, the cast has three artistes: a postman (played by Faraz Waqar), a letter or kora kaagaz (Maha Jamil), and a singer (Johan Roy D’Souza).
A lens on reality
Mian, Biwi aur Wagah is an epistolary play that unfolds like a story one might read in The New York Times’ popular column, Modern Love. It’s a story that seems to say: sure, cross-border marriages can be thorny but they happen. And when they do, whether the context is marriage between an Indian and a Pakistani or an Iranian national with an Iraqi or even an American and a Russian, moments of tension as well as hilarity can arise from the most mundane occasions.
To cite one example: Mian is invited to Karachi for Eid one year. He is hesitant to go, because suicide bombers and terrorists have been unusually active in Pakistan of late. In between arguments with the Biwi and insistent calls from his father-in-law, Mian doesn’t realise when he’s accepted the invitation. He hopes that he can avoid going out of the house in Karachi, but those hopes are dashed as soon as he lands. In a hilarious letter to a friend in Meerut, Mian recounts how he imagined dangers lurking in every nook and around every corner.
Though few people write letters in this day and age, the epistolary form seems to have survived this setback. The letters the husband and wife read out are by turn profound and funny and almost without exception, relatable. The back-and-forth action of reading out the letters adds both pace and scope to the action on stage. From the minimal stage setting of two desks, a stool and a digital screen, the couple are able to take the audience to Karachi, Bihar, Dubai and Biwi’s ancestral village.
“Amna’s grandmother made her write letters to her friends in Khurja [India],” said Shahid. “When we went to Khurja after marriage, Amna seemed to know the place already through those letters.”
A mixed bag
Wagah is personified in the play. Played by Majid Muhammad, he is the sutradhar, or narrator, who starts the play with a thought experiment. Partition and separation are thoughts, he says. If the thought changes, so will everything else.
Throughout the play, Wagah is a constant presence in the cross-border marriage and add an interesting dimension to it. In one exasperated letter, Khaishgi complains to her friend in Karachi that people take an interest in her marriage as if it were an India-Pakistan cricket match.
Wagah also ends the play. Mian and Biwi each write a letter to Wagah on how the marriage has changed their perceptions of national pride and enmity. Where Wagah’s role spills over beyond the backdrop for this marriage, it is often guilty of self-indulgence by the writer/actor. For instance, there is a segment where Wagah complains about the noise and rituals of change of guard at the border that feels contrived and uncharacteristically heavy in this otherwise light-hearted play.
The play is, in a way, a tribute to Urdu and to letter-writing. In fact, the organisers started their global tour in Delhi, because it is considered a cradle of Urdu (some scholars say that it may have originated in Lahore in the 11th century, before taking root in Delhi in the 13th century).
Mian, Biwi aur Wagah is also a deliberation on modern-day loves, many of them complicated by border disputes. Barring a few scenes, it manages to pull this off with good humour and equanimity.