Partition Politics in Attia Hosain’s Sun Light on A Broken Column. S.S.


Attia Hosain’s ‘Sun Light on a Broken Column’ deals with a young woman’s personal crisis set against the larger historical background of communal hatred. This novel sharply brings out the undergoing change, the individual lives suffer a change just as the country’s political situation changes. It shows that one change goes hand in hand with another. On the other hand, Laila, the narrator- heroine, revolts against the traditional values of her family and continues to grow and change. Similarly, the country also revolts against its rulers and undergoes a drastic change. The narrator-heroine is a ‘passive observer’ so far as

political actions are concerned but she is also a ‘central agent’ of the personal drama that is enacted against the political background. Laila being an inquisitive rebel from the beginning is both an insider and an outsider, a participant and an observer. This enables her not only to dramatize the taluqdari way of life in its immediacy but also to contextualize it objectively as an aspect within the broader relief of the contemporary historical milieu. This novel consists of four parts covering a period of about twenty years in the life of Laila, living sheltered life in an orthodox aristocratic Muslim family. In the beginning of the novel, politics hardly touches Laila’s life. Her first awareness of politics comes when Laila’s cousins, Asad and Zahid, give her information about the political processions. It is a time of instant


political activities and both the Hindus and the Muslims are together in their struggle against the British. Innumerable enthusiastic Hindus and Muslims are shown participating and shouting slogans for the freedom of the country. The sound of voices comes in chanting unison thus: “Inquilab… Zindabad! British Raj... Murdabad! Death to British imperialism.. Azadi Ki Jai! Hail Freedom!”1 College going youth also take part in the joint Hindu-Muslim political procession. The novelist depicts Nita Chatterjee who, “dies suddenly as a result of injury to her brain caused by the blows on the head received during the police lathicharge” (SBC, 166). It proves from this joint political procession that the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs made their effort together to oust the British and to preserve their traditions just as in the first war of Indian independence of 1857, Hindus, Muslims, the soldiers and the common citizens, all of them had fought together against British imperialism. Quite clearly, this political amity between the Hindus and the Muslims becomes clear from the composition of Laila’s family which consists of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Cordial relationship exists among all communities, for instance, the Englishman, Mr. Free Mantle, requests in his ‘Will’ that he should be buried near his friend, Laila’s Babajan, Syed Mohammed Hasan. Attia Hosain writes, “A simple marble cross distinguished his grave from the others in the family graveyard in the mango grove at Hasanpur”. (SBC, 201) Just on the Ram Lila ground adjacent to the English cemetery in Sialkot in Chaman Nahal’s Azadi symbolizes


composite culture, simply here too, the graveyard at Hasanpur that gives shelter to the corpses of the Muslims and the Christians suggests the atmosphere of communal trust and harmony. Laila’s uncle, Hamid, also comments on the cordiality of the Hindus and the Muslims in this way: “I always found it was possible for Hindus and Muslims to work together on a political level and live together in a personal friendship.” (SBC, 234) To put it bluntly, Hosain is not unaware of the fact that there are accepted differences among friends. She says: “Ranjit’s grand- father did not eat with Babajan, but was his greater friend”. (SBC, 197).What is implicit in this great friendship is the difference of not touching each other’s food because of their different religions. This religion, indeed, creates the venom of communalism in the minds of characters. The novelist asks: “What can you expect from a religion which forbids people to eat and drink together? Whenever a man’s shadow can defile another, how is real friendship or understanding possible?” (SBC, 197) Rupinderjit Saini comments: “This argument lends authenticity to the narrative as the author keeps close to the historical facts. Though the Hindus and the Muslims had coexisted for a long time, warm relationships at the social level were not really possible”?2 So the communal amity between the Hindus and the Muslims is overshadowed by communal discord. Communal tension starts mounting in the city. Through Hakiman Bua, the novelist narrates this vividly: “Just outside the big Hanuman ji temple the top of their Tazia stuck in the branch of a peepul tree… The


branch of their (Hindus) sacred tree could not be cut without getting the Hindus angry… Someone began to blow a conch in the temple, though it was known there was a holy procession outside. Some hot blooded threw stones at the heathen sounds and the persons

fighting began. This kind of mischief spreads like a fire in a field of dry grass.” (SBC, 75-76) Saroj Cowasjee points out the division in the national movement thus : “The secular nationalism under the Congress banner is being challenged by the communal nationalist under the Muslim League banner”.3 The rift among the Muslims becomes wide when the ‘secular’ Muslim nationalists remained in the Congress fold while ‘Communal’ Muslim level charge against the Congress, terming it as a purely Hindu organization. It is declared that the policies of the Congress are fraudulent and deceptive. The communal politics enter even in sophisticated houses and heated arguments between uncle Hamid and his son Saleem, are seen. Henceforth, “the politics of the street has invaded the drawing rooms… and even father and son find themselves in opposite Camps10”. Criticizing the Muslim League, Hamid tells Saleem sarcastically: “The Muslim League in which you are so interested, I have heard it called communal and reactionary by nationalist Muslim” (SBC, 233) on the contrary, Saleem retorts forcefully and accuses the Congress of having anti-Muslim elements. In a very powerful vein, he spits poison against the Congress and says: “I believe the Congress has a strong anti-Muslim









organize. The danger is great because it is hidden, like an iceberg when it was just a question of fighting the British the progressive forces were uppermost; but now the submerged reaction any elements with surface. Muslims must unite against them”. (SBC, 233) Saleem has fear in his mind that the Hindu majority may rule over the Muslim minority after getting independence. The same feeling of fear and distrust makes Aunt Saira say abruptly: “It would be better to have British stay on than the Hindus ruling” (SBC, 234). Similarly Engineer says: “A minority always and somewhat naturally, fears that it will be dominated by the majority community and that it will be denied proper share in power on the one hand, and on the other, its religio-cultural tradition will come under attack”5. This fear ultimately becomes the very basis of the formation of Pakistan. Saleem is afraid of the Hindus’ feeling of revenge and states: “The majority of Hindus have not forgotten or forgiven the Muslims for having ruled over them for hundred of years. Now they can democratically take revenge. The British have ruled for about two hundred years and see how much they are hated” (SBC, 234). The novelist tries to trace the causes of the growth of communal hatred and partly blames the British and partly the leaders of both communities. Firstly, she discerns the “Divide and Rule” policy of the British. Asad makes it very clear that the British encourage communal riots and teach us to hate each other - love us” (SBC, 56). Similar views are put by the historian

Bipan Chandra when he maintains: “British rule was solely responsible for communalism or that communalism was basically created or produced by the British policy of Divide and Rule”.6 It is, therefore, true and needless to suspect that the British rule played, in a Machiavellian way, an important role in the promotion and growth of communal virus between Hindus and Muslims. Importantly enough, the novelist does not solely blame the British for generating seeds of communalism but she also holds the topmost leaders responsible for it. Defending the British, Sumit Sarkar says: “Simply blaming the British for the communal riots was quite an inadequate response. Satan cannot enter till he finds a flaw.”7 Saleem says that the Muslims, “who are in the Congress are being used as dupes to give it a secular appearance” (SBC, 255). This proves that the British alone are not responsible for generating the venom of communalism. Kemal expresses surprise at this statement of Saleem and reminds him to his earlier utterances accusing the British of striving to disrupt the freedom struggle. He expresses surprise at this changed attitude and tells Saleem : “How you have changed… you used to say the British encouraged Hindu – Muslim quarrels to drove them apart in order to divide and rule” (SBC, 255) Kemal’s amazement is promptly responded to by the narrator: “And now I wonder how far apart we will drive each other ourselves” (SBC, 256) This conclusive remark shows the extent to which communal relations between the Hindus and the Muslims have deteriorated. The two communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, have no need for an


outsider to draw them apart. They have, by now, already become enemies of each other. With the announcement of partition, the exodus of the Muslims to Pakistan and that of the Hindus and the Sikhs to India become a common sight. The partition creates a stronger dilemma for ‘Ashiana’ household. The creation of Pakistan offers Indian Muslims to migrate where they will have a sense of security and can rule according to their own choice. Both brothers Kemal and Saleem are parted and opt for different countries. Highlighting this predicament, Urvashi Butalia, says: Thousands of families were divided, homes were destroyed, crops left to rot, villages abandoned. Astonishingly and despite many warning the new governments of India and Pakistan were unprepared for the convulsion: they had not anticipated that the fear and uncertainty created by the drawing of borders based on head counts of religious identity, so many Hindus versus so many Muslims, would force people to flee to what they would be surrounded by their own kind.”8 Saleem chooses to leave for Pakistan whereas Kemal decides to stay in India. It appears that Saleem opts for Pakistan, not for its religious sanctity but because it provides him a better market for his skills. Kemal, like Laila, opts for India will full knowledge of his uncertain status as a minority community, because he conceives of nationalism emotionally, in terms of one’s commitment to the land of one’s birth. Kemal tries to persuade Saleem and his wife Nadira to stay back in India, which


Saleem is not inclined to do. Both Saleem and Nadira are hopeful of having better opportunities to improve their financial position in Pakistan in contrast to India where the Muslims who do not migrate might have to face suspicion, prejudice, even hatred” (SBC, 287). On the other hand, Kemal who believes that “India is (his) country... he belongs to it that is all. One does not bargain.” (SBC, 287) Kemal tells him that one should not abandon one’s country for such flimsy reasons. Instead one has to fight for what one believes. Surprisingly enough, it is revealed that there are bold and towering personalities like Kemal who are willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of their national pride. He is out and out a nationalist and has always loved India from the inner most depths of his heart. Consequently, he decides not to leave her even after partition despite the suspicion and hatred of the Hindus. He is not tempted and fascinated by the “Muslim new paradise across the border”.9 After the partition, Laila visits her childhood home and realizes that nationalism is only a garb worn for convenience; it is no longer the moving spirit as it was in the country before independence. Praising the nationalistic outlook of the narratorheroine, Anuradha Dingwaney Needham is of the view that: “Her narrative possesses the potential to dismantle altogether nationalism’s might of homogeneous, continuous and essentialist national identity.”10 Communal riots that succeeded immediately after the partition symbolize the breakdown of all cordial relations between the two communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. Communal violence in the train has been pathetically portrayed in the novel.


Zahid is killed in a train tragedy. Hosain writes: “Full of bright hope and triumph Zahid had boarded the train on that thirteenth day of August which was to take him to the realization of his dreams, on the eve of the birth of the country for which he had lived and worked, when it had reached its destination not a man, woman or child was found alive” (SBC, 310). It is relevant to point out that Hosain is impartial while depicting communal fury, she criticizes the Muslim leaders not only for inciting communal hatred and anger against the Hindus but also for running away to Pakistan leaving their co-religionists behind at the mercy of the angry Hindus. The description of a refugee, who loses his whole family in the communal holocaust, is heartrending. He shows his hatred towards all Muslims for not helping him and calls them “all bloody traitors” (SBC, 302). Laila also criticizes the Muslims for not helping her at critical junctures. Instead she praises the Hindus for protecting the helpless millions of Muslims left by their opportunistic relations. When Muslims are caught in communal fury, a section of the Hindus does come to their rescue. Laila rebuffs Zahra by revealing that Sita and other Hindus saved her: “Where were you Zahra, when I sat up through the nights, watching village after village set on fire… Do you know. Who saved me and my child? Sita, who took us to her house, in spite of putting her own life in danger with ours. And Ranjit, who came from his village… He drove us back, pretending we were his family, risking discovery and death what were you


doing then? Getting your picture in the papers, distributing sweets to orphans whose fathers had been murdered and mother raped” (SBC, 304). Toward the ends, the novelist projects the fact that in spite of all enveloping fury of ‘communal discord’, the ‘communal amity’ between the Hindus and the Muslims has not completely disappeared. She shows this hidden communal amity when Saleem comes home after a gap of two years. On his visit to India, Saleem is not only surprised but also feels happy with the warm reception he is accorded by his old Hindu friends. Hosain writes delightedly: Saleem was touched to find old friends (Hindus!) unchanged in spite of the back-wash of revengeful hate and suspicion that had spattered the humane, poetic soul of the city. He was glad of the feeling of recognized identity in Hasanpur after having lived among strangers who knew him as an individual without a background” (SBC 299). In the novel, the love affair between Sita and Kemal is thwarted. But the pretext is not provided by the partition and communal holocaust per se. It is not highlighted in a melodramatic romantic manner. Hosain clearly differentiates between two different levels of cognition. The relationship between the individuals and the communities does not operate at the same plane. Hence, she does not create an easy utopia where the personal can substitute the social. Thus Sita-Kemal affair is doomed. However, if she does not provide solutions to the inter community cohesion, it hardly means that she excludes


this possibility altogether. In fact, the Sita-Kemal love fails because Sita lacks the courage and confidence, whereas Kemal has it and that is why he is able to marry out of religion with Miss Wadia. The Laila-Ameer love affair bears testimony to this inherent fact. Laila rebels, gets married to Ameer, but then Ameer, in the face of the realities of life, fails to cement the relationship as he cannot exonerate himself from the psychological intrusions that Laila’s legacy binds him to. The structural and thematic contours of Attia Hosain’s Sun Light on A Brokan Column roughly conforms to a broader pattern discernible in partition fiction. It captures the life and times of the Muslim taluqdar family in transition from communal to nationalistic consciousness. Novy Kapadia states: “Both narrator – heroines, Lenny in Ice Candy Man and Laila in Sun Light on a Broken Column, react against communal responses to the horror of violence. The mature Laila rationalizes against communal tension whereas the young Lenny instinctively reacts against the horror of Communal violence”11. This novel for the first time, introduces a feminine and Muslim perspective into the Indian English partition narratives. It is, however, one of the few novels, “where the partition of India is presented as the enormous event it was, and the narrator being a Muslim, the issues generations of loyalty, idealism and expediency are brought out with a special significance”12. The story of the three provides the author with a big enough canvas to build up the various shades of the socio-political reality. The novel is thus a good attempt showing the better fruits of the


great freedom movement.


Notes 1. Attia Hosain; Sunlight On a Broken Column (New Delhi : Arnold, 2. 1987) 162. Subsequent references are incorporated in the text itself with the abbreviation SBC. Rupinderjit Saini, “From Harmony to Holocaust : A Study of Community Relations in the Partition Novel”, in Journal of the Inter University Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences (Shimla: Rashtrapati Niwas, Nov. 1994) 109. 3. Saroj Cowasjee, “The Partition of Indo-English fiction” in Explorations in Modern Indo-Anglian Fiction. Dhawan, R.K. ed. (New Delhi: Bahri, 1982) 25. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. _____________, Studies in India and Anglo Indian Fiction. (New Delhi : Harper, 1993) 89. Asghar Ali Engineer, Communalism in India: A Historical and Empirical Study : Vikas, 1995) 28. Bipan Chandra: Communalism in Modern India (New Delhi: Vikas, 1984) 238. Sunil Sarkar. Modern India (Madras: Macmillan, 1983) 122. Urvashi Butalia. The Other Side of Silence Voices Form The Partition of India (New Delhi : Viking, 1998) 3. K.K. Sharma, “The 1947 upheavals and the Indian English Novel” in Explorations in Modern Indo-English Fiction. Dhawan, R.K. ed. (New Delhi : Bahri, 1982) 41. 10. Anuradha Dingwaney Needham, “Multiple forms of (National) belonging : Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column” in Modern Fiction Studies 39 : 1 (1993) 107.



Novy Kapadia, “Communal Frenzy and Partition: Bapsi Sidhwa, Attia Hosain and Amitav Ghosh”, in The Novel of Bapsi Sidhwa. R.K. Dhawan ed. Novy Kapadia (New Delhi Prestige, 1996) 41.


Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Twice Born Fiction (New Delhi : Arnold : 1971) 53.


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