Friday, April 22, 2005

Attia Hosain's lost world

A not-so-very-well-known Indian novel that I have great regard for is Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column, first published in 1961. Hosain was born in Lucknow in 1913 into a prosperous landowning family in the old feudal order, received a liberal English education unusual for a girl of her time, was witness to the years of the independence movement, and left India with her family in 1947, just before independence, for England. In this new country she wrote a novel about the country she had left behind, India, and a world left behind in time, that of the feudal order broken up by the new political ideas of pre- and post-independence India and of a large family broken into two by partition.

Sunlight on a Broken Column is above all a novel of family life, of the nuances and complexities of three generations of men and women living in the same house in a time of disruption and change. The novel is narrated in the first person by Laila, an orphan who has been brought up in the great family home by her aunts, and who is a girl of fifteen, bookish and slightly introverted, when the novel begins. We quickly realise why the story of the family is best told by Laila: she is the only one who can sympathetically understand the troubles of people as far apart as the ailing Baba Jan, the aged patriarch now at the door of death, and the servant girl Nandi, who is humliated and expelled from the house for having an affair with the cleaner. In a world with many boundaries Laila is the only one capable of, and interested in, traversing these divides.

Hosain's great strength is her intimate knowledge of the world she is describing: she can nail down an entire way of life in one sentence. Of Baba Jan and the three friends, all members of the aristocracy, who come to visit him in the evenings, Laila says: "The four men loved the city to which they belonged, and they lived and behaved as if the city belonged to them." Of an aged female retainer who had taught her aunts Urdu, Persian and Arabic, she remarks: "She spoke the sweet tongue of the true Lucknavi - delicate, flexible, rich in imagery, pointed with wit, polished with courtesy." Hosain's burnished, finely tuned sentences often remind me of the work of Willa Cather, about whom I wrote in an earlier post.

Sunlight on a Broken Column is also structured with great intelligence. Hosain's management of time within the world of the novel - a span of about two decades - is very deft, and she reserves her greatest delicacy for the way in which Laila's love affair and subsequent marriage are treated. But I'll leave you to discover for yourself how she does this. This was the only novel Hosain wrote (she also published a collection of stories, Phoenix Fled), but it is as good a novel as any in Indian literature.

A long interview with Hosain can be found here. A biographical essay on Hosain by her niece, Muneeza Shamsie, is here. Hosain's great-niece is the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie.


Velu said...

Hi Chandras.
A very well written piece of work. It might interest you that sunlight on a broken column is in the English Lit subject of the IGNOU. I was researching on it for the exams and stumbled across this. I particularly liked the para about Laila.


Unknown said...

A good article on Attia Hossain. Thanks for it.