“Naulakhi Kothi” by Ali Akbar Natiq

Naulakhi Kothi, Ali Akbar Natiq, Naima Rashid (trans) (Penguin India, September 2023) Naulakhi Kothi, Ali Akbar Natiq, Naima Rashid (trans) (Penguin India, September 2023)

South Asian fiction based on the Partition of 1947 is generally concerned with specific incidents of trauma and violence. Urdu writer Ali Akbar Natiq’s Naulakhi Kothi, recently translated into English by Naima Rashid, adds a different dimension to the existing ways of narrating fiction. Its story begins several years before the partition and ends several years later, thereby using partition to frame a much longer narrative. 

The novel has three interrelated stories. One concerns William, an heir to the eponymous Naulakhi Kothi near Jalalabad in today’s Punjab Pakistan, the mansion that cost the veritable fortune of nine lakhs, as the Hindi/Urdu “naulakha” has it, to make. It was a house built by his father: William grew up here, before being sent to England for an education. The plot opens with his memories as he returns “home”; he expects to be transferred to the district where his mansion is located. But as he gets closer to his home, he realizes things have changed. Politically motivated killings keep making things worse for the colonial administration (and thereby for him), and constitute the second story or subplot: the animosity between Ghulam Haider and Saudha Singh, the factions that keep fighting over control of land in the region. The third strand is the story of the cleric Maulvi Karamat (and subsequently his son and grandson), narrating the story of rags-to-power in what later becomes Pakistan.

All three are powerful, even independent, narratives with William present in the other two, handling violence in one, and roping in the cleric to help the Muslim society in the other. Naulakhi Kothi stands out in no small part, at least in Indian-language literature generally and Partition literature in particular, for placing a British character at the center of the story. Occupying a position of power, he is physically untouched, but what hurts him the most is that nostalgia for the childhood he spent in India cost him his marriage and family. Undivided India was of course home to the British too – as unpalatable as that idea may be in certain quarters.

Unlike most British residents, William stays on, and ends up on the Pakistani side of the border:

 

‘Why didn’t you go back?’
      ‘Where?’
      ‘To England.’
       ‘These questions irk me. England is not my home. I was born in this country. I knew this place before you or your father were born. Even your grandfather might not have been born by then. He wouldn’t even have seen this place. When I am the one who has been living here the longest, then why should I be the one who must leave this place and go?’

 

The third person voice in the first nine-tenths of the novel keeps moving and adapting to characters and their situation. A fine portrait of the people of Punjab as William’s senior Hailey paints it for him while handing over responsibilities to William:

 

Punjab is the only place in Hindustan where humans live in proximity to animals. So you will often be at a loss to tell who the real beast among them is. These people have an abundance of buffalos and bulls. In times of obedience, they become buffalos, and in times of rebellion, they rage like bulls.

 

Unlike the parts of the story that concern local wars, the parts zeroing on Maulvi Karamat and his son could constitute a separate novel: theirs is the rags-to-power story; considered as nobodies surviving on the alms of the village, they are specimens of how obsession with religious righteousness materialized in Pakistani politics in a span of three generations. Natiq narrates the hypocrisy of it all coldly. Here is their grandson, Nawaz-ul-Haq, who outdoes his father and grandfather in terms of making connections with influential people and leveraging them:

 

And democracy? Clearly, that was Western propaganda. Islam does not declare legitimate any government which has not been founded in the name of religion. He started declaring out loud that Rafizi and Khanqahi nizams were other names for mischief and should be abolished. During this time, Nawaz grew his beard longer and voluntarily started leading the prayer for his colleagues at work and teaching them the basics of religion, which they badly needed at the time. If someone did not come to offer their prayers, they would be accused of disobeying official rules and laws and a warning letter issued to them. Nawaz was among the most eager ones in the enforcement of this too.

 

Neither of the above mentioned aspects of the novel—the communal tensions and the gradual process of the clerics’ engagement with the power circles in independent Pakistan—lend themselves to being quoted: a familiarity with the longer context in which these excerpts appear help one appreciate how things have changed since the time when the grandfather cleric survived on the charity of his fellow villagers. One must read the novel to feel the slow passage of time transforming characters, undoing them, but most importantly, undoing Pakistan.

Naulakhi Kothi is a rare and perhaps unique example of an Urdu writer engaging a British character, the outsider, to explore loss of home usually limited to Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs as victims of violence.