Staying within his familiar eastern/central Punjab’s rural locale, where most of his earlier short stories reside, Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut novel Naulakhi Kothi is like a broad sweeping statement on the working of the Raj, the rise of identity politics in united India, partition and its aftermath. It covers a period starting from 1920s up to 1990s including a good part of contemporary Pakistan.
The Raj and the partition are familiar themes in Urdu literature, especially for a majority of short story writers writing in the 1950s including Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishen Chandar, Mumtaz Mufti, Qudratullah Shahab and Ashfaq Ahmed. Ahmed Bashir’s autobiographical novel Dil Bhatkay Ga and Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Rakh too are carved around these themes. Qurratulain Hyder’s work also deals mainly with colonial India and the decline of culture of Muslim middle classes along with the Raj, mainly in the Urdu-speaking UP where the British empire had made early inroads. Rural Punjab typically was addressed extremely well by Abdullah Hussain in what is considered as a classic novel Naadar Loag, covering almost the same time period and the same locale which Natiq has attempted in Naulakhi Kothi.
The polarised and opinionated world of literary criticism in Urdu literature is likely to point this out and dismiss Natiq for replicating the theme and locale attempted earlier, especially by Hussain. This should not bother Natiq as his advantages are many: his insights into the way the rural life operates, its family and community life and the making of its power structure are authentic and believable.
Although Natiq could have exploited the third person as a narrator a bit more to explain the development of his key characters in terms of bigger ideas on, say, politics of partition, he chose to stay more loyal to the chain of several micro narratives at the community level to show how individuals acted and were perceived by the village society.
Natiq’s two main characters representing the local power elite, Ghulam Haider and Soodah Singh, are able to put up a brave face in front of their followers but also have their own private fears and in each case take solace with their woman — Haider with his mother and Soodah Singh with his wife. He also shows the transformation of these characters with an amazing ease, where events over time transform these characters quite dramatically — and that is where it becomes possible to understand the rural logic even behind heinous crimes and violence which are so much a part of Punjab’s way of managing power in the villages even now.
Interestingly, for Natiq, the impact of the process of state building and high politics at local level is much deeper, and that is where he spends a considerable time — in showing how William, a civil servant representing the British Empire, works hard to develop agriculture, education and other amenities in Jalalpur tehsil for Ferozpur district. His deliberate decision to show the superiority of British rule over post-independence bureaucracy almost takes him closer to Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s position on Raj who had dedicated his The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian to British Empire quite openly literally saying that:
“Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule”
But that overt political position helps him give meaning to the otherwise tedious and, in some cases, repetitive minor details of local feuds. That also helps him advance and link this argument with the high politics of partition where Jinnah is shown as brokering a deal for a local Muslim landlord who had killed his opponents and was now in hiding for a over a decade. Natiq’s intentions are not very clear because he apparently did not care about the political accuracy of the context but used the metaphor of Jinnah and Nawab Iftikhar Mamdot, to basically establish a broader point — that both Jinnah and the Raj were working in the realm of realpolitik engaged in furthering gains for their respective constituencies. Jinnah is shown as somebody relying on Nawab Iftikhar Mamdot who asked him to help one of his partyworker on murder trial by the British Raj for political reasons. That Jinnah can misread a situation is also to humanise him, something which the political purists would not like. For the same reasons though, this will cement the stereotyping of Jinnah in India where he is always regarded as a communalist.
The bigger omission, however, is the complete disregard of various layers of freedom movements of the time and Raj’s oppressive ways to handle them. Therefore Jalialanwala Bagh, Ahmed Khan Kharal, Bhagat Singh, all major historical events in the same time period in the areas closer to Lahore, did not find any reflection in Natiq’s narration. Even his character of Molvi Karamatullah did not show any signs of his awareness of Tehrik-i-Khilafat which was another anti-Raj movement championed by the Muslim mainstream, typically Ulema.
When Natiq involves the key figures of independence movement of United India in the final part of his novel, no less than Jinnah and Mountbatten, they do not look believable at all. That also exposes some problems with the macro structure of the novel where, for over three quarters of the time, we are dealing basically with a local feud of two families which is not even truly communal in nature but is linked suddenly to the high politics of the time.
If that was Natiq’s early intention, he could have given early references to establish Ghulam Haider’s prominence for Nawab Iftikhar Mamdot. Ghulam Haider is in a way reminiscent of Abdullah Hussain’s character Master Ejaz. Ejaz transforms himself from a local teacher who is forced to resign to one day actually playing a role in exposing the Hamood ur Rehman Commission report. Hussain took a lot of time in developing this character and the logic that makes him a new man. That would have reduced the abruptness of invoking the high politics of the time at the climactic stage of Naulakhi Kothi.
However, those who know Natiq as a shrewd short story writer will understand that he enjoys sudden and abrupt twists even in his stories. In a transition to his first major novel, his preoccupation was to keep the novel readable throughout which he has succeeded in.
The best part of the novel is the writer’s command over language and its usage in explaining even the most complex of situations with utmost ease. Some of the scenes of the beauty of rural Punjab in winters have never been described as lyrically before.
Natiq also provides a fresh insight into the way a society operates and entertains itself in rural life. His political choices are new and less politically correct and therefore daring; his take on the Raj to present it humanely will resonate with many. There is no doubt that people in villages still remember Raj’s justice system. Somebody had to reflect it and Natiq is courageous enough to do that. In the early decades after India and Pakistan gained their freedom, it was not really possible emotionally for many to admit, with the exception of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, of course.
By the end of the novel, William truly appears as one of our own which is Natiq’s key success.
For all these reasons and for many more, Naulakhi Kothi will be talked about for long time and may even give a new intensity to some old questions on the way the partition was actually managed in the final months of the Raj.