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Sunlight On A Broken Column by Attia Hosain — rays of freedom

Cover of Sunlight On A Broken Column, a novel by Attia Hosain that parallels India's fight for independence with a woman's struggle for personal freedom

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


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “Sunlight On A Broken Column by Attia Hosain — rays of freedom

  • I read this several years ago. I remember liking both the political elements and the domestic setting and portrayal of family life. I found it a fascinating depiction of life in India at this time. Hosain’s short stories are also excellent.

    • I would read more by her but unfortunately am not keen on short stories

  • wadholloway

    My ratio of women to men Indian novelists is 2:1 (The two A Roys v Salman Rushdie) so not a very large sample then. Though that’s not counting the colonial books I read as a boy.

    • I had to go back into my reading log to check how many Indian born authors I’ve read – 12 as it turns out but only 3 of them are female

  • I remembered I’d read this but it was nine years ago, so I don’t recall much about it. My review’s here if you’re interested (no comment on how small my TBR was then in the picture at the top of the review!!). I did find that I learned something new about the end of colonial rule there, which is interesting as I had already read quite a lot. Such a lovely Virago Green edition, too!

    • thanks Liz, I’ve added a link to your review into my post. Agree with you about the cover – one of the many things I love about those Virago editions is the cover artwork

  • The title sounds to be an apt metaphor of one of the principal themes here, Karen. I just wish I had the time to read it, just as with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy which I’ve only enjoyed through the BBC adaptation. 😐

    • Well Seth’s book IS very, very long so looks quite daunting on the shelf. I did read it many years ago – enjoyed it but can’t recall a single thing about it!

  • This does sound like a book to read. But not at a time when life is already over-busy. It seems it needs time and space to absorb it properly.

    • There were a couple of sections where I thought the political stuff could have been toned down a little but otherwise it’s. quick read

  • This sounds really interesting – I hadn’t heard of it before but it sounds like something that’s right up my street. Most of what I’ve read about this period has either been from a male perspective or was written much later. I’ve added this to my wishlist – thanks for sharing your review!

    • I hadn’t realised it until reading your comment but yes it does seem that everything I’e read has come from a male perspective

  • I read this back in the early days of my blog, and I did love it – I thought she captured place and events and characters brilliantly. It’s a shame she never wrote any more novels, but I do have her short story collection and maybe this will be the nudge I need to get to it soon!

    • That was going to be my question, did she write any more novels?
      Maybe she was devastated by partition…

        • Some writers just need to get one thing out of their system, and that’s it…

        • She did continue writing though so must have had more she wanted to say – just not in the long form

    • I wonder why she didn’t write any further novels – any idea?


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