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A Reading of Attia Hosains Sunlight on a Broken Column Dr.

Rumpa Das, Maheshtala College The Partition of India engendered, in the form of historical studies, sociological treatises and literature, a study of the ensuing diaspora a body of knowledge that has been open to critical query ever since its birth. This is but natural. Instead of directly aiming to resolve the conflict between the Hindus and Muslims, the literature of the Partition era still remains a site of negotiation of the embodied memory that has become a signifier for religious hatred, collective nostalgia and the angst of more than one generation of people. Attia Hosains Sunlight on a Broken Column may be seen, in this context, as an internalization of the way in which Elaine Showalter transformed Frantz Fanons theory, domesticating an idea of revolutionary action to a liberal-conservative one of selfdiscovery and individual fulfillment as the goal of literary endeavour (Fanon, 167). The first two phases of Fanons argument about the emergence of a national culture from colonialism coincides with the Indian post-Independence literary scenario, and more interestingly, in the form of literature by women in English, but the third phase, Fanons fighting phase is adapted by writers such as Attia Hosain in their unique ways. The novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column, is set in Lucknow, where Attia Hosain was born in a feudal taluqdari family in 1913, and traces, in a magnificent bildungsroman, the journey of Laila, the protagonist, from adolescence to adulthood, in the backdrop of the tempestuous Partition. An orphaned daughter of an eminent Muslim family (much like Attias own), Laila is brought up in the ancestral household, Ashiana (nest), by her orthodox aunts who keep purdah. Baba Jan, Lailas grandfather, is bedridden, but nevertheless symbolizes the unquestioned authority of patriarchal domestic norms. His family members have been reduced to mere fearing automatons(SBC,31) because of his absolute sway.At fifteen, following Baba Jans death, Laila moves into the house of a liberal, foreign- returned but autocratic uncle, where she becomes a passive observer to the struggle for independence that spreads across the streets of the city, the college where Laila is a student and infiltrates even households of claustrophobic control. A corollary to Indias independence is Lailas own struggle to attain personal fulfillment, where her adherence to Western ideals come in handy, but eventually distance her from her family

and family loyalty as well. Laila falls in love with a man much behind her in social status, Ameer, and marries him against her familys wishes, much like Attias own marriage to her cousin. Ameer is later killed in a war in the Middle East, and Laila returns to a dilapidated, now depopulated, Ashiana from her hill retreat, fourteen years later, in a grim caricature of what anticipates Salman Rushdies dream of glorious return alone, her brooding melancholy only enlivened by the arrival of Asad, a part of her past. Whereas the concept of a nation as the most important political unit of the world today is quite apparent to everybody, what with the periodic squabbles of different nations, their leaders and political theorists, the concepts of nationalism and nationality are fraught with deep ambivalence. One can almost agree with B.R.Ambedkar who commented that nationality is . . . subjective psychological feeling. It is a feeling of corporate sentiment of oneness which makes those that are charged with it feel that they are kith and kin . . . . [N]ational feeling is a double-edged feeling. . . . [It is] at once a fellowship for ones own . . . .and an anti-fellowship feeling for those who are not. . . . (Ambedkar, 25-33) The making of a nation involves the shaping of a Self, as well as the making of an Other. The geography of a nation is not so much territorial as it is imaginative for it also constitutes how people live and work, what are its social dynamics, what lies at the boundaries and centres of such social systems and finally what affords to such people a sense of cohesion, belonging and home. The discourses of a nation encode both belonging as well as alienation, in that it comprehends and internalizes familiar laws and customs, as against alien ones that are a potential source of anxiety and terror. In Attia Hosains novel, such polarities are negotiated along with the seemingly intractable nature of strife such binarisation led to. Not only in case of the Kemal and Saleem, one of who wants to stay put in India while the other brother decides to move to Pakistan, Hosain affronts communal identities through the intra-communal bickerings in Asad and Zahid, early in the novel. It is through these two pairs of brothers that Attia Hosain presents, albeit in a crystallized way, personalities like Jinnah and Liakhat Ali Khan on one hand, and Maulana Azad, on the other. Whereas Zahid is radical and conservative in his approach to Islam, Asad is more accommodative. A chance viewing of communal frenzy in the lanes of Lucknow as the city seethes in one of the earlier riots in pre-Independence India, unnerves Asad, when in his delirium, his anguish at the heartless display of

religious fanaticism merges into his dumb passion for Zahra. Laila, recounting the episode, speaks of a desperate mob whose cruelty (is) the twisted sum of each individuals fear (SBC,78). In the event of a riot where two communal groups are pitted against each other, individual identities are obliterated and substituted by communal ones. Soon after, he joins active politics as a student of the Jamia in Delhi. The AsadZahid brotherhood is replicated in the Kemal-Saleem duo, with Saleem expressing his commitment for the religiously-inclined Muslim League. Yet Saleems involvement verges towards fascism, while Asad laces his political affiliations with a familial, humanist attitude. Saleem later migrates to Pakistan, an evacuee, followed by many others like Zahra and her diplomat husband, Naseer and Raza Ali of Amirpur. Zahid, one of Raza Alis most zealous lieutenants, meets a gory end on board the train to Pakistan on 13th August, in one of the worlds worst communal bloodbaths. If this putrescent culmination, the violent orgasm of hate is one face of the Partition, where an Islamic neo-paradise(Pakistan) and a Hindu homeland (India) are juxtaposed, Attia Hosain places the affair of Kemal and Sita as a blurring of differences and, even though circuitously, a lowering of the potency of communal resistance. Sita says, I, Sita, loved him, Kemal, and still do. Two individual human beings. But it would have been the daughter of my father and mother marrying the son of his parents, with different backgrounds and different religions, two small cogs in a huge social machine. Im not a saint, Laila. Im not a martyr. I react to criticism and hatred even if I do not show it. Let me keep my love intact. I cannot expose it to the judgment of others like a criminal waiting for their verdict. (SBC,215-216) As different communal identities are formed, differences are sharpened, often leaving no space for expressions of individualism. In a community that has been coerced into playing up differences, the relationship of Sita and Kemal is an offense. In a similar way, the relationships between Saleem, Ranjeet, Joan and Laila can also be seen as signs of resistance to this juggernaut of logic-defying customs and conventions. The horror of the killings, the vulnerability of women and the trauma of having to leave, almost overnight, beloved people and cherished places are handled in this novel not through graphic description, but in a more subtle way, through the metaphor of the disintegration of the family home, Ashiana. It does not trace the genesis and growth of

communal conflict between the Hindus and Muslims, either. Rather, the novelist chooses to highlight the crisis within the Muslim community. During the traumatic event, the Muslim community is torn between two worlds, one dead, and the other powerless to be born, because of the burden of their collective memory. In case of the literature dealing with the period of the balkanisation of India, they tend to idealise the relationship between different religious communities in pre-partition times thereby sharpening the contrast between a society of harmony and the atrocious brutality and discord that the Partition brought about. In Sunlight on a Broken Column too, such an attempt is made, though in contrast to Khushwant Singhs Train to Pakistan (1956) and Chaman Nahals Azadi (1975), the theme of partition in the novel is peripheral. In fact, what Hosain does in Sunlight on a Broken Column is what Ritwick Ghatak does in Subarnarekha, where the tearing apart of the land and the history hinged to it becomes a symbol for shattered dreams, displacement and a disorientation of the sense of selfhood. Ghatak writes, In these times all of us have lost our roots and are displaced; . . . in the beginning, one of the workers of the press says, Refugee! Who is not a refugee?(Ghatak, 78-80) Dispossession of indigenous people from their home, womens not having a home of their own and, in this case, the novelists own shifting base from India, her homeland to an alien London all become common experiences. Ashiana was about to disintegrate, with the imminent death of the family patriarch, Baba Jan, the death of one of the sons and his wife (Lailas parents) and the settling in Britain of Hamid Uncle and his family (of course, they return later, only to be sucked up, one and all in the vortex of political activity preceding from and after the Partition.). The Partition acts as a catalyst by actually accelerating the process of disintegration of the family. Attia Hosain portrays the Partition of India as a paradigm of the partition of families, society and also of values. Lailas narrative subsumes all the rest of the narratives, and traces not just her own growth into an awareness of irretrievable loss, but also of a nation divided against itself, a family divided against itself, yet both refusing to accept such change and women as leaves in the winds of change. As an emigrant herself, Hosains novel works up the same trauma of dislocation of past and denial of identity that is prototypical of such migr works as Edward Saids After the Last Sky (1986). Laila suffers for her situatedness in two worlds, one is her domestic life where she, trained in the English language, always

has to encounter Zahra the conformist and ideal Muslim girl, and the outer world. As Laila herself says, I felt I lived in two worlds; an observer in an outside world, and solitary in my own (SBC,124) Attias self-exilic and diasporic condition speaks out through Laila when, later in her life, she criticizes Zahra, the complacent emigrant, Zahra denied the country of her birth with the zeal of a convert, whereas Laila comes back to Lucknow, fourteen years after the Partition, to find the town changed beyond recognition, and in place of the arches, domes, palaces, ugly buildings . . . conceived by ill-digested modernity and the hasty needs of a growing city (SBC,270) It only prepares her for her encounter with the past as she enters Ashiana, that now houses refugees, and fragments from the past erupt as flakes of plaster from the mildewed walls of the ancient mansion. Ashiana is still a nest, but not to her family any longer. Here, she can only wait for her childhood companion, Asad, but she knows she is ready to leave now(SBC,319) Attias treatment of loss and nostalgia is diametrically opposed to male nationalist perception, which is primarily concerned about certain interests and agenda that relegate women to a privatized domestic sphere and exclude them from the public domain. (Hasan, 61) She seeks to challenge this polarization, in many ways reminiscent of the Self and the Other, between private and public. When Uncle Mohsin objects to Laila and Zahras inclusion in the elders conversation about their (Laila and Zahras) marriage, he is not just articulating the patriarchal disapproval of womens inclusion in the decisionmaking process, he is also protesting against the spread of education among women, even Muslim women, which leads them to question the viability of and the reason behind certain traditional norms. Is the girl to pass judgment on her elders? Doubt their capability to choose? Question their decision?(SBC,20) Even Hakiman Bua, an agent of home regimentation, chastises Laila by saying, Your books will eat you. They will dim the light of your lovely eyes. . . Why are you not like Zahra?(SBC,14) The subtext of Indias struggle for independence highlights Lailas struggle to free herself from patriarchal familial cords, and her attempt to reach out to define the self in an attempt to free herself. In a complex matrix of characters, Laila positions herself to show the feudalistic societal norms and her own brand of subtle feminism. In this context, the twin virtues of izzat (honour) and sharum (modesty) assume utmost importance and are presumed to be embodied in women, whereas the same values are relaxed in case of

men. Family honour is defined in relation to a womans body and a mans authority. (Kaul &Jain, 169) To substantiate this point, Attia Hosain shows how a Muslim girl, from a strict purdah family (SBC,132) is rendered homeless and is compelled to commit suicide because of her non-compliance with the rules set down by patriarchy. However, societys disapproval of the boy is milder, and he is accepted back into the fold once he yields to pressure and abandons the girl. Through the character of Zahra, Attia Hosain shows how a womans crossing of the domestic threshold does not suggest her liberation. In fact, before her marriage, she was a dutiful purdah girl, notwithstanding her coy attitude towards Asad, her silent admirer, and her focusing herself as an attractive marriageable package, almost reminding one of the magnificent edifices of vanity whom Mary Wollstonecraft derided so much in her Vindication of the Rights of Women. After her marriage, she starts attending social functions morning, afternoon and evening, but, Laila casts doubt on the authenticity of her liberated life. She thinks Zahra to play the role of a perfect modern wife, just as once she had played the part of a perfectly obedient daughter. Through the character of Aunt Abida, Aunt Saira, the Rani Sahiba, Attia shows the deadening effect of social confinement of women. These women cling to the past even as they are surged forward by the waves of history. Often trapped in loveless marriages, these women have not only come to accept their marginal position in the family monolith, but also have come to collaborate, and sometimes connive, in the subordination of their own daughters, or other female relatives. If this was not the case, then Aunt Abida, with whom Laila shares a deep sense of attachment, would not have ordered her to apologise to Uncle Mohsin. Laila had voiced her hatred for Uncle Mohsin when Nandi, was lynched and humiliated by her father and other males, including Mohsin, for having had the temerity to step outside the zenana into the garage to hand over a shirt to the cleaner. A bruised Nandi on being called a wanton and a slut censures Mohsin and reminds him that he would have made her one if she had let him. Recalling the Self-Other binary once more, Nandi is the dangerous Other, the madwoman, not in the attic, but outside the sheltered boundaries of the home, who threatens to rupture the apparent stability of the social/familial order time and again. Her character reminds one of the ostracized woman in Rashid Jahans Who and the fruitseller, Shyamali, in Razia Sajjad Zaheers Neech (Tharu &Lalita). In both these short stories, the

woman-writer displays a camaraderie with the rebel, who is a victim of social isolation, chiefly because of her outspokenness and gesture of sexual independence. Even though in both these stories, the woman writer cannot finally include the Other woman in known relational or social categories, her kinship with the other woman is very clear. In Sunlight on a Broken Column too, Laila regards Nandi not only as a friend but in many ways her equal, thereby not just collapsing the Self-Other binary, in terms of social status and respectability, but also probably, in terms of imaginative fulfillment as well(Burton,123). Therefore, even after Nandi survives the acid-attack of Ghulam Ali, and is pregnant with a child outside wedlock, Laila offers her refuge in her hill retreat when Nandi announces, I have come home,Bitia.(SBC,291) Laila herself draws another curious parallel to Nandi, that of Lailas rich friend Sita, In a circuitous way, Nandis fate was linked up with my friend Sitas amours, and her fathers fortunes. Nandis paramour was a man from the Northern Frontier, a region whose men Nandi had fantasized for so long. And so when she met this man, the bearer of an American soldier on leave, she had no inhibitions and she was left with his child and no regrets(SBC,293) Lailas home in the hills is the utopian feminist home, with Laila, her daughter, Nandi, and frequent vistors like Sita and Romana, both of whom, like Laila and Nandi had had quite unsatisfactory marital lives. In fact, Lailas journey from Ashiana to her new home at the hill station can be seen as a parallel to Lily Briscoes voyage from Ramsay house to the lighthouse in Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse. Like all other women, Laila too needs a room of her own to realize her fullest independence. In Ashiana, under the tutelage of authoritarian male guardians, Laila was never allowed to make decisions. But by choosing to marry Ameer, and live on her own terms, Laila had rejected the way of thinking and way of life her relatives, including Aunt Abida, approved. By adhering to western individual ideas, Laila is accused of having compromised with the family izzat and putting herself above her family. In the Indian context, such contending loyalties are unnegotiable, as evident in case of Laila, as well as, in a similar milieu, but different context, in case of Satyabati in Ashapurna Debis Pratham Pratisruti. Inspite of Attia Hosains chequered narrative of Laila, it should be admitted that Laila is no more than a passive onlooker to the tumultuous happenings around her. This phenomenon of tongue-tiedness and conditioned passivity has been discussed by Urvashi

Butalia who notes that women who suffered the traumas of Partition almost never spoke about themselves and denied that they had anything worthwhile to say. This mode of silence and self-denial connects with the theme of maternity that runs throughout the novel. In fact, the theme of maternity becomes an important way in which to comprehend the complex negotiations involved in interrogating the role envisaged for women in India. Laila is an orphan who craves for a mother-figure throughout her life. Initially, it appears that Aunt Abida provides her with just such a role-model, for on more than one instance she offers the motherless girl the affection, support and guidance that often mothersubstitutes provide. Aunt Abida reminds Laila how she had once rebuked her for not salaaming the sweeper-woman, teaching Laila one of the important lessons of life. But soon, following the Nandi incident, and Abidas disapproval of Lailas behaviour towards Uncle Mohsin, the authoritarian and licentious distant relative, Laila is deeply disconcerted and runs to another matronly woman, Hakiman Bua for solace. There, in a room cosy with love(SBC,39), Hakiman offers Laila glimpses of her a childhood, when she received so much unconditional love that it was perhaps the angels in their jalousy who deprived [Laila] of their love so soon. (SBC,40) In the remembered space of memory, dead parents are reunited with their living daughter, Shubrat, Diwali, Eid and Holi are celebrated with equal fervour and Ashiana becomes a house of feasts and music and laughter and plenty a reality that is virtual and fantastic. Zahra has her mother, Majida to think for and care for her, Lailas friend Joan Davis shares love, understanding and an unpretentious home with her mother, Aunt Saira looks after Saleem and Kemal, and even Nandis mother grieves for her wayward (!) daughter. All of them only reinforce the sense of deprivation in Laila. Much later, Laila confesses that she was bewildered by Aunt Abidas treatment towards her. In her anguish, she was confused. Aunt Abida, incarcerated in a loveless and childless marriage, could not forgive Laila till her death. Lailas marriage to Ameer culminated in their having a daughter, though their relationhip had soured by then. After Ameers departure, Laila had her child to provide a purpose for living, filling the days with her need for love and care(SBC,316), though fraught with loneliness, she sometimes even neglected her. But, again it was the child that helped revive Laila from her self-pity, through the negation of despair, into a recognition of struggle and positive acceptance(SBC,317) Laila realizes her feelings about Asad but

her identity as Ameers wife and the mother of their child refrains her from committing herself to Asad. But, finally, the individual in her rises from the self-abnegatory stance of motherhood she had so internalized within herself, and she affirms that so long she had been waiting for Asad in the empty house. The pessimism immanent in the dilapidation of the columns of the house is offset by the promise of renewal in sunlight, as she sees Asads frail frame silhouetted against the door. For once, the feudal mansion Ashiana resembles the ruined Residency on its green elevation without its flag(SBC,270), but holds forth the promise of another Ashiana a neo-nest in the making. Works cited Ambedkar, B.R., Thoughts on Pakistan, Bombay, Thacker & Co.1947 Burton, Antoinette. A Girlhood among ghosts in Dwelling in the Archive: Women, Writing House, Home and History in Late Colonial India.New Delhi, OUP, 2003 Butalia, Urvashi. In Other Words.New Writings by Indian Women.New Delhi, Kali for Women,1995 Fanon, Frantz.The Wretched of the Earth, trans.Constance Farrington, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967; 1st ed.1961 Ghatak, Ritwick. Subarnarekha: Directors Statement, 1966, in Ritwick Ghatak:Arguments/ Stories, ed.Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Amrit Gangar, Bombay, Research Centre for Cinema Studies, 1987 Hasan, Md.Mahmudul. The Trope of the Home and Representation of Muslim Women in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Attia Hosains Sunlight on a Broken Column in Behind the Veil:Representation of Muslim Women in Indian writing in English 1950-2000, ed. Abdur Raheem Kidwai, Delhi,2007 Hosain, Attia. Sunlight on a Broken Column,London, Penguin, 1961,1988.References to text as SBC with relevant page numbers. Kaul & Jain, , Attia Hosain:A Diptych Volume 2001 Tharu, Susie & K.Lalita. Women Writing in India:600 B.C. to the Present, Delhi, OUP,1995