These are the opening pages of the novel ‘Naulakhi Kothi’ by Ali Akbar Natiq. Unlike most novels set in the time of Partition, this work sets itself apart by the unique point of view through which the story is told. William has called Hindustan his home since three generations. Beginning in the time of Raj and going up to the Zia era, the novel is as much a love story between man and place as it is as a study of the times it portrays.
In this excerpt, William returns to Hindustan after eight years in England. As he looks back at his childhood spent in Hindustan, this nostalgic piece evokes his love for the land, the novel’s guiding premise.
A translation of the novel is currently under progress for publication with Penguin Random House India around 2022.
He had left behind the sea that stretched for miles, and that induced a restless fatigue in him. As the coast drew close, an emotional state overtook him. Images of central Punjab began to float before his eyes. The luxurious mansion on Mall Road, the maids, the servants, and the army of different servitors, one by one, he began to remember them all. It had been a long eight years since he had left his parents and home for England, for a tiresome education and a chilling cold and darkness, in which, while shivering, he would conjure scenes of his adolescence. How mothers would besiege the fathers, and drag them to Lawrence Garden. Here, they would spoil the children silly, attending to their every whim and desire. Here, when the fathers and British officers would go on tours in their jeeps, with what yearning the locals would look at them. Standing by the side of the road, they kept staring at their majesty with such expressionless faces and listless eyes. They would continue staring even after the jeep had roared past them noisily, kicking up dust in their faces. He remembered how, when he would visit his father’s office, the people working in the office would come forward in flattery. Chocolates and sweetmeat would pile up for their pleasure, to the extent that on that day, half of the office staff would leave their work, and would busy themselves only in trying to please Baba and win his favour. What luxuries there were! Fruits, so exotic even their aroma is unknown in Europe, would sit for days in the haveli’s drawing room, drying up in neglect. We were without a care in the world. Free of any worries, the whole day would be spent swinging in the boughs of the banyan trees in Aitchison College. Life was nothing but sweet delight in those days. Then, one day, when Baba had told him that he was to leave for England for his studies, how he had hated it. He had cried and protested a lot, but Baba had put his foot down, and today, in retrospect, he feels he had been right to stick to his decision. Now, the whole span of eight years seemed to have gone by in a wink. Many times, he had grown weary of the cold and the dull, colourless life, and was at the verge of running back to Hindustan, but Cathy had played a major part in keeping him steady. Today, after clearing the exams for becoming Assistant Commissioner, as he was entering Hindustan to assume his new post, how good it felt. He thought to himself, what a delight it is to rule over locals. Here, in England, there was no etiquette for living, one had to do everything with one’s own hands. Even drunkards and beggars were not slovenly of nature, and would not pay heed to you. But as soon as one sets foot in Hindustan, one instantly transforms into a nawab. This was life, living in Hindustan among its people. He thought, I will never return to England now. After two years, I will call Cathy here too. Then, I will spend the rest of my life enjoying the benefits of my post. After his grandfather Holroyd, his father had been appointed Deputy Commissioner, and now, he was coming to Lahore to receive his orders for appointment as Assistant Commissioner. Before assuming the full responsibilities of his post, he still had to train for a year, doing other odd jobs for training. This was a condition set in stone, which he was very reluctant to fulfill. Regardless, the sight of this place brought him great joy. After eight years, he was returning to rule the land where he had spent his childhood. He began thinking back to the days spent in the mansion by the canal. He was only six years old at the time. Often, while playing, he would fight with his friend Ashley. Very soon afterwards, they would make up by themselves. They had also begun going to school together, and would miss each other when away, but he had spent so many years without Ashley in England now. What seasons of bliss they had known, when, by the side of the canal, under the luxurious shade of the trees lining the bank, mothers would stay with them for hours, and give them rides on the swings tied to the banyan trees. The water flowing in the canal, the swings in the trees, the scent bursting from mangoes, he would never be able to forget these.
Free of any worries, the whole day would be spent swinging in the boughs of the banyan trees in Aitchison College. Life was nothing but sweet delight in those days. Then, one day, when Baba had told him that he was to leave for England for his studies, how he had hated it
When his grandfather was murdered by locals in a riot, he had to leave Gogera. The government transferred its headquarters from Gogera to Montgomery. Then, after three years, when Johnson was appointed the Deputy Commissioner of Montgomery, he had taken him along to Montgomery, and they had stayed there for four years. During this time, Johnson returned many times to Gogera for excursions. He would find a certain peace here. He would never forget the allure of Gogera, which was named after his great grandfather. Whenever he would accompany Johnson to Gogera, he would leave the Daak Bangla on his own, and take a walk in its surroundings. How he loved it when the local guards and servants would hover around him out of protection and concern. When he saw this, he would speed up the horse’s trot a little on purpose, and watch the guard run after him, armed with his heavy bayonet. When some among them would pant and puff, and fall down, the scene would be very amusing. Even the women working in the fields would see them, and roll over with laughter. What he could never forget was the season of mangoes, for which his grandfather made extra preparations. Thinking of that, he said to himself, what a scene from paradise that was. Between three canals, dense thickets of mango trees spread over two and a half acres. In August and September, the breath-taking sounds and songs of koels and cuckoos in the garden, which seemed to grow sharper after it had rained. This place was a lush green vale of magic for him. In the midst of this enchanted land, the grand red-brick mansion sprawling over two acres.
Dada used to say that in good old times, its construction had cost nine lakh rupees. This seemed like a modest estimate, given the spectacular grandeur of the house. They had named it the nine-lakh mansion. From the grand canal, his father had drawn out a smaller canal, which snaked through the house’s courtyard, and after one kilometer, joined the former canal once more. After his grandfather’s death, Louis said that the house could easily sell for fifteen lakh, but Johnson refused to sell it. To tell you the truth, I was overjoyed because of that. The construction of the bungalow was such that the breeze circulating in the corridors from all four sides would enter the rooms, whose ceilings were twenty-five feet high. As a result, it never got stuffy inside.
Immersed in these thoughts, he could almost feel the taste of mangoes as well. He was at a loss to capture the sensation in words. All he remembered was the big silver bowls filled with mangoes submerged in ice water. After some time, when they were chilled, what sweet flavours would find their way to the heart, after passing through the mouth and the throat. Lorraine and Mama were crazy about this weather. After eating mangoes, they would drink a glass of buttermilk on top, then sleep fitfully for hours. During this time, if anyone reminded them of England, they would frown with clear discontent. Especially Baba would always make it a point to tease them, saying that next year, they should return to England, since they were being spoilt silly in Hindustan. They would retaliate with a hundred retorts. They would call England ‘frozen hell’ and other nasty epithets. Then, she would threaten Baba and say to him brazenly, ‘I am not going to England. I will stay here, and marry a nawab.’ Baba would flare up at this remark, and suddenly say ‘Shut up, darling’, then lean forward and give her a big kiss on the forehead. Lorraine and I would find this scene very amusing. This was all in good humour, but we knew that in earnest, Baba would not be willing to leave Hindustan under any circumstances. Especially the lush green plains of Central Punjab, where they lived liked nawabs. They had thousands of horses, hens, and quails. Dada had been very fond of quail-fighting. Even the addiction to the huqqa, Baba inherited that from him. Seeing his fondness for it, people would gift him every kind of huqqa made of silver. Many people, in exchange for these fancy gifts, had gotten several acres of land allotted in their name from Baba. He himself was fond of purchasing land to grow orchards. He must own hundreds of acres of orchards by the banks of the Ravi. William thought, as soon as I land, I will visit the nine lakh mansion. When Cathy comes to Hindustan, I will arrange for us to live there. The very next instant, his thoughts turned to Mama again. In his heart, he began to savour the thought of his reunion with Baba, Mama, Lorraine and Ashley. Thee years ago, Lorraine had gotten married to a famous lawyer in Bombay called Jack. He had received the news in England. Both had studied at the same college in Calcutta, and liked each other. But in his mind, he had the same picture of Lorraine imprinted forever. Lorraine as the slim and slender girl who plucked at the feathers of peacocks in the orchards, and setting the pigeons off in a flight, ran chasing them for a long time. For some time, William kept seeing Lorraine in his mind’s eye, running through the fields, clad in white like a fairy.
They would call England ‘frozen hell’ and other nasty epithets. Then, she would threaten Baba and say to him brazenly, “I am not going to England. I will stay here, and marry a nawab.” Baba would flare up at this remark, and suddenly say “Shut up, darling”, then lean forward and give her a big kiss on the forehead
He was still lost in these thoughts, when he heard the captain’s announcement, giving details of time, place, and distance. He didn’t pay much attention to the announcement, but the pull of the past jolted him awake. The sun was setting in preparation for the evening to come. He realized that he had been standing on the deck for three hours, lost in thoughts of the past, and had not felt the time go by. A cloak of impenetrable darkness was beginning to spread over the ocean like a blanket. Then suddenly, the darkness was joined by clouds, and the stage began to set for rain. The wind had become stronger too. The ship was moving steadily towards the port of Bombay. He would have lingered longer still on the deck, but the air had grown chillier, and a slight drizzle had started too. Descending the stairs of the deck slowly, he entered his bedroom. Three hours ago, the ruckus that the new lads of civil service had created in the cabin had come to an end, and now, everyone was quietly preparing for dinner. He was extremely weary of this routine, but he braced himself for another two days of travel, for Mumbai was still two days away. He sat awhile in the room, then began to get ready for dinner.