Attia Hosain: A Lone Sufferer in her Society

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Basudeb profiles Attia Hosain, a Lucknow girl, who wrote few novels, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

In the galaxy of women novelists of the 20th century, Attia Hosain is one who writes a small number of fictional writings in English but who is, and perhaps will be, remembered as one of the Indian novelists fighting constantly in her inner mind for what she dreams and what she finds around her.

On one occasion, Attia says that she grows up with the English language but she is totally unaware of the culture of the English language. She knows that language is culture specific but she repents for her unfamiliarity with the culture of that language, which is comfortable to her for communication.

Attia was born, in 1913, in Lucknow, to an aristocratic, traditional, as well as modern Muslim family with Taluqdari background. In those days, Lucknow was a centre for Islamic scholarship and tradition. She was exposed to the English language by an English Governess, who used to come to her house and taught her English language. She was sent to La Martiniere Girls’ College, Isabella Thoburn College, and Lucknow University.

She was the daughter of Sheikh Shahid Husain, a pass out of Cambridge University in those days, and Nisar Fatima, the daughter of Syed Maqbool Hussain Alvi, of Kakori. Today, it is amazing to remember that in those days, her mother fought against the orthodox belief that a Muslim woman had no right to education. Standing against her society, she ran a school for local Muslim education and welfare, in Lucknow. But at heart, both Sheikh Shahid and Nisar Fatima were devout Muslims. They encouraged their daughter to learn Urdu and Persian and Arabic languages at home. Later, she moved to London, before 1947, when her husband was transferred to the High Commission in London. After the Indian partition in 1947, she did not return to India.

Attia was brought up in such a family environment that led her naturally to suffer owing to her minute observation of patriarchal oppression, particularly in Muslim society. In the ‘Introduction’ of the novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column, Anita Desai writes from Massachusetts, (ed.1988), “So a woman will paint a tika on her baby’s forehead, a young man touch an elder’s feet, a marriage needs to be approved not only by parents but an astrologer as well . . . and life is lived according to its rules, rules prescribed by time, centuries of time. Of course, time moves to other directions as well – TV and radio sets invade homes, the sari is given up for jeans, the old astrologer laughed at and the priest avoided, the past scorned. But it remains. Like the colour of one’s skin, and eyes, it remains. It does not leave.”

She was also a feminist and stood for woman’s empowerment. Sometimes readers are inspired to draw a comparison between Attia’s Sunlight on a Broken Column and the Indian poet in English, Kamala Das’s poem, Introduction. A Muslim woman has no right to love and select a husband of her own. She was also a member of radical Progressive Writers’ Movement. But she wrote her novels after Indian partition. She suffered when she had found that the one heart, India, Divided into two, India and Pakistan. Naturally, all these are reflected in her novel.

Attia’s major novels are Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961), while her earlier collection of short stories, Phoenix Fled, was published, in 1953. These two works are full of the records of her recollections and her susceptible mind to the contemporary issues of her time.

Sunlight in a Broken Column may be considered an autobiographical novel in four parts. The Nobel Laureate C.S. Lewis encouraged Attia to write a novel. The fourteen-year girl narrates the story of Sunlight on the Broken Column. The central character of this novel is Laila and the novel begins and ends with the twenty years of Laila’s life. Laila is an orphan. The novel is a faithful delineation of the Indian Muslim society of the early part of the last century.

Laila wants to be educated and independent in her life. It is her ambition. She finds that the boys enjoy the social and family privileges to join schools. But, as she is a girl, she has no right to be educated. The members of her family oppose her education. Apart from this, Laila notices and suffers intently when she finds a Muslim woman belonging to the upper strata of her society is married to a person, who she does not like. She finds that woman in her Muslim society has no right even to choose their husbands. The irony is that a Hindu girl, Nandi, who is a maidservant is free to marry anyone she likes and loves. Laila wants to associate herself with the Freedom Movement against the British rule in India but she is opposed by all male members of her family. She cannot revolt against all these gender discriminations. This fight against the traditional Indian Muslim society meets the success when she meets the man of her own choice, a man whom she loves and wants to marry. The novel concludes with a note of the victory of love.

Attia died on January 25, 1998.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy’s View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.