"Batao mera malik kahan hai."

Mushk completed its tour on Sunday night in Karachi to much enthusiasm and a sold-out hall. The lavish set that transported most of the 'aunties and uncles' in the crowd to their own living rooms drew enthusiastic applause as soon as the curtains were raised.

With superstars Sania Saeed and Nimra Bucha on stage, perhaps the very expensive decor was unnecessary and even overwhelming. On the other hand, the clutter and precision of luxury was perhaps the appropriate setting for the dispossessed women we get to know as the night unfolded.

Written by Raabia Qadir Zia and Seemal Numan and directed by Kanwal Khoosat, Mushk has been entirely brought to stage by a team of women. If this play is meant to be their self-critique, an examination of the shattered, almost non-existent ego selves of the women themselves, I am with them.

But I fear that the novelty of the romantic elements between the two women revealed at the end of the play may result in a celebration of sloganeering (a line that received applause was "Mohabbat ko koi jins naheen hoti" or "Love knows no gender") and obfuscate the more troubling depiction of female fragility and dependence on stage.

The Mushk poster
The Mushk poster

The plot stretches over a single night. Zoey Kabeer (Sania Saeed) arrives at Sophia Noor's (Nimra Bucha) house in the mountains one stormy night. She claims to be a journalist from a small town magazine, excited to be granted a rare interview with the acclaimed writer, Sophia, who is at once reluctant and amused by her attempts to interview her.

Zoey's questions are prying; she wants to know more about the love letters that comprise Sophia's latest novel. Sophia finds her curiosity provincial and unimaginative. As the night unfolds, we find that both women are not as they appear to be.

The unravelling promised in the first half of the play — which is a cat and mouse game between Zoey, the besotted, sari-clad, eager journalist, and Sophia, the arrogant, reclusive and stately writer — had easily the most engaging writing but delivered the unexpected, that is, more of the familiar.

We were faced again with a reflection of what we bemoan in our television plays — the dichotomy of the "good" woman (Zoey in yellow) who submits herself to a man and the "bad" or tragic woman (Sophia in red), who remains unfulfilled and static in her regret due to her refusal to do the same.

It is revealed that Sophia's letters were, in fact, addressed to a real man, a GH, who happens to be Zoey's husband. This is news to Sophia, whose hard exterior immediately crumbles to be replaced by agonising heartbreak. Get two women in a room or on a stage together and they spend most of their time deifying a man (the dialogue reveals that he is half-French though so I guess who can resist?), a man that Zoey worships so much that even his infidelities are a reflection of her own shortcomings.

When she speaks of her husband's death (another reveal and another slap on Sophia's face), she tells the other woman of his dog who was crying bereft, "mera malik kahan hai?". The audience was hushed, taken by Zoey's dog-like loyalty to her master, the omnipresent "MAN".

She is so annihilated by THE MAN that she begins to hold on a pedestal "the other woman" and a desire that is the ghost of him, and still so removed from herself. She is constantly erased — her husband had mentioned her a few times to his ex-lover Sophia in his letters, but her presence dropped away from these missives as soon as they got married, when she dissolved into THE MAN, not needing any longer a name or even a story. Of course then, she will not cry for her own betrayed heart, she only knows how to cry for his.

An annihilated woman will don the garb of the man she was swallowed by, to move through the world. She does not nurse her wounds, she nurses his; how could his lover Sophia have left him in the lurch?

Sophia, on the other hand, chose to possess herself. Some months into her affair with GH 12 years ago, she left him, unable to submit herself and to sacrifice her craft and her intellectual life. In all our mainstream narratives, there is no bigger mistake a woman can make. When we first meet Sophia, she is alone, Zoey has not yet penetrated her fortified and luxurious home and she is glorious. She fires warning shots at the strange woman who approaches her home. Sophia, she is impenetrable - a trickster, a statue, as Zoey calls her.

Can a story of two women who love each other through the ghost of a dead, dishonest man be radical? I hope that is not anyone's conceit.

But idols are only meant to be men and we are to believe that this is all a facade to hide a wound made 12 years in the past. The narrative takes joy in stripping Sophia down, exposing her as just an ordinary woman aching and yearning for a man, ravaged by her years of obsession and regret; mad red, angry red, lust red, rifle red, dark waves of mad black hair red. She must only have regret, her hard, intellectual, gluttonous exterior just a mask for her female incompleteness that seems can only be completed by THE MAN.

She is "castrated" continuously by Zoey; she has heard of her many lovers, they call her a "dain" for it she says. Zoey is the vessel through which Sophia is marginalised constantly, by her lack of knowledge, of possession, of intimacy, all in context to THE MAN. All her other accomplishments crumble like sand castles: her love, her past, her success, her memory, her intellect and her writing even is finally exposed to be a lie.

As Sophia says herself, "Main un lashon mein se hoon jin ko baar baar dafnana parhta hai*". And the audience seemed to relish in it. Towards the end, Zoey plays her final card. She has been writing the letters herself. She has, unable to possess THE MAN or possess herself, taken on HIS DESIRE instead. She is in love with Sophia.

Can a story of two women who love each other through the ghost of a dead, dishonest man be radical? I hope that is not anyone's conceit.

Mushk, the smell of the man, the god (whose excrement Zoey eventually had to clean, and she wails at the "zillat" of THE MAN being subject to such a state), the smell which is the house that Sophia occupies and perhaps the penis envy that lingers in the air that Zoey breathes, presents a bleak and desperate encounter with romantic patriarchy, a Devdas for the Bourgeois.

Zoey ends up at Sophia's feet, both having re-entered their romantic positions, Zoey on her knees in devotion, and Sophia... what of Sophia, the hermaphrodite — for in all her stripping down, the writers have seemed to miss imagining for her a realistic core — she resorts back to her archetype, rifle in hand, cocking the gun (never hitting a target), the red, phallic, arrogant, worshipped deity.

Sania Saeed and Nimra Bucha are fascinating artists, both earnest and devious in their possession of their characters. I am compelled by their careers and their mettle. But I am tired of seeing stories of women who act, react, live and die while circumambulating a man.

We need now to start peering through the curtains to the love and connections that women are creating, sustaining and enjoying outside of any constructs that are male or are created by maleness. If we have begun to do this in our very real lives, surely art should catch up.