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Partition Politics in Attia Hosain’s Sun Light on

A Broken Column.
S.S.Gill

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

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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

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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 co-
existed 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

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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
persons threw stones at the heathen sounds and the
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

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element in it against which the Muslims must
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

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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

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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

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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 narrator-
heroine, 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.

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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

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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

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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 of loyalty, idealism and expediency are
brought out with a special significance”12. The story of the three
generations 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

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great freedom movement.

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Notes

1. Attia Hosain; Sunlight On a Broken Column (New Delhi :
Arnold, 1987) 162. Subsequent references are
incorporated in the text itself with the abbreviation SBC.
2. 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. _____________, Studies in India and Anglo Indian Fiction.
(New Delhi : Harper, 1993) 89.
5. Asghar Ali Engineer, Communalism in India: A Historical
and Empirical Study : Vikas, 1995) 28.
6. Bipan Chandra: Communalism in Modern India (New
Delhi: Vikas, 1984) 238.
7. Sunil Sarkar. Modern India (Madras: Macmillan, 1983)
122.
8. Urvashi Butalia. The Other Side of Silence Voices Form
The Partition of India (New Delhi : Viking, 1998) 3.
9. 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.

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11. 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.
12. Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Twice Born Fiction (New
Delhi : Arnold : 1971) 53.

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