Book Title: Naulakhi Kothi
Author: Ali Akbar Natiq
GRAND colonial houses, with their awe-inspiring architectural splendour, cemented in the social and cultural practices of a period, have the potential to become evocative metaphors that string together diverse, asymmetrical human stories. As history goes, ‘Naulakhi Kothi’ and ‘Taylor Haveli’ in Renala Khurd are two impressive colonial-era mansions in Okara, Pakistan, that got mired in controversy and myth as their residents decided to stay on after Partition in 1947. Both estates, ‘native homes’ to the British settlers, eventually taken over by the State, causing existential crises for the heirs, now stand dilapidated.
The acclaimed Urdu novelist Ali Akbar Natiq, who grew up in Okara, weaves his thought-provoking novel ‘Naulakhi Kothi’ against the backdrop of the enigmatic ‘nine lakh mansion’. The monumental work effortlessly brings to life the complexity of social and political relations between the British, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities in pre-Partition central Punjab. Considering the epic scale of the novel, its English translation by Naima Rashid is an invaluable contribution to sub-continental English fiction. It captures the narrative force of the source text with matching felicity and nuance.
The daastan-go strategically chooses the heart of Punjab, the region between Bangla (Fazilka), Jalalabad, Guru Harsahai, Ferozepur, Kasur and Lahore, as the scene of his layered narrative and instantly strikes a chord with readers across borders. The protagonist, William, heir to the titular bungalow, returns to Hindustan after eight years of training as a civil servant in London and is appointed assistant commissioner at Jalalabad. The parallel ‘rags to riches’ story of Maulvi Karamat and his descendants is, in a manner, a foil to the fateful saga of William.
Alongside, the linear narrative organically enmeshes the characteristic rivalries between landlords in undivided rural Punjab which often turned communal. The fight between Chaudry Ghulam Haider of Jodhapur and Saudha Singh of Jhandoowala reveals the visceral fierceness of the feudal value system, gamely enacted through acts of violence in the name of religion and honour. Needless to say, women are confined to the zenanah. The story gallops through gripping occurrences with vivid details of places, people, flora and fauna. Descriptions of time with reference to fajar, zuhar, asar and maghrib and of spatial dimension in counts of camels and elephants, and other amusing metaphors, evince Natiq’s intimacy with the native ethos and his expertise in traditional masonry.
At places, the narrative reinforces monolithic constructs of communities, giving a skewed and one-sided idea of cultures. Characters add free-flowing religious invectives to troubled communal waters and, in a way, pre-empt the infernal horrors of Partition that follow later as an integral part of the story. On the whole, a direct approach, robust descriptions and an honest local idiom soak the tale in Dostoevskian realism.
Rashid’s translation nails the challenging task of fusing the rhythms of Urdu, Punjabi and English languages in a contemporary idiom. She retains culturally specific words like gundasas, shalwar, lacha, khussa, mashk, rizq and the popular foliage terms like berseem, jand, karir, bhakra, aak, shareenh, among others. There are a few oversights and inconsistencies that could have been easily handled.
In times plagued by the increasing slipperiness of history writing, there is an increasing tendency to turn towards cultural and artistic renderings of societal sagas. Given its scope, depth and idiom, ‘Naulakhi Kothi’ stands out as one of the most important 21st century novels on post/colonial Hindustan in general, and Punjab in particular.