“Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them”, declares Nietzsche in his ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’.

If we follow his logic, playwright can rightly be dubbed doubly shameless: they not only exploit their own experiences but also exploit and expose their experiences of others. They are in the habit of making public what apparently is private. One of the major concerns of a playwright is to represent and present what is real and imagined through characters in the manner of exposé.

Poet and playwright Sarmad Sehbai, it seems, loves to expose what is on the surface and beneath in our prosaic life that remains noticeably unnoticed and has a sort of arcane dimension to it. This is demonstrated in the Sarmad’s plays contained in the book titled “Aaray Tirchhay Aainay/Stage Dramay” compiled by Muhammad Naveed and published by Gurmani Centre for Language and Literature,University of Management Sciences, Lahore. Of nine plays six are in Urdu and three in Punjabi language. The plays haven’t been arranged in a chronological order for the reasons best known to the compiler. The first visibly good thing about his plays in Punjabi is that they aren’t marred by the sloppiness of language that marks the Punjabi writings of most of bilingual authors - writing in Urdu and Punjabi - in our side of the Punjab. Most of such writings are overburdened by Urdu words and phrases borrowed from Arabic and Persian. His is Punjabi close to popular urban speech rooted in the literary tradition born of people’s culture.

Sarmad imperceptibly makes full use of wit that underpins the idiom of language evolved by cheerful and self-mocking Punjabi temperament over thousands of years. Let’s take one of his plays ‘Tota Rama’ for instance. The play is a literary delight; a potpourri of diverse but organically interlinked voices on the stage of contemporary urban life. The characters have different professions and passions but share or condemned to share a space that is right in the centre of a metropolis but looks like jetsam. They appear marginal but are necessary to oil the wheels of socio-political hierarchy erected on the rigid notion of natural inequality found in the animal kingdom.

In this play Khalifa is a barber, Sain a mystically inclined mad man in a drum like bin, Allah Ditta, a tout of judiciary, Santry, a parasitic policeman, Darashan Kumar, a photographer, Din Muhammad, an astrologer, a wrestler and Tota, the presenter of the play. The plays opens on a footpath. Seeing these characters on the footpath doing some sort of petty business activities and providing services is nothing uncommon. But looking deeper one can realise that footpath emerges as a subdued metaphor that defines characters’ place on the socio-economic ladder. The space appears as a tangible entity that reveals the characters’ present and hints at its perpetuity in the future. Being marginal comes up as the essentiality of social life touted as natural. Another aspect of the characters is that though they have different professions but share the same fate; economic neglect and social indignity. They appear to have distinct physiognomies but share an inner quality born of deprivations. Sharing sufferings creates a strong sense of empathy which doesn’t appear on the surface all the times but in any crisis situation brings them together. They can cheat and deceive, and lie and bribe. They have a guileless innocence of a saint but not lacking in guile when occasion calls for it. Their predicament makes them understand the compulsions of life which they invariably find hard. Each knows what others do but he doesn’t hold it against them knowing fully well they have no choice other than doing what are forced to do. They don’t sit in judgment and are free from judgmental mentality of affluent class which is historically inclined to compare apples and oranges when it comes to matters other than theirs.

Sarmad shows that his characters may disagree among themselves and mock one another publicly but they have a kind of unwritten understanding that they would neither hurt one another out of malice nor be hurt on some flimsy pretext. What really keeps them cheerful and humane is their keen sense of wit inherited from the tradition evolved by ordinary folks to lighten their misery and sufferings. Taking one’s hardship lightly in an unkind society with skewed vision is an element of survival strategy of the powerless. Folks know they can’t change the ground reality and can change their way of dealing with it. That’s perhaps why underneath all the bickering and tense cribbing, one can detect a wave of bonhomie that not only keeps them connected but also sane if human bonding is sanity.

Sarmad makes use of carefree ethos of Punjab’s working class/petit bourgeoisie to stress their vivaciousness and resilience. They may acquiesce to the dictates of oppressive social forces but they would neither surrender nor lose their sense of humanity. Feeling of being excluded may be the underlying cause of sense of solidarity that keeps the characters connected. ‘Tota’ in the play acts like the “Sutradhari” of ancient Sanskrit plays who keeps the thread of events, situations and characters untangled.

Yet another worth noting aspect of the play is portraying the ordinary and trying to go beyond it. It is in fact the ordinary that hides under its belly the extraordinary. Concrete life consists of ordinary things one repeatedly does. Take what is thought extraordinary from the ordinary and you would be left with noting as the former comes out of the womb of the ordinary. Mundane nothingness is the fertile ground where something sublime can grow. Imagine the soul without body which is degraded and demonised. However wretched, the life is worth living, the characters show us. Despite all the miseries, says Brecht, “Almost everyone has loved the world when on him two clods of earth are hurled”. “The play “Tota Rama” is a mélange of various tunes coming from the vaudeville theatre showing that the people though repressed are dynamic but bereft of choice, they help sustain a society that isn’t worth sustaining. Don’t miss Sarmad’s plays. His literary feat deserves a big round of applause. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2021

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