Set in canal colonies of the Punjab, Ali Akbar Natiq’s much anticipated debut novel ‘Nou-Lakhi Kothi’ is as enticingly rich and multi-faceted as the land that he is so unabashedly in love with.
Natiq has already made his mark as a poet of vibrant images, enigmatic metaphors, a brooding sense of history and metaphysical explorations. His two anthologies of poetry ‘Baiyaqeen Bastioon Mein’ (2010) and ‘Yaqoot Kai Warq’ (2013) provide ample testimony. His haunting series of poems ‘Safeer-e-Laila’ portray the cyclical vagaries of time and civilizational rise and decline that at times remind one of N. M Rashid’s masterpiece ‘Hasan Koozagar’ but are nevertheless enthrallingly original. That he is an immaculate observer and highly gifted capturer of the geographical and cultural topography of Punjab has already come to light in ‘Qaim Din’ (2012) – hiswonderful volume of short stories. In Nou-Lakhi Kothi Natiq draws on his poetic prose and deep intimacy with the land and people of Punjab to craft a compelling tale of enmity, revenge, social mobility, opportunism, past glory and lost grandeur.
Under the British Raj Punjab witnessed wide scale technological changes and unique social engineering. The new hydraulic economy of the canal colonies led to displacement of riverine tribes as well as mass migration and resettlement of agricultural people from elsewhere in the province to cultivate the new and rich canal fed tracts in Western Punjab. Colonial perceptions of the diversity and differences of local traits and varying potential for loyalty and its consequent patterns of patronage led to the administrative and legislative consolidation of the highly problematic binaries of agrarian and non-agrarian castes, martial and non-martial races, and criminal and non-criminal tribes.
Meanwhile, colonial systems of administration and instruments of formal justice endeavored to entrench themselves. Rescuing disputants from the at times exploitative dynamics of indigenous dispute resolution systems, the colonial thana, court, and kachehri assumed a central role as arbiters of disputes and symbols of the naya qanoon as well as favorite new arenas for further embroilment and perpetuation of such disputes, frequent coercive use of the law and the reconfigured leveraging of local influence and power. The commodification, titling and consequent facility in the transfer of land, the erosion of multiple conventional and informal communitarian claims on its produce, and the tussle between indigenous money lending and modern state backed credit further impacted village economies, rural power dynamics and social relationships. Punjab also became pivotal, not just as a bread basket, but as the primary breeding ground of fighting troops. This necessitated further carving out of enclaves of privilege for loyal landlords – active and absentee; traditional local notables and the nouveau riche as well as retired military officers – and additional uses of land in service of military imperatives and avarice. Land alienation powers and reward of arable land were thus central to the colonial incentive structures envisioned to build and sustain the Raj in the decades following 1857.
Against the backdrop of these major upheavals and reconfigurations, Natiq’s novel is primarily set in the decades immediately preceding Indian independence. The protagonists face a foreseeable future that could not be in greater contrast. For William who is sailing to India to take up appointment as an officer of the Indian Civil Service, it is the legacy of an illustrious family that has ruled the land for generations. City bred and educated, Ghulam Haider, meanwhile, is returning to his vast village fiefdom in the wake of his father’s sudden death, and finds himself surrounded by armed loyalists and family retainers fearful of an attempt on his life from arch enemies of his father. Maulvi Karamat, on the other hand, is the imam of a tiny and decrepit village mosque, for whom the difference between survival and penury is the largesse of chapatis that his son Fazal Din collects daily from the homesteads – in lieu of frequent free labor and running of chores, apart from his father’s ritualistic services – which are then sold every month in a nearby market to keep the family afloat.
Events overtake them and intertwine their lives in important, inextricable ways over the next several years. William harbors strong and paradoxical emotions for the land – reminiscent of Kipling in certain ways – where he grew up and to which he relates deeply. Of a romantic bent and zealous about introducing various reforms he finds himself posted as an Assistant Commissioner in an arid tehsil in district Firozpur in east Punjab. There he comes face to face with the inertia of the vast clerkdom that thrives in the bureaucratic culture, the revenue extraction monomania of his higher officials, race and class as the great dividers of people, widespread native alienation from colonial forms of governance and justice, the misery of poverty, and the ever-simmering religious communal divides that threaten to develop into larger conflicts. William adores the land, even if he looks upon most of its inhabitants as crude and inferior – though at times he also appears much more amenable to pulling down the walls between the rulers and the ruled than the more pukka sahibs. He wants to see the landscape prosperous and lush with crops and groves, as much to benefit locals and to boost revenues as to assuage his aesthetic sensibilities. Meanwhile, Ghulam Haider finds himself besieged by Sardar Sodha Singh and his clan and allies who want to settle old scores with his father Sher Haider. At the same time, Maulvi Karamat stumbles upon career enhancement possibilities that promise an escape from his life of destitution but also pose ideological difficulties as well as challenges of personal re-invention. Thus embarks a tight and riveting story that explores life in late colonial Punjab from multiple and very different vantage points.
[quote]There have seldom been such vivid rural descriptions since the dream-like short stories of Balwant Singh[/quote]
Natiq skillfully weaves a narrative which is realistic, probing and reflective. At the heart of the novel is the genesis of a quintessential Punjabi village dispute and its deterioration into a bloody conflict with religious overtones as well as complex underpinnings forged by the contradictions between colonial modes of justice and law enforcement and local customary norms and cultural practices. Formal law’s coercive potential, the resilient leverage of social status and communal and governmental networks, and the parallel functioning of colluding as well as conflicting systems of authorities provide fascinating sub-themes. The novel deconstructs the juggernaut of the colonial legal-bureaucratic machine into its individual cogs and wheels and pervading mood, offering delightful vignettes about the pomposity of the gora sahib (and even greater pomposity of the memsahib) as well as the resentful servility of the native cronies and underlings. At the same time, Natiq’s forte is his savory and multi-tiered description – whether of traditional haveli architecture (his reservoir of local construction terms seems inexhaustible) or the contours and features of the landscape of Eastern and Central Punjab (which he paints with the evocativeness of a gifted impressionist). Despite his stark realism, the poet Natiq also makes several appearances, further augmenting the appeal of his prose. This is when his fascination for the romance of the land takes over and he lovingly describes the glorious vistas, trees, crop fields, waterscapes, lights and shades, and the shifting seasons. This reviewer has seldom come across such vivid rural descriptions since the dream-like short stories of Balwant Singh with their nocturnal paintings of chivalrous Punjabi bandits riding in the long, moonlit summer nights, or the thrilling hunting escapades set in the rugged mystery lands of the gorgeous Potohar plateau by Sabir Hussain Rajput.
Yet, while romancing the Punjab – his favorite muse, Natiq does not allow it to distract him from his essential task of storytelling, and of telling a story that is ultimately dark and brutal. The novel’s mood gets progressively bleak, and at times sardonic, as the partition of India approaches – as the culture of pillage and the political economy of evacuee properties take root, while millions languish and die or find themselves bewildered by the sudden loss of past lives and cherished landscapes. In its post-partition sections a deep melancholy and nostalgia imbue the narrative as Natiq’s characters endeavor to come to grips with new boundaries and classifications. William’s character, in particular, adopts a highly memorable pathos and resonance.
Natiq’s earlier works have demonstrated his great agility with words for not just conveying ideas and insights but also for recreating special moods and particular ways of living. Once again his language is a treat to read as he brings forth distinctive Sikh and Muslim rural dialects and often employs a combination of Punjabi and Urdu to promote a hybrid idiom that is better suited to capture the nuances of Punjabi culture and speech. A deep empathy for the insignificant, the ignored, and the disempowered resonates throughout but on the whole Natiq retains literary objectivity and elegance and resists didactic pontification. His resort at times to satire is also effective and piercing.
Like an accomplished dastango he sits in the village chopal under the giant peepal and beckons you with the promise of his tale of a famous carnage, of heroes eaten up by dust, and of the ruins of a past that will never return. It is a tale of Punjab and is as enigmatic and wondrous as the land that it is set in. As the voice in his celebrated poem Safeer-e-Laila implores:
‘Safeer-e-Laila yehi khandar hain jahan sai aghaaz-e-dastaan hai
Zara sa baitho to mein sunaoon …’
(O Laila’s emissary, these are the very ruins where the epic begins
Stay awhile and I shall narrate …)
Osama Siddique is the author of Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)