Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
The people of India are indebted to the British for many things: their railways, their educational system, their civil service, and their basic governmental structure. Ironically, they are indebted to British as well for their widespread mastery of the English language, as evidenced by the extraordinary colonial and post-Independence flourishing of native and émigré Indian writers writing in English, authors as varied and remarkable as R. K. Narayan, Ved Mehta, Mulk Raj Anand, and Khushwant Singh to Raja Rao, Gucharan Das, Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie, Indira Mahindra, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar, Amitav Ghosh, Upanmanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Tharoor, and Nyantara Sahgal, to name just some of my many favorites. Yet such benefits (whatever their worth today) came at an exorbitant, still-incalculable price.
Surely one of the most devastating and long-lasting consequences of British rule in India was the systematic, essentially Evangelical destruction of the Mughal Empire—and with it its extraordinary spirit and policy of universal toleration, known as sulh-i kul, which for centuries had bound Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians in an intricate, often radiant fabric of sympathy, fellowship, and love. Writes William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal, “The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two.” One has only to scan the papers today to know that life in India has never been the same.
Attia Hosain’s gentle, often highly evocative novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column, centers upon an orphaned Muslim girl named Laila and her struggle, in the midst of the larger Independence movement, to find her footing as a Muslim woman in the modern world. Set in in the city of Lucknow in the twilight years of the British Raj, when only the faintest traces of the Mughal Empire remained, the poets Mir and Ghalib but ghosts in the many ruined gardens, the story explores, through a host of sympathetic characters, the many tangled issues—tradition, modernity, democracy, nationalism, sectarianism, feminism, and class—that bedevil the country to this day.
This novel is nostalgic to its core, yet complexly so, involving a harkening back, a genuine affection for the past, that is made compelling, persuasive by Hosain’s distinctly unsentimental approach. Rather than glorify and romanticize the past she glimpsed as a girl and loved so well, she lets us see it for ourselves. “A monument suggests a gravestone—grey, cold and immutable,” writes Anita Desai in her introduction to the novel. “Her books are not: they are delicate and tender, like new grass, and they stir with life and the play of sunlight and rain. To read them is as if one parted a curtain, or opened a door, and strayed into the past.”
Attia Hosain, born in Lucknow, India, in 1913, was the first woman from amongst the feudal “Taluqhdari” families to graduate from college. A journalist, broadcaster, and short story writer, she divides her time between India and England.
Peter Adam Nash