By Ali Akbar Natiq
Translated by Naima Rashid
Ali Akbar Natiq’s grand Naulakhi Kothi (literally translated as mansion worth nine lakhs), offers a profound depiction of the prevailing spirit of the era it is set in. This sweeping tale, which was originally published in Urdu in 2015 and has been translated into English now by Naima Rashid, commences during the years preceding Partition and extends into the 1980s.
After a lengthy eight-year absence in England, undergoing civil service training in London, William decides to return to Hindustan, assuming the role of assistant commissioner in Jalalabad in pre-Partition Punjab. He holds on to the hope of returning to his cherished home, the picturesque Naulakhi Kothi, a bungalow constructed by his grandfather, evoking shades of Kipling in specific aspects. What follows then is a series of irreversible events that alter William’s fate, along with the destiny of the land itself.
This substantial endeavour skillfully portrays the intricacies of the overarching theme: the social and political dynamics among the British, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu groups in the pre-Partition central Punjab region falling between Bangla (Fazilka), Jalalabad, Guru Harsahai, Ferozepur, Kasur and Lahore.
William encounters bureaucratic inertia, revenue-driven superiors, racial and class divisions, native disconnection from colonial governance, poverty and religious animosity. The storyline moves between typical landlords in rural Punjab before the partition.
The battle between Chaudhry Ghulam Haider from Jodhapur and Saudha Singh from Jhandoowala shows how intense and brutal the feudal system was, with violence happening often in the name of religion and honour. At the same time, Maulvi Karamat discovers career opportunities that offer an escape from poverty but also bring ideological dilemmas and the need for personal transformation. It’s important to note that women at the time were restricted to the zenanah (women’s quarters).
An English translation of a well-regarded Urdu novel manages to capture social and political dynamics in pre-Partition central Punjab
The law’s power, social status, diverse networks and the interplay of various authority systems offer intriguing undercurrents. Natiq’s ability to describe is remarkable, as he vividly depicts the scenic landscapes, from the countryside and crop fields, to waterscapes and the changing seasons. Rarely have I encountered such raw, rural descriptions.
His description of time using the prayer times of Fajr, Zuhr, Asr and Maghrib, and his mentioning of animals such as camels and elephants to explain spaces, coupled with rich comparisons between them, show how well he understands the local culture.
In the translator’s note, Rashid talks about the meaning of translating place: “Place is not geography alone. It is social fabric, it is psychology, it is the construct of values accepted as truth by a community; it’s our whole sense-making machinery.” The Urdu version, written almost a decade ago, and the English version both are relevant till today.
Naulakhi Kothi brims with textures, colours, personalities, subtexts, backstories and arcs, each with liminal and subliminal layers — for instance, the dimensions of Maulvi Karamat’s mosque and the stylised arches in Ali Manzil.
However, with the slightly lengthy and complex sentences, the reader may find himself/herself in an entirely unfamiliar universe. For instance, on certain occasions, the story promotes oversimplified views of different communities, providing a biased and one-dimensional portrayal of cultures.
Characters contribute unrestrained religious insults to an already troubled communal atmosphere, somewhat foreshadowing the terrible events of Partition that come later in the story. Overall, the story employs a straightforward style, rich descriptions and a sincere local language, which immerse the narrative in a realistic manner reminiscent of Dostoevsky.
In the world of translated works, it is important to consider the diverse audience, especially the proverbial “white reader”, while translators in the Global South believe that their audience is strictly South Asian. However, translated works, such as Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, both of which won the Booker Prize from South Asia, are a testament to the fact that the audience is never limited by geography, identity, ethnicity or language.
Natiq and Rashid are known to have worked closely on this project to get the linguistic and cultural aspects just right. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. “One will find an entire layer of lived experience, the reasons for daily, unconscious choices that have been baked through successive use into the DNA of people and their language.”
For instance, to quote her example of the gender of animals: “When and why is it a mare and not a horse, a male mouse rather than a female one (a doe, I learnt). The same for a donkey. Unless you understand the reasons behind these choices, you’ll never be able to decide knowledgeably which detail must be incorporated and which one omitted. A good translation has to be unapologetic about the choices it makes.”
While translating, the central challenge is to find a delicate balance and convey the flavour of the original while maintaining the rhythms of three languages. With the novel’s Urdu entailing a heavy Punjabi component, “the English translation had its own risk of sounding strange and alien to the subject at hand.”
The landscape has transitional and subconscious references to things and concepts that English has no way of conveying in multifaceted layers — it is nearly impossible to mould that to the need of the narrative, “but my aim was to attempt to recreate that flavour to the extent possible,” writes Rashid.
The novel brims with a gamut of humour as well, from crude to subtle. “So, it was important to get its slant right to avoid betraying the import of the original,” she explains while talking about its diverse tonality. “Is it situational humour arising naturally without the characters playing a part, or are they complicit? If they are, what are the power dynamics between the characters? To what extent can they go to mock/joke with the other? Depending on the power dynamics between the characters and their background, you choose the register.”
The speech of a peasant in Punjab could be crude or harsh in respect or distance it assumes towards the other. At the same time, it has an easy use of proverbs and metaphors, which is rather poetic. It seemed like “an anomaly to have a mix of crudeness and poetry in the same sentence.”
As an alert reader of these shifts, Rashid successfully and fluidly changes the context, because the translation “has to gallop at the same rhythm. It can’t lag behind. Nor get too fast ahead.”
The reviewer is a content lead at an agency. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2023