Review: Naulakhi Kothi by Ali Akbar Natiq, translated by Naima Rashid - Hindustan Times

Review: Naulakhi Kothi by Ali Akbar Natiq, translated by Naima Rashid

ByMaaz Bin Bilal
Jan 13, 2024 06:37 AM IST

Revolving around four protagonists and their life trajectories, Naulakhi Kothi presents colonial Punjab and the lust for women, money, and land

Ali Akbar Natiq, the Urdu poet, has been the toast of the town among the Urdu literati in recent years. Accordingly, I came to his first novel Naulakhi Kothi with a great deal of excitement, not least because it also depicted a pre-Partition Punjab. Alas, I was much disappointed.

View of Wah village in Rawalpindi district, Punjab, 1934. (Bristol Archives/Universal Image)
View of Wah village in Rawalpindi district, Punjab, 1934. (Bristol Archives/Universal Image)

480pp, Rs599; Penguin
480pp, Rs599; Penguin

While the translation by Naima Rashid was quite eloquent, the novel, as with much contemporary Urdu prose writing, is heavily overwritten. It could have done with careful editing, which should have reduced the novel by a hundred pages or more. The storyline and plot are clichéd and avoid the immense realm of possibility that the pre-independent-state and pre-divided Punjab could have provided.

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In contrast, in 2010, the Pakistani-American anglophone writer Daniyal Mueenuddin published what I consider the best English book of fiction to come out of Pakistan — In Other Rooms, Other Wonders also about feudal Punjab. It won The Story Prize worth $20000 and was shortlisted for most major American prizes including the Pulitzer. The short story collection described rural (Pakistani) Punjab and its society with exquisite detail and great humanity. There was also great nuance to each character’s inner life and its contradictions. The themes revolved around the collection’s epigraph, which is a common aphorism around men’s driving forces in Punjab, zan, zar, zameen, “women, money, and land”.

However, where Mueenuddin had worked with precision, insight and delicate balance, Natiq writes with a free and laboured hand as well as clichés. It is as if Punjab has nothing but avarice for zan, zar, zameen in Natiq’s world. The story may be said to revolve around four protagonists and their life trajectories. William is a white colonial civil servant who returns at the beginning of the novel, one may surmise in the 1930s, to his land of birth, the Punjab, after his education in England. It is his investment in his ancestral mansion Naulakhi Kothi near Okara that gives the novel its name. A parallel England-returned character is Ghulam Haider, who ends up performing the role of a Michael Corleone figure to his recently deceased (God)father Sher Haider’s feudal empire after the rival Sikh lord, Sardar Sauda Singh, begins attacking his lands, stealing his cattle and produce, and killing his men. The third storyline is of the grovelling Maulvi Karamat who ends up in colonial school, setting his son up who, in turn, sets up his son in colonial and subsequently Pakistani bureaucracy through recourse to a mix of the tools and skills provided by education, religion, and obsequious sycophancy. All the characters work as types, showing no real development or even proper humanity, apart from working through masculinist tropes or exhibiting their love of land and money.

The land that has given us such a large repertoire of love stories and songs of the famous lovers Heer-Ranjha, Soni-Mahewal, Shashi-Punnu, and Mirza-Saheban, is devoid in Natiq’s work of all tender emotion or characters with any emotional or intellectual depth. William is perhaps the only exception in his love for Punjab (which too is a piece of personally owned land as embodied in the kothi in his case) transcends his race.

Partition punctuates the novel, but here too Natiq avoids the complications of character and motivation as provided by Manto, Taunsvi or Bedi and other great Urdu writers who experienced Partition first hand. Just as in the Muslim–Sikh feud of the Haiders and Sauda Singh, Partition remains a black and white story of Sikhs (and Gurkha army) vs Muslims where no loyalties of culture or friendship may question those of blood or religion. Natiq appears a Pakistani writer seeing a Pakistan before the political establishment of Pakistan and justifying it after, although he provides some criticism of politicians who allowed Partition but were not among the migrants to suffer in the violence of Partition.

Natiq’s Partition is also devoid of any dark humour, as seen in Manto and Fikr, just as the whole novel is devoid of the comic and all the people of Punjab are devoid of any good humour. Punjabis, in contrast, are in fact famous for their drollery, sense of fun and making jokes at even their own expense. Woe is me, I do not recall a single joke from the narrator or any character over its 462 pages!

Author Ali Akbar Natiq (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Ali Akbar Natiq (Courtesy the publisher)

“Naulakhi Kothi” is rarely referenced in the novel, although it features a bit more towards the end, when William goes on to finally lose it. One is strained to find any serious, sustained, or deeper allegory or symbolism in the haveli, such as one delighted in EM Forster’s condition of England novel Howards End, where its mixed-race inheritors could be believed to be the true legatees of a multicultural England to come. Perhaps one deplorable meaning to be extrapolated of the Naulakhi Kothi symbol could be that Punjab was better maintained by the British than the Pakistanis who have spoilt it.

Some historical details of colonial Punjab, its technologies, its petty and violent feuds, its education policy, and transfer of property following Partition, may be interesting for some. Yet the lasting impression with which one leaves the novel is that Naulakhi Kothi is an uninspired, humourless delving into the past with no lessons for the future — aesthetic, moral, or political. Arundhati Roy had said in an interview that her training in architecture helped her structure her majestic first novel with its sumptuous prose and voice and vivid descriptions of place. Natiq is also a trained architect but no Arundhati Roy.

Maaz Bin Bilal is a poet and translator and teaches literature at OP Jindal Global University.

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