A COLLEAGUE collared me in the office canteen the other day and said: Im so envious of you. You lived in Pakistan!

Eh? is right. Turns out it had nothing to do with journalistic obsession with the worlds most dangerous place and everything to do with something called Zindagi Gulzar Hai.

I knew Pakistani television dramas were making waves in India. But like this? She was unstoppable: about the theme so identifiable; the story so well done; the brevity thats the best part, only a few episodes, not like ours that go on and on for years; the clothes what innovations with the salwar kameez; the acting so natural; the actors wow! that Fawad Khan!

She mailed me a YouTube link for one episode. I ended up watching all 26 over two weekends, then binge-watched all 23 of another called Humsafar.

As we brace for another round of will they-wont they meet when Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi land in Kathmandu for the Saarc summit, Indians and Pakistanis are not exactly waiting for a green light from their prime ministers.

They are, as they have always done, finding their own ways to get around the usual barriers of terrorism and Kashmir, to get answers to the questions they have about each other.

TV soaps answer some of the questions Indians and Pakistanis have about each other.
Who are the people on the other side? Are their daily problems different? Do they also have power cuts? Does the water run out in their taps too? Do they have colleges as difficult to get into? What freedoms do women have? What clothes do they wear? Do women work? Is everyone religious?

It is unbelievable that two countries could be so geographically close and yet know so little about each other. Television soap may not be the ideal place to find the answers, but what the heck, it is better than nothing.

When I lived in Pakistan, I was surprised by the popularity of the Hindi saas-bahu sagas.

How could anyone want to watch those scheming, overdressed women, a kilo of sindoor in their hair, going off to commit suicide holding a mobile phone? But clearly, it was a window to a slice of life in India, even if not a very accurate one. I realised this when the lady who cooked for me asked if I would be fasting for Navratri. I wasnt but many Indian Hindus do, and she knew that from the TV dramas.

Of course, many believed then that allowing them to be shown in Pakistan was a Musharraf conspiracy to keep people from watching the news at a time it was all going downhill for him.

Others lamented that Hindi words were entering the vocabulary and that young girls were getting an unhealthy dose of Hindu culture. Then there were those who wondered what had happened to the Pakistani television drama that was such a subcontinental hit in the 1980s.

Its good to know its alive and that the traffic is not one-way.

From the little I have seen, the new Pakistani dramas are mushy romances in which the boy is good-looking, rich, drives a Mercedes and is inseparable from his Mac, and the girl is a high IQ student from a poor family where the father is dead/absent and the mother a teacher who gives tuitions to make ends meet.

They dont let you forget that khamoshi ki bhi eik zubaan hoti hai; silence can even lead to pregnancy. The attempts to break stereotypes are at best feeble. And in one of the two that I watched the plot was absurd. But as countless Indian viewers have pointed out, the stories are told with a light touch, the dialogues are everyday speak, the acting less laboured compared to the hyperventilation on Indian TV.

And look at it this way: Indian viewers know now that Pakistani women step out of their homes, work in offices, a Karachi road looks pretty much the same in rush hour as one in an Indian city, and that public transport is the same as in India abysmal. For my colleague, the big discovery was that not a single woman was swathed in a burqa. Every little bit counts.

Lovely though the Urdu is and half the fun is trying to figure out words like beyhiss, imagine if these dramas could be dubbed and shown in other Indian languages. Naseer Turabis lament for 1971 is the theme song of Humsafar. A puzzling choice, but Quratulain Balochs voice wafting in and out, driving home again and again that we were fellow travellers without a meeting of minds, gave the soc-rom just that right touch of irony, even if unintentionally.

The last time I ran into my colleague, she had moved on to a new Fawad Khan series, and was asking me if it was possible to get a tourist visa to visit there.

The writer is senior associate editor of The Hindu and was Pakistan correspondent for the paper from 2006-2010.