Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

THE MANSION WITH 900,000 LIVES

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I first heard a vague account of Naulakhi Kothi — The Nine-Hundred-Thousand Mansion — in 2015. It was built by an angrez in days of old when the Raj was at its height and when a thousand bricks could be bought for a mere 20 rupees. Back then it had cost a princely sum of 900,000 rupees to build. And so it was always known as Naulakhi.

The central reception area; the doors on the right and left lead to separate drawing rooms

The teller of the tale said it lay somewhere in the country just outside Sahiwal town, but he wasn’t certain of its exact location. At that time I was engaged in another assignment and filed away the information mentally — I was determined to one day check out this fabled mansion. Two years went by before I returned to the subject of the Naulakhi Kothi. Only now, the person who had told me the tale had disappeared without a trace.

I cast about for clues until I hit upon the idea of seeking police help. And sure enough, my friends Waqas Hasan and Hasan Asad Alavi came through with information: Naulakhi Kothi was not in Sahiwal; it was in Chak Number 34/2R just outside Satghara village in Okara district. Now, Satghara has long been famous as the burial place of the great Baloch chieftain Mir Chakar Khan Rind and so Naulakhi was keeping renowned company.

My guides were in a police pick-up truck and we drove west along tree-shaded village roads, across a canal and through mango orchards and cotton fields. At a fork with a sign, we turned in the direction of the arrow announcing the chillahgah of the celebrated Bulleh Shah and a short drive on a dusty unpaved trail brought us to the kothi.

A single-storey brick building with as many arches as it had angles and corners, the kothi was almost overgrown with trees in the midst of unkempt grounds. We went around the back and parked near two men lounging on charpoys under the shade of spreading trees. My police escort had to assure them we had not come to seize the property and that I was only an ‘editor’ who wrote about ancient places.

The central corridor with the doors on the left leading to the bedrooms; those on the right lead to the state rooms

We entered from the back. The kitchen was connected to the main house by a covered walkway at the end of which the door was padlocked. I asked one of the men who had come in with us if he had the key and he said we could go around the front and enter through the broken doors.

Spacious rooms in a row, with wide fireplaces and tall windows, were lined on either side of a corridor running through the length of the entire house. The resident guard of the mansion was a porcupine with its burrow in the corridor just in front of the dining room. Nocturnal in habit, the critter was asleep, but a couple of its signature quills lay by the entrance to its den.

The front of the house had what can only be called the state rooms where the owner would have entertained visitors. Across the corridor were the bedrooms, again, spacious with similar fireplaces. The bathrooms — all fittings pilfered — were the size that we make bedrooms these days. In one room, two fans surprisingly still suspended from the ceiling; everywhere else, gaping holes offered clear views of a cumulus-laden sky.

Outside, running along two sides of the house is a veranda with arched openings, each end of the arch resting on simple, somewhat bulky pillars in pairs. The veranda on the south-east side is fronted by a car porch while the west side has a hexagonal portico — the portico would have been just the place to relax on misty winter afternoons and to watch the sun go down beyond the wheat fields. There is a total lack of ornamentation in the pillars that so easily invite a person’s fancy to fly to Corinth or Athens. Indeed, the rest of the building, too, is so austere as to conjure up images of a rather jejune, dour sort of owner.

The portico on the west side of the house

The man I had seen on the charpoy as we had come in brought me a jug of water and said his name was Hanif — he knew all about the kothi and its owner. The building was 200 years old, he said. No, I countered, it was built sometime about the early years of the last century. Hanif would have nothing of that and I gave up because how could I convince him the brick used in the construction was not in vogue 200 years ago? As well as that, the architectural style and some of the material used could safely be dated to the second or third decade of the 20th century.

The angrez had 9,000 acres of land ‘under’ (pronounced ‘unter’) him and he built the kothi for his residence, said Hanif. But he was not sure if the man owned the land or if it was only ‘unter’ him. Now, there was one Mehr Ali Shah who was employed by the angrez as major-domo around the farm and the house. This Mehr Ali was evidently a hard taskmaster for, soon enough, the other workers were fed up of his pushy nature and began to taunt him.

Why, he was just a servant as low grade as the rest of them so what gave him the right to drive them the way he did? It seems Mehr Ali had developed a close connection with his employer and he complained to him about the mocking of the servants. The only way around, he suggested, was if the master were to take him on as a partner on five percent share of the earning of the farm. The angrez agreed and Mehr Ali moved up from being a servant to a partner.

But the other employees would not relent. Now they began to taunt his low grade by calling him a ‘punj paisay da naukar’ [five-paisa servant]. Piqued, Mehr Ali schemed and contrived and eventually got his employer to increase his partnership to 10 percent. By Hanif’s account that seemed to put the staff’s ragging to rest.

The Naulakhi Kothi is overgrown with trees in the midst of unkempt grounds

Time passed and the angrez died leaving behind a wife. Now Mehr Ali saw his big chance, said Hanif. He told stories of the glory and glamour of the great city of Karachi to what was apparently a wide-eyed and gullible angrezni. Why, she had never known of such a marvellous place, and soon enough Mehr Ali had convinced the woman that she should let him show her the wonders of the city by the sea. In Karachi, Mehr Ali took the woman to the beach and pushed her into the sea. He returned to the estate of 34/2R and became its sole owner. Apparently, during the Raj, murder was the easiest thing to get away with.

The story had too many holes, but I did not tell that to Hanif for I wanted to hear more. As owner, Mehr Ali farmed the full 9,000 acres and lived in the kothi with his family. Then, one of the many generals who periodically annexed Pakistan — quite like Mehr Ali’s takeover of the white man’s property — came to power. This general took over much of the 9,000 acres to allot to fellow army officers, leaving only 1,500 acres with Mehr Ali.

Since there will never be a dearth of retiring generals eligible to be allotted farmland (only in Pakistan) and since nature has stopped making more land, the army began to run short of property. Soon, they annexed more of Mehr Ali’s property leaving him with only 50 acres immediately around the kothi. Somewhere along the way, Mehr Ali died, but Hanif did not know if that transition was before or after the army took over the property. Meanwhile, even as his sons continued to live in the house and farm whatever was left to them, they were building properties in Lahore, reported Hanif.

In 2013, the army annexed the last bit together with Naulakhi Kothi. That year, the grandsons of Mehr Ali Shah were ousted from the property and they began to remove their belongings. “Lorry after lorry was loaded with furniture and other items and driven away to the family’s homes in Lahore,” said Hanif. Naulakhi Kothi was emptied and abandoned and it began to fall to pieces.

The names I got were Shams and Ali Haider, who were the grandsons of Mehr Ali and lived in Gulberg which, to Hanif’s mind, was half the size of Chak 34/2R. The other place to look for them was one of the several Bahria towns in Lahore. A third brother, Qamar, was the keeper of a shrine in Jalalpur Jattan in Gujrat. But there was no telephone number, said Hanif. I cajoled and he said an older man who had worked for the family until they were ousted could give me the number. And then, by the greatest fluke, the older man arrived. In his late 60s, he claimed to be over 80 but did not remember Mehr Ali — my police escort clearly set him on edge.

I asked for a telephone number to contact the brothers in Lahore, and the man hedged. I asked if he knew the name of the angrez.

“Everyone knows he was Colonel Cole. And after him, this was known as Colyana Estate,” said the man. He was, however, unwilling to talk of annexation of the property by the army and remained adamant about not having a telephone number for the grandsons of Mehr Ali Shah.

I could not resist a jibe and told him he was hedging as only an Arain could, which I said he must surely be. And he said he was indeed an Arain! He asked how I knew. As I turned to leave, I said I could spot a fellow Arain from a mile away.

Also in Dawn

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:49 AM,

9 Comments:

At September 2, 2017 at 2:56 PM, Blogger Shooting Star said...

jay tu banda aye sayen da...

 
At September 2, 2017 at 4:14 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hahaha. If you're not one of us, we take exception. Only Arains are permitted to poke fun at Arains.

 
At September 3, 2017 at 10:22 AM, Anonymous S A J Shirazi said...

I am familiar with this area. During my days in Okara, been to Satghara, on the one side of Naulakhi Kothi and to Thatta Ghulamka Dheroka (Dolls Village) on the other side.

Did you visit "Tukia Nawab Chakar Ki" in Satghara?

 
At September 3, 2017 at 10:34 AM, Anonymous Afia Salam said...

dang! just when I was thinking of a snarky remark! thanks for the write up.. enjoyed it

 
At September 4, 2017 at 1:58 PM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Afia!

 
At September 4, 2017 at 1:59 PM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

I have been to Takia twice before. But that was 32 years ago. Not since. I wonder what the condition is now.

 
At September 5, 2017 at 8:57 AM, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

~ In 2000, only 'dhancha' was standing beside a banyan tree.

 
At November 15, 2017 at 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The British gentleman was Lt Col Sir Edward Hearle Cole who was allotted 7,500 acres of land in Lower Bari Doab Canal Colony for horse breeding in or around 1917-20. Later on, further land was added to the original land and was called "Colyana Estate". The house was built somewhere around this time and is nearly 100 years old and as 200 yrs old as stated by the villagers. Col Cole was required to maintain 180 mares against the allotment of this land. Later on in 1938, Col Cole questioned the authorities about the feasibility of raising mares in a changing environment of imperial needs. Some time later, a company/trust was formed in which the employee Mehr Shah became a 5 or 10% partner. Soon enough, Mehr Shah saw the opportunity to take over the property from the unsuspecting widow of Col Cole and came to be known as a big landlord of Omar, namely, Nawab SIR Mehr Ali Shah. He was the younger brother of Pir Syed Fazal Shah of Jalalpur Sharif in District Jhelum (not in gujrat). His grandsons are Nawabzada Shams Haider (an ex MPA) and Syed Qamar Haider.

 
At November 16, 2017 at 11:54 AM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I am grateful for this new input.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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