The past is a foreign country and making sense of anything that was with the lens of the present, is an exercise in futility. Two impressive colonial era mansions in District Okara in Punjab tend to bring this argument to the fore, leaving much space for conjecture and awe.
In the Pakistan Army Dairy Farms land in Tehsil Renala Khurd of Okara District, you pass by a red brick structure that is prominently overshadowed by the grave that lies before it. “Mrs. H. D. Taylor”, it reads. “Chairman Ex- Renala Estate (1969-1991).” It is documented that Hazel Deneys Taylor’s father Major Deneys Henry Vanrenen was given one of the first leases of land in the area after the passing of the Colonization of Land Act 1912. After the death of her father in 1938, Hazel managed the lease along with her husband. After Partition, Renala Estate became a part of Pakistan, and unlike many other British settled in the area who left for home, they decided to stay.
Things started taking a turn for the worse, not the least when the area was hit by a flood in 1948 and more than half of her property became waterlogged. The most pressing, and concerning issue for Hazel remained the question of title of property. It was on lease, they were not the owners, and legal battles regarding the extension of this lease consumed a lot of her life. This would at times be compounded by the Martial Law Regulation or the Federal Land Commission, which would order the property to be confiscated or deny the extension of lease. As the last century came to a close, the fate of Hazel’s property had bounced back to the civil administration of Okara from the Lahore High Court, where it was decided that the land is to be surrendered to the provincial government. There’s a story of Hazel being attacked in her house after this, so much so that she had to be admitted to a hospital, but the exact unfolding of events cannot be ascertained.
Moreover, things took a turn for the worst as time passed. From the issues concerning the extension of lease, to the questions about the ownership of property, from personal tragedies like the death of her husband in 1968, to being attacked in her own house after the property was ordered to be surrendered to the provincial government around 1990, Taylor saw it all. The property was given to the Pakistan Army in 1992. She died in 1994, leaving behind stories and visions of her impressive house.
Hazel’s life was probably entwined by the change of time in a newly born nation: uncertain, brutal, rapid.
Hazel’s dusty, worn-out shoes are still present on the racks in one of the rooms in the house, defiant against time and memory. It’s a forlorn mansion, otherwise, save for the posters of the horses and their details that greet you at the entrance, and some broken furniture housed in different places. The windows are all broken, the upper storey teems with nests of wasps, and the fireplaces stand dejected against the cracks on the floor. The total area of the bungalow is 5 kanals and 12 marlas, but much of it has been shut off to visitors owing to safety concerns.
And if history is only what you remember, then words are a good way of remembrance. Interesting details about Renala and H. D. Taylor’s property emerge from a book written by her nephew, Louis Vanrenen:
“Renala was pioneered from scrub jungle by my grandfather in 1913, and reached its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, but it did – even in a steady decline – survive the disastrous Partition of Indian when the estate would become a part of the new nation of Pakistan. After my father left India on independence, Hazel and her husband took over the estate. Come mid-century, it was time for the British to go, and go they did, in droves. Those few who remained were in trade, or, like Hazel, stubborn people who for love or eccentricity would not or could not leave. Hazel loved Renala; she loved the horse business, and she did not want to give up her tiny corner of British India. She knew Urdu, the language of Pakistan; she knew many high-ranking Pakistanis; and she had made a name for herself, a reputation. India might be independent, but the locals needed work, and many were loyal to the memsahib. Some would stay with her for forty years or more.”
Moving from Renala, another mansion stands forlorn in Tehsil Okara, not far from the tomb of Mir Chakar Azam (which has recently been renovated). The Kothi Naulakhi, as it is called, rests among swathes of fertile land bearing maize and wheat; and the dodgy pathway makes it almost hidden from the public eye. There are shrubs all around, weed having taken root in the crevices of the structure. It’s a sad sight really, but while Taylor’s mansion has some facts to back it up, Naulakhi is mired in myths and controversy.
Built in the early 20th century, it is so named for its cost of construction: 9 lac rupees. Other details about the haveli are dubious: the British Gazetteer of Montgomery District makes no mention of it, and the local folklore is often too much of a stretch. However, the most popular story goes something like the haveli having been built by a British officer, but soon to be overplayed by one of his local workers. The foreigner and the local progressed on the relationship of partners, and the latter, after the former’s demise and a well-planned web of conceit, became its sole owner. Legal issues, much like those of Renala, eventually led to the mansion being deserted. In fact, the Military Lands issue of Okara district is what essentially underscores both of these mansions, notwithstanding other peculiar circumstances. The area has been up in hot smoke regarding its legal status, more so in the beginning of this century when the tenants and the authorities were at daggers drawn. Since then, not disturbing the uneasy peace has been the modus operandi, so much so that any effort to renovate or preserve these mansions is eyed with skepticism as it may lead to problems.
Ali Akbar Natiq’s novel, titled “Kothi Naulakhi” is what has brought the mention of this haveli to popular culture. Although a work of fiction, it is inspired by some real characters and the portrayal of the bygone times is vivid.
“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. 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 lakhs, 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.”
Both of these mansions are now just a remnant of time: their spacious, well-lit rooms now gloomy and bleak, their sturdy structures now giving away, and they are a reminder of the loss now of the grand lifestyle they once boasted. With their future also in doubt, they might only exist in the memories of some and the words of others in the times to come, until the memories fade and the words are forgotten. But for all it’s worth, the mansions of Okara stand as a stark reminder of the havoc that time has caused.