On a sunny afternoon in spring of 2012, the Senior A-Levels batch of an all-girls school found itself in a state of anxious festivity. The coma-inducing physics teacher had failed to show up and the bunch of 18 years old girls on the verge of womanhood, inevitably decided to play catch up on the latest happenings on tv for the next hour. The classroom turned into a living room as the girls jumped from, who got fake wedded in a morning show, to where Fawad Khan was hiding all along?
One pigtailed girl with severe acne whined in a shrill tone that she couldn’t watch her favourite Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (still running FYI) because Durr-e-Shahwar, an average show nowhere near garnering the rage of the likes of Humsafar- was airing at the same time on Hum TV and there is no way her mother would let anyone touch the remote when that serial was on. No one could imagine this seemingly personal comment would set off an avalanche of similar complaints from forty other girls.
It looked like Durr-e-Shahwar had become that cricket matches our brothers always fought over the remote for. More dubious than the supposedly wild obsession of mothers over an average Pakistani drama was the fact that all girls chimed in unison, ‘My mother says it’s her story. How could a simple story revolving around the first few days of a regular girl’s married life had universally appealed to forty-something moms? Appealed being an operative word here since all the moms not merely related to Shahwar, they could see themselves in her, in each scene, in each episode, until a relieving realization would hit that Humera Ahmed may have just eavesdropped on their collective mental murmurings to write the screenplay.
Durr-e-Shahwar, for the most part, focuses on Shahwar, an upper class educated girl in the early 90s and her marriage into a middle class but ‘respectable’ family after a mere 10-minute garden walk with her prospective husband- something, my mum defensively adds, was more than what she got with my father. The drama unfolds over the first two tumultuous years of her marriage during which she comes of age, forced to shed all her pampered upbringing and less than practical ideas about marriage and love and grow into a young mother who seemed to have aged a decade and carried the wisdom to match that age.
The drama doesn’t judge Shahwar’s choices (she doesn’t have many), there is no feminist commentary on taking a stand, nor is there any belittling of her succumbing to the taut societal structures that don’t allow much room for women like her to wiggle or outgrow from. There are no ‘break the glass ceiling’ moments. There can’t be, because Shahwar isn’t well versed in second-wave feminist literature to smash the patriarchy. She isn’t ‘brave’ or ’empowered’. Her strength lies in her ordinary-ness to make the best out of her dire situation. She never “rose from the ashes”, she learnt to thrive in them.
There are no flashes of ‘breaking out’ here, just a lens somewhere, empathetically capturing the tiniest instance of scarring-physical and mental-of a woman who is coming to terms with a bleak reality of the world she inhabits outside the cushioning arms of her parents. Like all women, like our mothers who were hooked onto her story, she is far too conditioned in the art of selflessness to become a symbol of social liberation. So while her ultimate transformation into a desi goddess of domesticity may cause some to wrinkle their noses, our moms saw that somewhere, somehow, an identity has come full circle -an identity they all wore when they were Shahwar. Our moms were meeting their 20-year-old selves every week when the show aired.
The prowess of Ahmed’s writing aside, what glued the moms and grandmoms to Shahwar was the sensitivity of portrayal of a newlywed girl’s feelings: her hopes for the new life, her dreams-unrealistic, many would say-but reasonable regardless-from her life partner and her movie-inspired, romance laden naivety that adding a new person into her life would somehow make life more beautiful. It is by clever design that the drama is set somewhere in the late 80s early 90s-the time when most of our mothers got married and settled into their new lives; when they too transformed from that “wide-eyed young girl gazing at the threshold of her love story” into a submissive patient woman cured of emotional infancy.
The show has no takeaway message, it just silently laments that it is the woman, always the woman, regardless of the era, who compromise. This Isn’t a revelatory message by any measure, but the message isn’t what matters here. What matters is how the show, by heightening the trivial, by valuing the most domestically neglected, exalts the woman at the centre of such trite setting, pity clapping or genuinely applauding modesty of her new desires.
One evening, in that spring of 2012, I finally sat down with my mother to watch the 8 p.m drama. As Sanam Balouch’s Shahwar, in all her earthly beauty, writes a letter to her father, childishly moaning about the injustices wielded against by her in-laws, and the indifference of her husband, my mum’s expression changed from that of mild investment to that of awe, in witnessing your younger self staring back at you, her complains legitimized, and discomforts deemed worthy enough to be given screen time and her solitary pain validated rather than dismissed.
The show did it by not being one of those socially conscious dramas that aspire to evoke nothing more than trendy hashtags like ‘hard hitting’ or ‘timely’ for Durr e Shahwar, is everything but these adjectives. It is slow and reflective. Shahwar’s (non) rebellion is as misinformed as to the traditionalism that triggers it, making the show anything but ponderous. Towards the end of the show, the now old grandma, Shahwar, patiently suggests to her daughter to go back to her not-so-caring, armed with the story of her mother and letters of perseverance from her grandfather that sustained Shahwar through her turmoil.
This archetypal ending with yet another woman compromising seems almost dated in a world where female empowerment is a catchphrase. But for me, the cyclical nature of feminine subversion hinted at by the show, lands home in a more subliminal way, a way that G.D Anderson perfectly points to, ‘Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It is about changing the way the world perceives that strength’.
The show then lends credibility to the strength of all those women, all our moms, who stayed in their relationship, bore kids and survived with grey hair to tell their tales. The show was a feminist tale only because it never tried to be. All it did was speak to and telepathically listen -like a friend- to the myriad of buried wounds of our moms, in weekly episodic sessions.
Finally the phrase ‘adjustment after marriage’- a proverbial menace-was being stretched to fifteen long episodes, each scene brimming with more dialogues, more emotions than what the writer had bargained to convey, for viewers of Durr-e-Shahwar were writing their own lives into each scene, moulding their own stories into the story, inserting their actions and reactions into those of Shahwar and basking in the glow of her cinematic misery that reassured them all that their trauma, pain, disappoints and ‘tantrums’ weren’t there to be trivialized; that may share this suffering with thousands of other women entering a marriage but that shared pain mattered and still does. The spring of 2012, from March till June, trumpeted their sad anthem.
In 2019, a newlywed university friend of mine asked me in a voice that betrayed her melancholic excitement of having found herself in Shahwar, ‘Maleeha, have you watched this old show called Durr-e-Shahwar on youtube? I sensed, with a crushing defeat, why she was asking me this. “Yes”, I replied, ‘ my mum had made me watch it on tv when I was in A Levels’. She took a deep breath as if divulging a deeply held secret and confessed, “I think it is my story”.