Posts Tagged ‘Attia Hosain’


Attia Hosain; writer, journalist and a pioneering woman of letters (so Wikepedia tells us) did not sadly produce many books. Her 1961 novel Sunlight on a Broken Column is a wonderful novel of Muslim life, the review I wrote; one of those mysterious old blog posts that still gets lots of hits years later. I’ll bet it’s on a reading list somewhere in the world. Following the partition of India, Attia Hosain moved to England. Phoenix Fled, a collection of twelve stories came first though another collection of hers; Distant Traveller was published in 2012 – which I have on kindle.

Published in 1953 – a few years after the author came to Britain with her husband, the time period of these stories is around the time of the partition of India in 1947. It therefore fitted the Librarything ‘Reading the 1940s’ event, our rules are gratifyingly loose. There are many kinds of families in these stories – and family is our theme for January. Newlyweds, mothers and daughters-in-law, servants who have been part of a household for a lifetime, mothers and sons all play a part in these stories. In her introduction to my VMC edition Anita Desai says…

“They show her appreciation of the warmth, supportiveness, laughter and emotional richness to be found in the joint family as well as an acknowledgement of how often the joint family could become a prison and a punishment.”
(Anita Desai – Introduction to Pheonix Fled)

Phoenix Fled, the opening title story is a sharp reminder of the violence and fear that came with partition. An elderly woman, who has lived for so long in her village no one can remember when she wasn’t there, is swept up in the terrifying divisions which pitch neighbour against neighbour.

“The soldiers had driven into dust-clouds that billowed thick over the fields, thinning into an emptiness over distances that held a threat.
She did not feel it nor did the children, but the others lived heavily under its weight. The familiar stillness of their surroundings was an accomplice to their solace-seeking minds, as to hers. It could not come to them from out of known distances, to this village, these huts, themselves, the bestiality that was real only to their fear. The village lived uneasily, the breath of its life quickened or caught when some outsider brought chill confirmation.”

Attia Hosain’s writing is very beautiful – I found so many passages to appreciate and read over. There is also quite a lot of sadness – and although I appreciated all these stories – each one is a perfect evocation of time and place – they did affect my mood a little. I was possibly already a little fed up – so don’t let that put you off – these stories are brilliant in their way – and Attia Hosain’s writing is superb.

In, The Street of the Moon – a marriage is arranged between a young servant girl and a middle-aged cook, with an opium habit. Kalloo, who already has an adult son from his first marriage is dismayed. Hasina is a new edition to the household – and is causing problems with her laughter and her cheeky disposition, so Kalloo the cook is told to marry her – Kalloo has been driven to distraction by Hasina’s teasing, the marriage seems doomed before it begins. You can’t help but feel for this girl whose unconventional behaviour means she is palmed off on someone who doesn’t want her around either. Soon after the wedding, Kalloo persuades his work-shy son to come and work with him – the inevitable disaster follows.

One of my favourite stories was Time is Unredeemable – it was also one of the ones I found saddest. Bano; has been living with her in laws for years, waiting patiently for the husband she barely knows to return from England following his studies, he was delayed further by the war. She has almost given up hope that he will ever return, and then one day the cable announcing his return arrives. Bano can think of nothing else, everything she has dreamed of is about to come true. She starts to plan what she will wear and enlists the help of an old family friend in her search for the perfect outfit. There is a terrible inevitability to Bano’s reality – one of those stories I kept hoping would turn out differently to how I knew it was going to. Bano in her red sari and belted coat was the character I kept thinking about after I had finished the book.

“The red net sari with its golden flowers spread stiffly out from below the coat tight-buttoned across her chest and hips, its belt measuring her thickened wait. The powder was too light on her skin, the rouge too pink, and the mouth held tight in shyness smudged red by inexpert hands. She looked up and away, and her eyes were large, soft and timid supplicants.”

In The Loss a much loved family servant who was once the wet nurse for the daughter of the house is robbed of her life savings – money and jewellery she kept in a box under the bed in her tiny room. The daughter of the house is distressed and humbled by the woman’s grief over her loss – and seeks to try and unravel the mystery even getting the local police involved. When the old woman’s son visits, the younger woman’s suspicions are roused.

phoenix fledAn idealistic political worker in Gossamer Thread faces disillusionment – as the wife he looks down upon and married merely to please his mother urges him to help a friend caught up in a political demonstration. The husband is an intellectual – priding himself on his understanding of complex issues, he sees his wife as decoration, he is dismissive of her questions – and yet when the knock comes at the door – he is incapable of stepping up.

In these stories we see characters lives shaped by their fate – kismet. The old traditions come up against the new, modern more westernised world which is threatening to destroy the traditional culture. In these stories Attia Hossain shows a deep, though realistic affection for these old traditions

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Attia Hosain’s only novel, first published in 1961 is a classic novel of Muslim life, portraying the traditional feudal society into which Attia Hosain was born, in pre-partition days.

“Her greatest strength lies in her ability to draw a rich, full portrait of her society – ignoring none of its many faults and cruelties, and capable of including not only men and women of immense power and privilege but, to an equal extent, the poor who laboured as their servants. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of her writing is the tenderness she shows for those who served her family, an empathy for a class not her own”
(Anita Desai – in the introduction to the 1988 Virago Modern Classics edition)

Set mainly in Lucknow of the 1930’s, Sunlight on a Broken Column centres on Laila, the orphaned daughter of a distinguished Muslim family. As the novel opens fifteen year old Laila is living in her grandfather’s house, brought up by her two aunts, who observe purdah, alongside her cousin Zahra. Zahra is frivolous yet happy to submit to the traditional life mapped out for her, as the novel begins conversations around Zahra’s marriage have already begun. Baba Jan, Laila’s grandfather is a formidable figure, hugely respected the entire household is run around him, he is old and ill as the novel opens, and his eventual death brings change for Laila.

Soon Laila is living with her uncle Hamid – a “liberal” though a cold and autocratic figure. As Laila grows up and starts to attend university – she is surrounded by a variety of people; politics is very much on the agenda for many relatives and friends, though Laila herself is unable to commit herself to any one cause, but that of her own freedom. Uncle Hamid’s more liberal household, and Zahra’s marriage allows Laila access to a society that unmarried girls traditionally didn’t experience. In the younger generation of Laila’s friends and relatives we are able to see something of the future of India and the changes that are on the horizon. While in the characters of Laila’s aunts, Aunt Abida in particular, Attia Hosain has portrayed the traditional self-sacrificing obedient role that Laila struggles to understand.

“I think Destiny’s purpose is merely to shock us at moments into a state of awareness; those moments are milestones in between which we have to find our own way.”

Laila is a girl with a strong spirit – her struggle for her own independence matching that of India herself. Hosain portrays the claustrophobia of this world and frustration felt by a forward thinking young woman to perfection.Brought up in a world where the traditional rules of obedience, honour and dishonour are more important than personal happiness and the feudal society is still controlling the lives of the servant class, Laila begins to pull against these traditional ways. Laila is horrified when ignorance prevents a servant woman’s family seeking medical help – desperately trying to save the woman Laila sends her to hospital – only it’s too late. In these “Taluqhdari” families – into which Attia Hosain herself was born in 1913 – the rules for the servant classes are just as harsh, maybe more so, the judgments upon a female servant seduced or preyed upon by a man, abysmally cruel.

The conclusion of the novel – is brilliant – as through Laila’s older eyes we see the changes that partition brought to families of this kind, the fracturing of households and the ending of a way of life.

Sunlight on a broken Column is an engaging and evocative story of traditional family life in the decade before partition ripped India apart. I am not sure how well this novel is known now, but it certainly deserves to be well known. I have enjoyed reading this novel so much, – and very much look forward to hearing how Liz and Karen – who have been reading this novel at around the same time as me – feel about it. I really now need to find myself a copy of Attia Hosain’s short stories, what a shame she only ever wrote one novel.

Attia Hosain

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