It might be considered a travesty to try and put in a nutshell a story that spans nearly 700 hundred pages, but Ali Akbar Natiq’s novel Kamariwala is a synoptic panorama of the world and his wife as seen through a little boy’s precocious sensitivity and sensibility. That changes into pre-teen infatuation, morphs into adult amour and, at the end, lingers as a debt of honour to constancy.

Situated against the backdrop of a direction-less universe, inhabited mostly by men who are experts at playing power games irrespective of what is kosher, this superb combination of intellect and emotion weaves a tapestry that is as beautiful as it is startling in its attention to detail, to language and to expression. Which is not to say that the story lags.

When the highways of early Pakistan were first built, the intent was to bypass the congestion of cities and allow long-distance travellers to arrive at their destinations unimpeded. But as the rapidly expanding cities began to spill over their boundaries, these roads devolved into a maze of tangles and, like a bewildered traveller searching for the right route, Zamin, the protagonist of Natiq’s second novel, spends a considerable amount of time detouring along pathways in search of himself.

Then, much like those early city bypasses that have become part of the very mazes they were built to bypass, Zamin finds himself inextricably entwined in what his elders — and, to an extent himself — believed that he ought to stay clear of. It is a perplexing dilemma, given that his first exposure to sordid sexual shenanigans occurs at the age of 10, when he unwittingly becomes witness to an incident that leaves him gasping for breath.

Ali Akbar Natiq’s sophomore novel touches upon so many disturbing facets of society that one is left reeling

Readers will be hard-pressed to decide whether it is this revolting exposure to depravity, or some sort of superior intellectual cognition, that leads Zamin to confess to a friend later on that, for as long as he could remember, his life had been a trellis of heartache and agony.

Amassed one after the other over a span of 30 years, those experiences, he muses, are now bursting like copious little balloons of angst, regret and frustration, at not having been able to find himself and thus rise above the slime.

The rural world where this drama unfolds is like any other rural society. The inhabitants are knit close through compassion and camaraderie, yet prone to petty jealousies, unkind gossip, suspicion and hushed whispers, all the while zealously guarding the skeletons in their own cupboards.

They welcome newcomers with overt gestures of homely hospitality, yet remain wary of any breach of conduct. Their lives ride the crest of lethal waves in efforts to stay true to centuries-old codes of social conduct. But for how long?

As the tentacles of contemporary non-ethics invade the sleepy village, the men go about their business. But it is the homely, as well as streetwise, wisdom of the women actors that emerges as the more potent force in Natiq’s drama of romance, mystery and human relationships gone awry.

Kamariwala is the name of the village where the action takes place. It is a universe where the women’s voices narrate the story, with Zamin — always wise beyond his years — as the scriptwriter. Zamin’s religiously oriented mother, with her substantial stock of wisdom, emerges as the compassionate bedrock, but the other female characters exist in various degrees of suffering, showing varying degrees of strength.

As the tentacles of contemporary non-ethics invade the sleepy village, the men go about their business. But it is the homely, as well as streetwise, wisdom of the women actors that emerges as the more potent force in Natiq’s drama of romance, mystery and human relationships gone awry.

There is Adeela the nurse, who moves to the village with the baggage of misfortune and miscalculation in tow. There is Dr Farrukh, burdened by secrets of identity. There is Zaini, who tumbles from being the belle of the ball to being an indiscernible mess nursing the pangs of motherhood, and there is Shiza, who ends up a victim — a far cry from the heroine she aimed to become.

Natiq’s novel is populated by women of substance, each with her own brand of confidence. Suffering, sinking, surfacing, fighting, fleeing, sharing wisdom; compassionate and unforgiving at one and the same time; busying themselves with keeping up appearances — all these women are embroiled in a lethal combat with society.

They live lives on the edge, swimming against the torrential waters of a patriarchal society where the exploitation of their gender comes naturally to men. Natiq makes a consummate, compassionate synthesis of total strangers that fate has brought together in arms.

But whether they win the war or not is left to the readers’ imagination because, at the end, our hero Zamin — like the protagonist of Natiq’s debut novel Naulakhi Kothi [The Nine Lakh Villa] — walks off the stage, musing about his own reality.

Over the course of his second novel — coming almost five years after Naulakhi Kothi, which brought massive acclaim to this lad from Punjab’s outback — Natiq touches upon so many disturbing facets of society that one is left reeling.

Zamin’s trajectory is heart-warming as well as heart-breaking, as he encounters one social depravity after another. The 10-year-old boy once infatuated by an older woman carries the heavy burden of rejection as, growing older, he attempts to figure his way out through shattering observations of pervasive moral degeneracy.

He is privy to character assassination, uncalled-for murders, civil lawsuits, the kidnapping — by agents working under dubious commands and commissions — of innocent children for ‘re-education’, illegal money trails, the despicable rumblings of a prime city’s underbelly, the tangled web of frontmen in an elitist society, and so much more.

Leaving his village behind in search of an honest livelihood, Zamin faces a black hole of deception, dishonesty, unfairness, cheating and immorality. The stark clarity of the expositions jar and jolt the

living daylights out of the reader, for Natiq is hellbent on leaving no shades of grey.

The truths he exposes are so plainly told that they become downright unpalatable, almost cause for revulsion, should the reader be of the more fainthearted disposition. However, the vividness of sordid detail should, in all fairness, be read as the all-consuming discoveries of a young man bred on the fresh air of rural hinterlands. He is a simpleton of sorts who, in the ultimate analysis, acquires a wisdom that his mother — like any mother — stood guard against.

However, Natiq’s attention to detail, both in terms of geographical landscape and human relations, does appear to be too much at times. Neither does he seem to be in any hurry for his protagonist to untangle the snarl of liaisons spread through the story.

And the protagonist — being male in a story that is mostly about the exploitation of women — has to have his say as well as delineate his delicate sensitivity, the latter being a creative manner of character exposition, which is a must if one wishes to thoroughly understand the sensibilities of the story.

Like the hero of Kamariwala, Natiq was born in rural surroundings that, despite their outwardly pristine simplicity, would have had their fair share of underbelly rumblings. He, too, moved away from that primaeval forest body of green fields ringing with birdsong. He, too, went through the ritual of growing up in a directionless world.

Yet, his novel is essentially a love story. That the author manages to keep the flame burning over 30 years and across two generations is what makes it so beautiful. The question to ponder as one reads the last lines is: how does one interpret Zamin’s trajectory? Is it love requited or not? Or is that really something one needs to worry about?

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/ report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme.
She tweets @daudnyla

Kamariwala
By Ali Akbar Natiq
Book Corner, Jhelum
ISBN: 978-9696623120
638pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 12th, 2022

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