Betwixt Tradition and Modernity:
A Revisionist Study of the Political, Intellectual and Social Strands in the Works of Attia Hosain
Born in a traditional, Muslim, Taluqdari family of Awadh, the product of a liberal English education, Attia Hosain – and indeed her writing -- shows a unique blend of tradition and modernity. Writing in English, at a time when few women, especially Muslim women, used this medium for literary expression, Hosain presents a picture of her own world, one that was multicultural, pluralistic and syncretic. Slender though her literary ouvre is, comprising chiefly of her novel Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) and a collection of short stories entitled Phoenix Fled (1953), its value lies in its depiction of a crumbling social order viewed through the prism of a modern, feminist, left-leaning sensibility. The strength and beauty of her writing is such that the two books have been published in the Virago Modern Classics series, a series ‘dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works.’ The series is aimed at, quite admirably, ‘to demonstrate the existence of a female treadition in fiction which is both enriching and enjoyable.’
In revisiting Hosain’s legacy, I wish to make two general points: one, it is time we redefined the definition of feminism and took in those voices that spoke without the table-thumping vigour of the bra-burning school of thought. The existence of self-awareness or the ability to take conscious decisions, to my mind, makes a woman empowered. Also, we must re-examine the stereotyped notion that privilege precludes or excludes suffering or that someone born to privilege, like Hosain was, could not have known suffering or exclusion. I shall try and locate Hosain (1913-1998) in the continuum of women’s writing in English and also compare her with her contemporaries, Muslim writers such as Qurratulain Hyder, Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai who shared her sensibility but wrote in Urdu. I will also explore how the medium, English, shaped and defined her literary ouvre and discuss how Sunlight on a Broken Column can be a regarded as an iconic chronicle of the partition.
First, a look at the 12 stories in Phoenix Fled, a collection that has been described by Anita Desai as a ‘monument’ to India’s pre-independence past. The title story is about an old woman who, faced with the threat of communal violence in the aftermath of the partition, refuses to leave her house when the rest of her family has fled. Alone and scared, she faces the mob that comes to set her house on fire but admonishes them thus: “Mind, she scolded, pointing her bony figure, “mind you do not step on the doll’s house.” Evidently, the mythical phoenix that can arise from its own ashes has fled in the face of the barbarism of the times. Elsewhere, as in ‘The Street of the Moon’, unable to take the tedium of marriage to a much-older opium-quaffing cook, a high-spirited nubile young wife runs off with another servant, only to end up in the prostitute’s street. ‘The First Party’ is a touching tale of a young bride’s foray into the westernised world of her husband. In ‘Time is Unredeemable’ a young woman waits long years for her husband to return from foreign shores only to be told that he can never love her and so must leave her.
Quite apart from the stories themselves -- each a compact, self-contained statement -- there is the quality of Hosain’s writing: polished, impeccably crafted with jewel-like brilliance and bell-like clarity, its sophistication and stylishness quite unlike anything that was being written by other Indian writers in English. Then there were the concerns: her depiction of izzat (honour) and its conjoined twin sharam (dishonor) which are the same among the wealthy and high born as well as the poor and lowest of low; Hosain’s quite evident pleasure and sense of responsibility towards the position of privilege that she occupied by virtue of birth; a rejoicing in womanhood, be it as a mother, wife or ayah. Between the polarity of the Big House and the rows of low-roofed servants’ quarters at the outer edges of the compound, Hosain seems to be saying, in story after story, there is little difference except in a material sense. What is more, in both there is a rejoicing in pluralism, a celebration of syncretism, and a firmly-rooted belief in inclusion rather than exclusion.
However, unlike the social realism of the progressive writers who had seized the imagination of the Indian readers by the time these stories were written, there is no attempt here to identify with the toiling masses or to glorify the labouring classes. Poverty is recognised, though not idealised. Instead, there is a matter-of-fact depiction and an acute, minutely-detailed description that can only come from close observation. Life in the servants quarters of the wealthy, the interaction among the family retainers, descriptions of their clothes, living quarters, eating habits, their intensely-guarded hoard of small, treasures accumulated through years of hard labour for paltry salaries – all this and more is brought to life with vivid detail. As Anita Desai notes in her Introduction,
‘Society was not then in flux, it was static, and it was a feudal society. To know what feudalism meant, one has to read Sunlight on a Broken Column or Phoenix Fled and learn how it was made – how the land belonged to the taluqdars, how the peasants worked upon it, what was extracted from them and what was, in turn, done to or from them. How women lived in a secluded part of the house… and what powers were theirs, or not. How deference had always to be shown to the ancestors, to the aristocracy, to the priests…How the one unforgivable sin was to rock this hierarchy, its stability.’
In almost all the stories, in the conflict between tradition and modernity or westernisation and a time-honoured way of life, Hosain’s empathy seems to be with the traditional because, for all its injustices and inequalities, she found it a more humane order, one where the principle of noblesse oblige entrusted the strong to look after the weak. In this she differed from her more radical-minded contemporaries, especially the progressive writers such as Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai, who wrote also about roughly the same milieu, i.e. Begum sahibs and their retinue of servants and hangers-on, but with far more sympathy for the underdog and a far more scathing denouement of the effete begums. For Rashid Jahan, who had joined the CPI in 1933, Marxism was crucial to understanding, and ultimately changing, many things that were unfair in the privileged world she occupied, such as colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, industrialization, socio-economic developments and other forms of uneven or lopsided development. Rashid Jahan’s own experiences as a doctor reinforced her belief that in an essentially unfair world, women were more unfortunate than most. Ismat Chughtai, born in more straightened circumstances and having had to fight for education and a place under the sun, wrote bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman’s ‘place’ in society. She was feistier, less willing to conform to the traditional notions of feminity or even literary propriety and certainly far more confrontationist than even her male colleagues. Also, given her interest in sexual matters, comparisons between her and Manto have become inevitable. The nearest parallel between Attia Hosain and a contemporary woman writer, to my mind, is with Qurratulain Hyder who was born to affluent parents who were not merely in favour of education for women but were themselves writers and one who straddled the world of Urdu and English with equal ease. Given their privileged birth, both Hosain and Hyder invited derision and scorn. Ismat Chughtai, for instance, wrote a scathing denouement of Hyder entitled Pompom Darling deriding the world of hyper-anglicised characters with names like Shosho and Fofo who swam and danced and played, a world of charming people all cast in the same mould, all living in a Camelot that was destined to end. Ismat’s rants against Hyder typifed the progressive writers’ worst ire for another sort of writer who recreated a world of lost glory. Attia Hosain escaped the outright hostility meted out to Hyder in the early days because she does not look back to lament, instead she celebrates; less requiem to a lost world Hosain’s work rejoices in what once was but is no more. The use of English allows her a certain freedom of expression, certainly more latitude. Writing while living in London in the late-1950s, while working for the BBC, afforded her an audience such as the one the Urdu writers, especially the women writers who were often first published in magazines and only later in a book form, could not even imagine! Writing in English and being published first in the West and much, much later in India did to her what in a sense happened to Mulk Raj Anand; it made them an overnight sensation and the toast of London’s literary circuit.
Its title taken from T S Eliot’s The Hollow Men, Sunlight on a… is an unsentimental look at world where power, privilege and position slips from one hands to another. Attia’s father was Shahid Hosain Kidwai, a taluqdar from Gadia in district Baranbanki, one of the early batch of western-educated fiercely anti-imperialist young Indians. Her mother was from a distinguished family of poets and writers and judges from Kakori, men of learning who had moved away from land-owning. Attia grew up in a home where Sarojini Naidu, Attia Faizi, Ali Imam, Abbas Ali Baig, Sir Sultan Ahmad, Motilal and his son Jawaharlal Nehru were regular visitors. In their company, families like hers despite being an active member of the British India Association -- an organization of the taluqdars that Husain once memorably described as ‘a kind of a trade union’ -- Attia was drawn towards the swadeshi movement. Moreover, with the city of Delhi lying in ruins after the devastation of the Mutiny, it was Lucknow that remained the only citadel of culture and learning, in a word tehzeeb. And it is this world, teetering at the edge of decline and decimation, that Attia Hosain brings to life as only one who had belonged to it can. The plurality of this world is such that even the beggars ask in the name of both Allah and Bhagwan, a childless man makes vows to both the Holy Prophet and Hanuman, and families such as Attia’s celebrate Holi and Diwali with as much fanfare as Eid and Shubarat. Some dietary restrictions were indeed observed but they did not come in the way of friendships. Years later, it was still inconceivable to Attia Hosain that faith could divide; she said: ‘That was their life, our life was ours and it came together in friendship. We were together in marriages, at births, deaths and any festivities.’ 
‘Soon you will have to apologise for your birth and breeding, not be proud of them,’ a character prophecies early in the novel. And, indeed, it turns out to be so. The protagonist, Laila, an orphan brought up in a wealthy family, vows to one day join the satygrahis; till then, she stops singing God Save the King at school concerts, and leaves cinema halls when its first chords are struck. At 15, she feels like she is a ‘part of a great movement’. Sunlight… goes on to tell the story of her childhood, adolescence and coming of age. Like Hosain herself, Laila is educated at an English-medium school (the La Martiniere) and then goes on to do a Masters from the Lucknow University. The palatial house she shares with a gaggle of relatives and retinue of servants is a ‘living symbol’. She returns to it five years after the cataclysmic events of 1947 and finds it in ruins. ‘The house had buried one way of life and accepted another.’ ‘In its decay,’ Hosain writes, ‘I saw all the years of our lives as a family; the slow years that had evolved a way of life, the short years that had ended it.’ However, where Sunlight… departs from other partition chronicles is in its complete lack of bitterness and Attia Hosain rises above her contemporaries in her clear-sighted depiction of why some Muslim families chose to leave for the new country, Pakistan, and why some stayed on. Her belief in friendship and tolerance shines through, as does her unsentimental understanding of the human heart. She has her questions and her doubts but she rises above them. Her recognition of struggle – be it against despair or destiny – and her positive acceptance of life makes Sunlight on a Broken Column not merely an engaging story told with a certain style and sophistication but a testament to pluralism and multiculturalism.
(An abridged version of this article appeared in The Hindu, Literary Review, 1 Januuary 2011. The longer version was read at a seminar organized by the Sahitya Akademi and Gujarat University in Ahmedabad.)
 First published in 1953 in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus, it was published in 1988 by Virago Press, London. I have used the edition published by Rupa & Co in 1993. All references to page numbers are from this edition.
 Ibid, p. ix.
 This section is built from an Interview given in 1991 but published in 2004 at Harappa.com.