Witness to change

A half finished novel and some unpublished stories draw attention to one of the foremost Indian novelists of English language
Attia Hosain was one of the foremost Indian novelists of English language. Her tour de force Sunlight on a Broken Column is considered by many to be one of the best English novels to have emerged from India. It captures the fast changing society under the compulsion of the momentous changes that took place with the freedom movement that led to partition of the subcontinent between India and Pakistan.
Attia Hosain was a witness to that change as she grew up in a taluqdar family of Oudh and represented in more ways than one the Indo Muslim civilization as it came to evolve over a period of seven hundred years. She could not bear the partition of the subcontinent and just before that she moved to England with her husband. She remained there till the very end purposefully refusing the nationality of either India or Pakistan. She took advantage of the offer of citizenship by the British government of its erstwhile colonial citizens and stayed back engaging herself in broadcasting and writing.
English writings have flourished in India and to some extent in Pakistan over these last sixty odd years and some of the writers now are even mentioned by the literati. But Attia Hosain was not able to gain the same recognition as those living in India probably because she was away living in England.
Self-effacing and not believing in her own promotion, she was not a prolific writer though he was able to be a part of the circle of people from various colonial outposts who had gathered in England and wanted to write. Some of her works were inspired by those forums. She lived in an age when air travel and internet and television satellite channels had not obliterated the physical distance. The physical distance also meant cultural distance unlike these days when there is an illusion created by virtual reality that physical distance and cultural distance have ceased to exist or become one, and that often has resulted in violent clash of values and perceptions. It is all jumbled up here.
It was also jumbled up for Attia Hosain as she could not fully comprehend the reasons for the division of subcontinent and the fast changing cultural and economic scenario. It was probably more dramatic for a woman because the changes were greater in their lives than those of men more used to outdoor lives.
She was the first to go to college from the taluqdar family of Oudh and, though married at a young age as was the wont, was exposed to a larger world due to her shifting to England. Her writings are a retrospection of the life among the landed elite and then its disintegration or change, too swift that formed the bases of most of her sensibility as reflected in a line from T.S. Eliot that she chose as the title of the novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column.
 
Though in her prime Attia Hosain did write about the fast changing society that she was familiar with, the landed elite and then she wrote about the life of an Indian living in the post colonial London, in the book under review there are also stories that are based on the lives of the lower classes. It has become fashionable to write or focus on the subaltern and in the search for it in the writings of Attia Hosain she does write about the cooks, the maids, the helpers, the retainers in the household of the privileged that she must have been exposed to when she was growing up. And it is fascinating that her treatment of these characters is quite sympathetic. There is no tinge of being judgmental in the creation of the characters and their preoccupations, concerns and fascination with the masters that they are employed with.
Of course, it is very difficult to convince a native about the authenticity of the writings in English not only of the upper classes that draw so much from European etiquettes and mannerism, though they have their own genuine mix, but the lower classes because of the even greater particularity of their idiom and circumstances. The double difficulty of writing and creating characters, catching their nuance which can be expressed only in the local idiom with no equivalence in any other language let alone English, draws a constant comparison which is quite distracting.
An initiated reader refuses to fully imbibe the expression without becoming critical about it and instead of the absorption being followed by critical response, the two co exist with the possibility of mutually cancelling each other out. But it seems that if the subaltern is seen as a minor work by her, she has acquitted herself well compared to others who have sounded more hollow and artificial. This is the greatest problem of writing in English to the local readership, though it is easier to write to non-subcontinental English reading and speaking readership. But she has been faithful; her economy of expression saved her from this charge and also her neutral position without picking up cudgels on their behalf as some others, like the Progressive Writers Association, did.
Attia Hosain probably belonged to the same generation as Ismat Chugtai with Qurratul Ain Hyder being a decade younger, and chose to write in English while they explored the subtleties of their native language. If the three of them are taken together, despite the difference in language, they do represent the sensibility of the first half of the twentieth century of the Indo-Muslim culture.
Attia Hosain may have had the disadvantage of having written in English but her sincerity can not be doubted. It is nowhere apparent that she is writing for a foreign readership. She is only writing in English because she may have felt comfortable doing so.
Distant Traveller (New & selected fiction)
Author: Attia Hosain
Publisher: Oxford University, 2015
Pages: 279
Price: Rs  1425

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