Try and remember the feeling you get when you touch or see a family heirloom, smile at at old, mildewed photos of one’s ancestors, open an antique cupboard stocked with old, hardbound books or turn the fragile yellowing pages of those books.
These actions unleash a sense of a bygone era, preserved so remarkably that you can feel it coursing through your very veins by the most mundane of actions like brushing your fingers through your great grandmother’s necklace or running your fingers on the spine of an old book of poetry. For many people, the past is living with them through people or through certain artifacts. For others, it is completely dead and thus doesn’t matter. It represents different things for different people:pleasure, nostalgia,joy, passion,charm,love,heartache,anger,resentment,hatred…the list is exhaustive.
For Attia Hosain,it was meant to be remembered and written about. Her only novel, Sunlight On A Broken Column celebrates the past – a harmonious and elite life in an undivided India. The novel elaborately describes a past which Attia has lived in and talks about the changes that her particular lifestyle experienced. The story reveals the ways of a bygone world which she lived in and through the written word, Attia has managed to preserve it and let the future generation know about it.
Sunlight On A Broken Column is set in Lucknow of the pre-independence era in 1930s’. Laila is the protagonist and the reader sees everything through her eyes. Laila belongs to a taluqdar family which is steeped in tradition, customs and religion. Since they belong to the feudal system, her family is undoubtedly rich and is rooted through certain feudal norms, codes of honor and strives to preserve it. The story begins with Laila’s grandfather, Baba Jan’s death and how that signals changes in their family.
There is a prominent clash among the older and younger generation. The former give utmost priority to duty to family, respect for elders, and honour. Whereas the latter, influenced by the independence movement as well as liberal education always question it. This clash is at its height when close to the independence, their feudal system, the very tradition and culture they rigidly followed for generations and for centuries, was threatened.
There is not much of a plot but simply a chronicle of the lifestyle of the feudal system and the general atmosphere of those times. This chronicle is refelcted through Laila’s perception. The reader sees the world then as she saw it-when she was a pre-teen, a teenager, and later on as a wife and a mother.
Hence the mood of the novel is very nostalgic. It tries to resurrect the charm of those good old, undivided days when everything was in its proper place. It can even be called an intricate study in nostalgia.
Attia Hossain’s writing is also marvelous. It is utterly delicate, and sensitive. The reader also meets myriad, interesting characters from all walks of life.
Since, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ is very much descriptive, the pace is very slow and the story seems to be going nowhere. Attia Hossain tries to condense all aspects of those times in 300 odd pages which raises the question whether the story or the rambling descriptions take the plot forward.
Despite this, it is quite fascinating to read about life when feudalism existed,when respect and honour were obeyed to death, when Hindus and Muslims lived united and peacefully, when society depended upon a master/taluqdar and laborer/peasant relationship to survive, when women lived in one part of the house and when traditions and rituals were religiously followed.
Attia Hossain brings to life all these and several more aspects of feudalism. This is perhaps the reason why her novel is titled so. She is trying to put light on a section or column of history that is not only forgotten but also broken. Title fetish strikes!
Literary Tidbit: The title comes from a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men.