Sunday, 15 October 2017

#29 A book someone else recommended

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain 

The only novel by Attia Hosain
Being a Muslim woman in pre-partitioned India, Attia Hosain has come to represent in modern times a unique sensibility in her ability to straddle two different cultures. She was born in 1913 into an aristocratic family in Lucknow - a city that is a byword for Muslim scholarship and culture. From her father she inherited a keen interest in politics and nationalism. From her mother's family of poets and scholars she drew a rich knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Arabic. Her knowledge of English came from an English governess, and subsequently as one of the few Indian girls at an English medium school. She was the first woman from her background to take a degree at Lucknow University. Sunlight on a Broken Column, which was published in 1961 is her only novel. 

In 1947, during the partition, she was in England where her husband was posted at the time. She chooses to remain there till her death in 1998, but the India of her mind, of her ancestors never truly leaves her, and it is her nostalgia for her homeland that urges her to write. In Sunlight on a Broken Column, we are taken back to a time almost nearly forgotten in Indian history – to the Lucknow of 1920s when taluqdars or feudal landlords were just second in importance to the kings. They were very rich and lived a luxurious and elegant life. This is the ancestral family that our protagonist Laila, an orphaned young Muslim girl, belongs to. 

The title of the novel is taken from a poem by T.E. Eliot called Hollow Men, which echoes a notion of a changing world order. The metaphorical meaning of the title is also quite clear if one ponders over it. The broken fragments of a once magnificent structure (which could be feudalism, family, nation etc..) are now illuminated by sunlight which lends one the hint of purity and clear meaning to what once was formidable and seemingly indestructible.

Attia Hosain (1913 - 1998)
The central protagonist Laila, is fifteen years old at the start of the novel and is said to be an autobiographical sketch of the author herself. Laila, is orphaned at a young age but is brought up in her extended family which consists of her grandfather Baba Jan, aunts Majida and Abida and cousin Zahra, Asad and Zahid, among others. Though Baba Jan is on his deathbed as the novel begins, he is the autocratic, imposing and stern head of the large household. He also belongs to a generation of Indian feudal landlords who had settled and lived for centuries amidst royalty and had numerous servants and maids to do their bidding. But as he lays dying, there is a change in the world order.
Laila, is brought up with an unusual emphasis on education which a Muslim girl could have had at the time. Set in a world where tradition reigns, her education and knowledge forces her to have critical doubts on how their feudal system is set up. It is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It is a highly realistic novel, and is powerfully evocative of the time period in India that was once regal, elegant but clung firmly to a monolithic and oppressive tradition.

The women of the family had to stay in a separate area of the house, called the zenana and would have to observe purdah. Though Baba Jan maintains all such former traditional patterns their way of life, and in his presence it is strictly adhered to, it changes once he is no more. With Uncle Hamid, his Westernized liberal son takes over as the head of the family, it slowly starts reflecting the changes that the British colonialism had brought along with it. His wife, Aunt Saira and his sons Kemal and Saleem come into the story only a little later.

Though Laila is allowed to continue her studies, and is also allowed to forgo the purdah she realizes that her life, her choices are not entirely in her own hands. Her family would always decide matters for her and this is what she fights against. India’s journey towards freedom in fact becomes a silent background for her own journey to attain her freedom of thought and action.

The crumbling structure of the feudal setup threatens the life of the once wealthy taluqdars, whereas the youngsters like Laila’s cousins and friends are increasingly led to strong nationalist feelings, but at times find themselves on two differing sides. The self-awareness that Laila gains as she journeys from a young innocent teenager to a thinking and courageous young woman who takes the decision to follow a life of her choice resonates with generations of readers even today.

Attia Hosain’s rich evocative prose instantly transports one to a bygone era and maybe will even leave you there even after you close the book. Her insightful and provocative ruminations, her wit and humour scattered in the most unlikely places will make you a resident of the pages. It is only a writer of fine sensibilities and finer craft that can bring back a long-forgotten past with all its complexities. The partition of India and Pakistan created a divide among communities and religions that once lived and co-existed for generations, as we see in Baba Jan and his closest friend, as well as later on with Laila and Sita. The conflicts of the nation also become conflicts among families as well as their inner selves. They fight and struggle to come to terms with a changing world order and a new
one that they couldn’t have completely foreseen.

Attia Hosain is not read enough in my opinion. This book is a rare gem and one that should be appreciated more often.  

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