Playwright Shahid Nadeem was a three-time political prisoner in Pakistan, and it shows. All seven works in his newly translated Selected Plays share extreme sensibilities, depicting a universe of overcrowded jail cells, slums and parched villages in which the blackest of deeds are committed. The most ambitious work, a historical drama chronicling the life of the 18th century Sufi poet Bulleh Shah (spelled "Bulha" in the play) grapples, in the words of one character, with the "dark side of the human self" exile, fatwas, persecution, genocide. There's murder in The Third Knock, forced abortion in Acquittal, sex trafficking in Woman of Sorrow and extortion in Black Is My Robe. Even the most upbeat play, A Granny for All Seasons, about individual freedoms, is clouded by the dark legacy of partition.
But strangely enough, the cumulative effect of reading these works is uplifting. Despite appearances, Nadeem is no pessimist. In fact, Selected Plays can be moralistic, even histrionic, with endless interludes of Punjabi folk songs and qawwali choruses. They are not horrors but shock-dramas (one, Burqaganza, was banned last year by Pakistan's Minister of Culture). Ultimately, Nadeem's theater is passionately fired by faith in Pakistan's potential for change and in the sanctity of life. If only those who ram explosives into hotels and busy markets would feel the same way.