My Readings in Trinidad
• Attiya Hosain, ‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’, a novel, Penguins India, 1992 ed., pages 319, Price Rupees 125/
• Ist ed.by Chatto and Windus in Great Britain in 1961, Virago edition with Anita Desai new introduction in 1988.
When I was working for M.Phil degree dissertation in JNU on partition of India and Punjabi literature, I had a list of creative writings on partition in various languages, which I wanted to refer in my overall survey of the partition literature. I could get some books from my list, but not all, as one could expect also.But one book which I really missed those days and always kept on looking for, was Attiya Hosain’s English novel-‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’. And after gap of more than three decades, I found it in a library in Trinidad, as I found many other books also like C L R James’s classic ‘The Black Jacobins’.
‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’ was published for first time in 1961 from Chatto and Windus in Great Britain, later in 1988, Virago Press published it with new introduction and Penguin books published it in 1992 with new introduction by another eminent Indian novelist Anita Desai. Attiya Hosain born in 1913 in a feudal Muslim family of Lucknow got liberal education and was first woman to graduate from among the ‘Taluqdari’ families, into which she was born. Her parents had close relations with Nehru clan. She was influenced by nationalist movement and Progressive writers movement in 1930’s and became a journalist, broadcaster and writer of fiction. She went to England in 1947 with his husband and two children and wrote ‘Phoenix Fled’-short story collection in 1953 and her only novel, which became classic later of Muslim life , in 1961.
The title of the novel is taken from T.S.Eliot’s poem-‘The Hollow Men’, reading as There, the eyes are/Sunlight on a Broken Column……Partly this is an autobiographical novel as the events of novel conceived through main character Laila’s life are close to writer’s own life.Laila , the heroine or main character and narrator of the novel is granddaughter of Baba Jan-Syed Mohammed Hasan, who was orphaned with the death of both her parents. She is being taken care of her by her grandfather and later, after his death, by his Uncle Hamid and aunts.This is a typical feudal Muslim family but enlightened and liberal in limited sense. Girls are allowed to have higher education and Laila avails that, but they are not allowed to choose their own husbands and their family standards and status must be followed. All other members of family follow suit, but not Laila, who chooses her own husband Ameer, though from feudal background, but not of their family’s economic standards. She rebels and marries him against the wishes of the older members of family, though younger ones like Kemal and Saleem, his cousins support her. Her husband dies after few years of marriage during 2nd world war, joining the army, leaving his teaching job, partly because of complex created in his personality by Laila’s family, of being low-income feudal; leaving a baby girl for her.
Novel divided into four parts and sixty one chapter does not depict partition directly, but focuses upon its impact on Muslim families, particularly feudal ones. This is the class, from where protagonists of separate nation for Muslims came from, but this class itself was divided into ‘for’ and ‘against’ partition, which resulted in families splitting on the occasion of choosing Pakistan as their destiny or staying back in India-the original place of their roots. Uncle Hamid dies just before this dilemma to arise, but the surviving family meets at the instance of Kemal,a senior officer now in Indian Government, and the elder son of Hamid. His younger brother Saleem with his wife Nadira decide to go to Pakistan. In the last part of the novel there are poignant scenes. Laila has returned to India after few years, her husband is now dead and she has a daughter. Sita Aggarwal, her childhood friend, who loved Kemal in England, but did not marry him by rebelling against social norms has come to share her grief. Abida, her aunt, who loved her a lot and Laila loved her equally, has just died, though Laila was coming to see her at her deathbed. Abida, herself enlightened one-who initiated Laila to Ghalib and other great writers, did not reconcile to Laila’s marriage to Ameer against family wishes. After effects of partition are now there to be felt-Saleem has to report to police everyday for visiting his ‘own’ home and family in Lucknow and Hasanpur, the family ancestor house. Novel ends there on a sad note, as Laila is waiting for his distant nationalist cousin Asad to reach and see her.
There are many more events in the novel-the oppression of Nandi/ Saliman like poor characters, who slog throughout their lives to serve their feudal master and with whom only Laila had any sympathy.
Novel of course is strong in its aesthetic appeal, but it raises many questions and helps to understand the atmosphere of pre-partition days India and the reasons, though completely irrational, for inevitable partition of India. Now after knowing many friends in Pakistan, having nostalgia for pre-partition India and same way in India many having nostalgic attachment to regions and people in Pakistan, this novels and many other writings brings to the core deep prejudices festering in two major communities at that time-Hindus and Muslims. The élite of both communities and common working people, having nothing to do with politics and religion, were having excellent relations with each other. But educated middle classes from upper strata in both communities through their imagined history had created deep-rooted biases for each other. Both had sense of superiority over the other-one thinking other to be ‘Malechh'(the impious) and the other thinking to the opponents as ‘Bania'(the coward and petty dishonest shopkeeper).Worst attitude was on Hindus part, when treating Muslim as community as untouchable as ‘Dalits’ in their own Hindu fold. While poor Dalits could not protest or resist much, the rich/feudal among Muslim community, having the nostalgic arrogance of being ‘rulers’ of India for long, could not digest this insult, despite having best individual relations with many Hindus. These real situations depicted in literature were as effective in politics, despite Congress claiming to be nationalist and ‘representative’ of ‘Muslim’ interest as well as ‘Hindu’ interest. But the hegemony of ‘Hindu’ culture was too obvious in Congress, despite having eminent Muslim activists in its ‘nationalist’ fold. Partition was becoming inevitable under these sociocultural conditions and enlightened socialist leaders of Congress like Jawaharlal Nehru had no real assurance to offer to Muslim community of ‘true secularism’ in ‘nationalist’ agenda of Congress party, which definitely tilted to Muslim League in large numbers in absence of such assurance.
Looking at today’s rise of hegemony of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan, particularly during Zia regime, it seems Congress leaders must be secretly wishing to get rid of Muslim dominated regions of India in 1947, many of these of volatile nature like NWFP and Baluchistan, while putting the blame on Jinnah and British. Thus making eminent Muslim leaders of Congress party itself feel betrayed, like Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan and Maulana Azad. Looking retrospectively perhaps British scheme of keeping India joint, but dividing in three regions, with six Muslim dominated provinces in one region, while Hindu dominated areas in another and keeping only three or four matters with centre would have been better option under those circumstances. Jinnah, he probably was not conceiving Pakistan as reality, but which turned out to be, in absence of Congress party accepting the British scheme, which Jinnah and agreed to.Jinnah withdrew his consent only after Congress party and Nehru rejected it, in favour of worse British scheme of partition.
If Congress party thought that by getting rid of Muslim majority provinces, they will be free of problems in post British India, they were sadly mistaken. By forcing division of Punjab and Bengal on communal lines, resulting in mass migration of minority communities and also in mass massacres and other unthinkable crimes, with Kashmir problem tagged permanently to its destiny, leading to four terrible wars with Pakistan and making both countries militaries as enemy centred with each other, partition became a festering wound. In absence of sizeable minority population, Jinnah’s elitist liberal Pakistan gave way to religious fundamentalist Pakistan, dictated by jehadi Mullas, supported/prompted by South Arabia variety of Islam. Pakistan regional areas were centre of liberal Sufiana Islam mostly, but when Arabic form of right wing Islamic ideas overtook middle classes of Pakistan, with vested interests of its army to be in fighting mode with India all the time for its own vested financial interests, the wound of partition took the shape of cancer of jehadi fundamentalism in Pakistan, which took the life of Salmaan Taseer like surviving liberal. While if Pakistan is not able to fight the cancerous growth of religious fundamentalism, not only Pakistan’s liberal educated elite, which is continuation of Attiya Hosain’s novels’s characters, will be wiped out; India itself would not escape this cancer’s weeds spilling over in India , leading to equally cancerous Hindu fundamentalist rise in reaction, thus the whole pre partition India, though divided into three nations will suffer together, as it fought for its freedom from British colonialism together. Some cultures are so complex that these cannot rip apart even by way of dividing the territories; these remain bound like the child bound with mother’s womb through its umbilical cord.
But what one can or nations can do in such situations? They definitely can, but only by looking at the things in dispassionate, objective and rational manner. Whatever and however the partition of India was irrational, it cannot be redrawn now, neither Bangladesh can go back to the fold of Pakistan again. So the first rational act on the part of India and Pakistan is to accept each other’s existence in their present form, admitting the unresolved issues like Kashmir. Both countries also have to admit that destinies of both countries, despite political-geographical divisions are somehow bound with each other. The interests of large majority of people in both countries lie in peaceful and possibly fraternal existence between two nations; this includes the enlightened ruling classes on both sides, but not those sections of ruling classes, which have vested interests in further spread of cancerous growth of religious fundamentalism everywhere. And for this peaceful existence both countries need to have democratic polity surviving and strengthening in both countries. For Pakistan particularly, India’s support is most urgent in its pursuit of democratic polity’s growth and for India, it is in its own interests to support democratic polity’s survival in Pakistan. India needs to see Pakistan grow as modern Islamic nation like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Syria, Iraq, Jordan etc. And not like Saudi Arab brand of Islamic nation, breeding international jehadi, anti woman, anti democratic and broadly anti people oppressive and aggressive regime in the name of purity of Islam, as Hitler emphasised at the purity of ‘Aryan’ race to cleanse Germany of Jews through mass killings. Had this foresight dawned upon Indian leadership in 1947 and had they accepted and nurtured Pakistan after 1947 as just broke younger brother, people of India and Pakistan, particularly of Pakistan would not have suffered the terrible sufferings at the hands of military dictators including religious bigots like Zia Ul Haq and continue suffering in worse manner till today. One must admit the hard reality that despite ‘dream country’ of Pakistan for ex Muslim elites of India come true and making a section of that class very rich, almost at the level of grotesque, against even the principles of Islam, for common Muslims of Pakistan, it has been ‘dream shattered’ badly, so leading them towards again another ‘imaginary’ world of ‘purity’ (Pak) through innocent killings, burying Jinnah’s liberal idea of Islamic nation and in the process, the whole liberal intelligentsia of Pakistan is feeling the heat of new ‘Pak’(pure) and if the trend is not reversed, a new ‘pure land’( Pakistan) will emerge, sans Faizs, Farazs, Habib Jalibs, Ustad Damans, Fahmida Riyazs, Sheema Kirmanis, Parvez Huddods, Beena Sarwars and father of this pure land will not be Jinnah, it will be someone unknown or may be Zia Ul Haq!
There is no doubt that had Jinnah survived few more years, he would have seen the competitive growth of democratic polity with India and would have sought to resolve the issues through negotiations, rather through wars. It was Pakistan’s ill luck to loose Jinnah in its fragile existence, so was India’s to loose Gandhi as early, who also would have liked to see that India and Pakistan develop not only friendly, but brotherly relations with each other. Gandhi and Jinnah did not represent progressive models of two nations, but under the historical circumstances, they were the only liberal and more humanist models for the development of two nations in their infancy, progressive forces could develop only in the stable bourgeoisie development in two nations. Communist movement in undivided India also fell for easy path in supporting not only the creation of Pakistan, but much worse for the division of Bengal and Punjab on communal lines, feeling the task of working for Communist ideology more difficult in Muslim majority areas, thus leaving Pakistan progressive forces at the mercy of vultures of army and Mullahs.
Would this great ‘Tragedy Humane’ in Balzac’s words ever end and progressive forces in Pakistan and India would see the dawn of ‘Woh Subah’…..conceived by its poets—Kabhi to Aayegi..and rather than Sunlight, there will be ‘Moonlight’ on the banks of rivers Gomati(Lucknow river) and Ravi(Punjab river), where romantic lovers like Laila and Ameer would be able to meet without feeling the scare of lurking feudal and fundamental forces!