Sunlight On A Broken Column, Attia Hosain’s only published full length fictional work, is set in 1930s India, a time of growing tension and animosity towards British rule. Hosain parallels the growing fight for political independence with a girl’s struggle for her own independence and the right to choose her own husband.
Her main character Laila is the orphaned daughter of a taluqdar family — a wealthy and privileged ruling class — raised in the ancestral home under the guidance of aunts who adhere faithfully to the practice of purdah. A new life begins when Laila’s grandfather, the head of the family, dies and she is taken to live with her “liberal-minded”uncle in Lucklow.
Uncle Hamid is a cold and autocratic figure but he does allow the girl more freedom than she had experienced so far as part of a strict Muslim family, acceding to her wish to gain an education. At Lucklow university and through contact with her uncle’s friends, Laila is surrounded by people with a deep interest in the future of India. But Leila isn’t ready to commit herself to the cause of political independence; wrestling instead with the tensions between the traditions of her upbringing and the rapidly changing values of the society in which she now lives.
Those tensions come to a head when she falls in love with a man not chosen by her family. Does she conform to their expectations and relinquish him or follow her own desire, knowing that will make her an outcast.
Sunlight On A Broken Column shows contrasting experiences of women in India and their attitudes to marriage in the early part of the twentieth century
For Laila’s aunt Abida, marriage brings respectability, while her friend Sita embarks upon affairs as a form of rebellion against the “punishment” of marriage.
Her cousin Zahra, who was raised in the same household as Laila, conforms to the behaviours deemed appropriate for women in a patriarchal hierarchical family. She is devout and enters willingly into an arranged marriage with an older man. “I was brought up to do my duty, ” she declares, reasoning that it gives her freedom through a secured status in society.
By contrast Laila is progressive in her outlook, having at her dead father’s behest, enjoyed an education in Arabic, Persian and also Western traditions. Over the twenty year span of the novel she comes to recognise that physical freedom does not intellectual freedom or freedom to think independently.
My life changed. It had been restricted by invisible barriers almost as effectively as the physically restricted lives of my aunts in the zenana. A window had opened here, a door there, a curtain had been drawn aside; but outside lay a world narrowed by one’s field of vision.
This novel is considered by some critics to be partly semi-autobiographical since Attia Hosain herself belonged to the landed aristocracy in India pre-independence and was also the first Muslim Indian woman from a landowning family to graduate from university. Hosain moved subsequently to the UK in 1947 – the year of India’s partition. It’s evident how her own experience is woven into the novel’s themes of family, tradition and social and political change.
inevitably there are many passages where characters debate the political situation and argue for/against independence. The political sphere is interesting up to a point though has been well covered in many other novels.
My interest was more drawn to the depiction of the domestic sphere, parting the curtains within the family’s estate at “Ashiana” to show the life of Indian Muslim women at the time.
We enter the house right at the the start of the novel:
The day my aunt Abida moved from the zenana into the guest room off the
corridor that led to the men’s wing of the house, within call of her father’s room….”
There is more than a physical separation between the “zenana” (the women’s quarters) and the rest of the property. The women’s space is one of colour, while the rooms occupied by the grandfather are full of shadow as if is patriarchal control has robbed it of vitality.
Instead of light, only shadows flicker in the vast room. In this vast room the coloured panes of the arched doors let in not light but shadows that moved in mirrors on the walls and the mantelpiece, that slithered under chairs, tables and divans, hid behind marble statues, lurked in giant porcelain vases and nestled in the carpets.
There is a sickness seeping through this vast house, we’re told, “that weighed each day more oppressively on those who lived in it.”
Appropriately then, the end of the novel is signified by destruction of this house. The shadows have been banished, letting a glimmer of sunlight shine through for the women — the sunshine I suppose is meant to represent the first rays of independence and freedom for women in India. It’s an optimistic end to the novel though one tempered by realisation that today in India, there are still forced marriages and women are still treated too often as “servants” within their families.
It’s a challenging book to read with a lot of characters to keep track of and many relationships to understand. I did find it difficult to engage with the characters initially but the book grew on me.
Other bloggers who have enjoyed this book
Liz at Adventures in Reading: Review is here
Ali at Heaven Ali: Find her review here
Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings . Read her review here