The 1979 PTV drama Waris is a story and drama from days of yore that even today maintains political relevance in how we cling to pernicious power structures. Characters were built to personify the cross-currents of change occurring simultaneously with all their friction and moral ambiguities. Change was inevitable — even if the main character, Chaudhary Hashmat, refused to bow to it.
Amjad Islam Amjad’s Waris stood out as defining an era. Conflicts between the feudal class and its nostalgia for maintaining (and mushrooming) colonial-era privileges jut out in contrast to the demands of a burgeoning pre-industrial, urban society. Motivations of revenge, friendship, love, betrayal, sibling rivalry and forgiveness all merged together in an epic interplay set against the backdrop of shifting socio-economic institutions.
Though Waris plays out at the intersection of Chaudhary Hashmat’s family drama and Dilawar’s blinding quest for vengeance and justice, its beauty lies in how it shows a way forward. A way forward for the characters, yes — but symbolically also for the country. A way forward by doing away with the colonial era privileges its elite now aspire for above all else; by doing away with its putrid dynasties that clamour to maintain their status at the pinnacle of the pyramid of privileges; and instead, by embracing change.
Chaudhary Hashmat, in the end, was honourable and chose to die with his decadence. Unable and incapable of passing on his privileged life to his progeny, he bows to change as symbolised by the development of a dam whose apocalyptic water reservoir is to inundate and bury the feudal holdings, along with him, in his own dungeons.
From a literary perspective, Amjad’s writing shows the potential that existed (and still exists) to combine life, beauty, and social commentary together in art, drama and writing. The drama is in glaring contrast with present-day trash and the intellectual bankruptcy celebrated by the likes of Khalilur Rehman Qamar and Orya Maqbool Jan.
Amjad may be no more, but the symbols of Waris remain powerfully relevant. From a national perspective, Waris shows that we should have allowed the inclusive and evolutionary process of political and economic change to take root, but instead are witnessing a doubling down of a rotten mutation of the privileged who possess privileges that can only persist if they clearly exclude (and demean) the majority.
Whereas harnessing rivers by building dams was seen as a foregone conclusion to achieve and maintain energy and food security respectively, somewhere along the path the objectives and lessons of development and self-reliance were lost. Instead of building the foundations of a robust future, the privileged elite — be it members of the bureaucracy, military, political class or those of us endlessly aspiring for an entry into the halls of privilege — have bartered it all away. As climate change consistently manufactures a new reality with its increasing cycles of floods and droughts, these leaders of privilege stubbornly reinvent themselves as victims to a global audience in the hopes of obtaining renumeration, if not reparations.
As Chaudhary Hashmat stubbornly listens to the rippling waters of the new reservoir enter the dungeon he has locked himself in, his determination to die with his beliefs is to be marvelled at. Unlike the determination of the present-day privileged elite who orchestrate the destruction of their country as they prepare to jump ship with the remaining members of their families when the water gets too high — letting their subjects suffer and drown in their stead.