Relook at a Book: Attia Hosain’s classic novel provides different lenses to look at the partition

When I was working on my M. Phil. dissertation in JNU, focus on partition of Indian and Punjabi literature, I had list of creative writings on partition in various languages. I wanted to refer to those in my general review of the partition literature. I could take some books off my list, but not all, as one might expect. But one book that I really missed in those days and kept looking for was Attia Hosain’s English novel Sunlight on a broken column. And after a gap of many decades, I found it in a library in Trinidad, as I found many other books – like the classic by CLR James The Black Jacobins.

Sunlight on a broken column it was first published in 1961 by Chatto and Windus in Great Britain. Later in 1988, Virago Press published it with a new introduction. Then, Penguin Books published it in 1992 with an even more recent introduction by another prominent Indian writer, Anita Desai.

Attia Hosain was born in 1913 into a feudal Muslim family in Lucknow; she got a liberal education and was the first female graduate from ‘Taluqdari’ families. Her parents had close ties with the Nehru clan. She was influenced by the nationalist movement and the progressive writers’ movement in the 1930s. She became a journalist, journalist and fiction writer. She went to England in 1947 with her husband and two children and wrote a collection of short stories in 1953 called Phoenix has escaped and his only novel, which became a classic, in 1961.

The novel’s title is taken from TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’, which reads as:

Here, the eyes are

Sunlight on a broken column……

In part, this is an autobiographical novel as the events happening in the life of the protagonist Laila are close to the life of the writer. Laila, the novel’s narrator, is a granddaughter of Baba Jan-Syed Mohammed Hasan; she was orphaned after the death of both of her parents. She is taken care of by her grandfather and then, after her death, by her uncle Hamid and her aunts. This is a typical feudal Muslim family but enlightened and liberal in a limited sense. Girls may have a higher education and Laila takes advantage of this, but they are not allowed to choose their own husbands and their family’s standards and status must be followed. All the other family members follow suit, but not Laila. She chooses her husband over her Ameer, though of feudal origin, but not of their family’s economic standards. She rebels and marries him against the wishes of the older members of the family, as the younger ones like Kemal and Saleem, and her cousins ​​support her. Her husband leaves his teaching job a few years later and enlists in the army, partly because of the complexes induced in him by Laila’s family. He dies during the Second World War, leaving a little girl.

The novel, divided into four parts and 61 chapters, does not describe the division directly, but focuses on its impact on Muslim families, especially feudal ones. This is the class from which the protagonists of a separate nation for Muslims came. But this same class was divided into ‘for’ and ‘against’ the division, which led to the division of families. While some have chosen Pakistan as their destiny, others have remained in India close to their roots.

In the novel, Uncle Hamid dies just before this dilemma arises, but the surviving family meet at the instance of Kemal, a senior officer now in the Indian government, and Hamid’s eldest son. His younger brother Saleem and his wife Nadira decide to go to Pakistan. In the last part of the novel there are some touching scenes. Laila returned to India after a few years. Her husband is now dead and she has a daughter. Sita Aggarwal, her childhood friend, who loved Kemal in England, but she didn’t marry him rebelling against social norms, has come to share her pain. Abida, her aunt, who loved her so much and Laila loved her equally, has just died. Abida, enlightened herself, had introduced Laila to Ghalib and other great writers. But she could not reconcile Laila’s marriage to Ameer against the wishes of her family. The aftereffects of the partition can now be felt. Saleem has to report to the police every day for visiting his ‘own’ home and family in Lucknow and Hasanpur, the family’s ancestral home. The novel ends there on a sad note, as Laila is waiting for her nationalist distant cousin Asad to come and see her.

There are many other events in the novel: the oppression of poor characters similar to Nandi or Saliman, who toil all their lives to serve their feudal master and for whom only Laila had sympathy.

The novel, of course, is strong in its aesthetic appeal; but it raises many questions. It also helps to understand the mood of pre-partition India and the reasons, albeit wholly irrational, for the inevitable partition. Now, we know of many Pakistani friends’ nostalgia for pre-partition India, and a similar attachment to the Pakistani regions and people who lived in post-partition India. The elite of the communities and even the common workers, who had nothing to do with politics and religion, had very good relations with each other. But the educated middle classes of the upper strata of both communities had, through their imagined history, created deeply rooted prejudices against each other. Both had a sense of superiority over the other. While one part thought of the others as ‘malech (the wicked)’, the others thought of the former as ‘banias (the cowardly and petty dishonest shopkeepers)’. Division was becoming inevitable in these socio-cultural conditions and socialist Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru had no real guarantees to offer the Muslim community – of “true secularism” in the Congress party’s “nationalist” agenda. The Muslim community has decisively leaned towards the Muslim League in large numbers in the absence of such a guarantee.

The forced partition of Punjab and Bengal on communal lines has led to mass migration of minority communities and also mass massacres and other unthinkable crimes. The Kashmir problem has become permanently stuck in the destinies of the two countries and there have been four terrible wars between India and Pakistan. The militaries of both countries treat each other as ultimate enemies. The split, therefore, turned out to be a festering wound. In the absence of a sizable minority population, Jinnah’s elitist liberal Pakistan has given way to religious fundamentalist Pakistan dictated by the Jehadi mullahs, supported/promoted by the Saudi variety of Islam. If Pakistan is unable to combat the cancerous growth of religious fundamentalism, not only will Pakistan’s liberal educated elite – represented in the characters of Attia Hosain – be wiped out, but India itself will not escape the weeds of this cancer which they pour over India leading to an equally cancerous fundamentalist rise in reaction. As a result, the entire pre-partition India, now divided into three nations, will suffer together, as it fought together for its freedom from British colonialism. Some cultures are so complex that they cannot be torn apart even by dividing territories. They remain tied like the baby’s bond with the womb through its umbilical cord.

But what can nations do in such situations? Sure they can solve these problems, but only by looking at things dispassionately, objectively and rationally. Even if the partition of India was irrational, it cannot be withdrawn now, nor can Bangladesh return to Pakistan’s fold again. Hence, the first rational act by India and Pakistan is to accept each other’s existence in their present form by admitting the unresolved issues like Kashmir. Both countries also have to admit that the destinies of both countries, despite the political-geographical divisions, are somehow linked to each other. The interests of a large majority of people in both countries lie in a peaceful and possibly fraternal existence between the two nations. This includes the enlightened ruling classes on both sides, but not those sections of the ruling classes who have vested interests in promoting the spread of religious fundamentalism everywhere. And for this peaceful existence, both countries need a democratic political system that survives and gets stronger in both countries.

Will this great ‘human tragedy’ in Balzac’s words ever end and will the progressive forces in Pakistan and India see the dawn of ‘Woh Subah…’ conceived by its poets? We can hope that instead of sunlight there is “moonlight” on the banks of the rivers Gomati and Ravi. Romantic lovers like Laila and Ameer could meet in this moonlight without fearing the feudal and fundamental forces lurking in the shadows…

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