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23rd February, 2017

Stella Chitralekha Biswas

M.Phil Scholar in Comparative Literature

Central University of Gujarat

E-mail: stella.biswas876@gmail.com

Mob: 09016295106

The Caged Bird: A Feminist Reading of Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column

Attia Hosain has been widely acknowledged for being one of the first women writers in

India to talk about the emancipation of Muslim womanhood at a time of great political turmoil

and communal disharmony in British India. It is very significant that although she was much

disturbed and concerned about the partition of India, which looms poignantly throughout her

works, yet she chose to focus specifically upon the condition of Muslim women as well as the

exploitation that they faced within a male-centric world. In her sole masterpiece, Sunlight on a

Broken Column she deftly weaves the intricate pattern of the lives of Muslim women bearing the

brunt of patriarchy even while modernity was creeping into the traditional cultural front. Taking

the form of a ‘bildungsroman’, this novel revolves around the life of Laila, an orphaned daughter

of respectable ‘taluqdari’ family in Lucknow who strives to embark upon a quest for identity and

self-hood despite being overwhelmed by the norms of an asphyxiating society. Laila appears to

be voicing the thoughts and sentiments of the writer herself in her struggle for personal freedom

even though she does affirm her faith in her religious orientation, fighting only against the

narrow parochialism of intra-communal biases that affects her life significantly.


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The entire span of the novel provides a panoramic view of the lives of Muslim women in

‘purdah’ who either smugly embrace the traditional conservatism of their religion or try to settle

themselves into the new role of the ‘modern woman’ as ushered in by the new patriarchy of

those times. Aunt Abida, Aunt Majida, Ustani ji and Hakiman Bua belong to the former

category, sacrificing their possessions, emotions, freedom and in fact their entire lives to the

service of their family in the name of ‘izzat’ and duty. Zahra, Aunt Saira, Sita and others belong

to the latter category, fitting into the stereotypical role of the ‘new woman’ who dons the mantle

of modernity only to secure her liminal position within the new patriarchy. Laila’s character

stands out in contrast to all of them in her determination to carve a niche for herself in her own

world where she can be nurture her own self, passions and womanhood without the onslaught of

patriarchy. Although trained in traditional values and ideals, she had also had the privilege of

benefitting from an exposure to Western education and liberal ideas. She is a fiercely strong-

willed person who is excruciatingly aware of the hollowness of the lives of other women who

talk ironically about liberalism but are themselves mentally subservient to the hypocrisies of

societal standards. She herself is not a radical feminist since she affirms her faith in her religion

but chafes against the injustice it metes out to women who are repressed terribly with no scope of

voicing their own feelings. She is extremely clairvoyant in perceiving the patriarchal authority of

the males within ‘Ashiana’, their house which looms large engulfing the freedom of the women

characters who live under their control. This domination prevails not only within their own social

class but also among the lower classes, the women of which are marginalized and exploited to

the extreme by the men of all classes. The fates of Saliman and Nandi are a testimony to this fact

and although the writer does not take any theoretical standpoint within her novel, the readers can

definitely realize the miseries of these women as subalterns within society. The brief mention of
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the ex-courtesan, also serves to clearly delineate the distinction between the public and private

spheres of life and the idea of the decent woman limiting herself within the parameters of the

domestic household. The hypocritical attitude of society towards these women are clearly

depicted as they are regarded as connoisseurs of great art, culture and refinement but also

morally ostracized as sexually promiscuous. However, Laila is mesmerized by the grace and

dignity of this old woman who carries the glory of her past profession even in her retired life, so

much so that it inspires much awe from sensitive people. Laila’s creative sensibilities and artistic

temperament, which lies otherwise latent, is revealed through these very few instances and

interactions.

Feudalism becomes an extension of this patriarchy that forms the base of Laila’s social

background, the bourgeois women themselves echoing the injustices of exploitation and abuse of

the poorer tenants (both sexes) for their own material advancement and luxuries. It is this feudal

setup that denies these women property rights and reduces them to hapless dependents whose

fates are maneuvered according to the diktat of patriarchal hegemony. Uncle Hamid is the

perfect successor of Baba Jan, perpetrating a similar kind of same domination although the

former claims to be more liberal in his approach to women’s issues and life in general. Laila

grows increasingly aware of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the ‘zenana’ to which she is

confined, threatening to snuff out her very individuality. Her non-observance of ‘burqa’-wearing,

radical ideas of freedom, intolerance towards the shackles of worn-out values and ideals that

capture the inner spirit, love of books and reading in general, etc. is looked down upon in a

disapproving light by her most of her peers and elders. They want to mold Laila’s life into the

same pattern which is conventionally ascribed to the respectable women of the landed gentry,

much to her dismay since she perpetually yearns to be free from the patriarchal tyranny. Even the
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wooden doll that is crafted for her by the carpenter meets with her displeasure as it is a reflection

of the deeply-ingrained gender biases pervading the minds of literate and ignorant folks alike.

Nevertheless, Laila conforms halfheartedly to the code of conduct that her elders expect of her,

anxious to liberate her soul as well to clear her own mind from all the confusions that crowd in it

due to her day-to-day experiences. She is very much aware of the political upheaval and

communal bigotry in the world outside the four walls of the women’s quarters due to her

interactions with peers, friends and relatives directly or indirectly involved with it. As an

intelligent woman, she understands that these disturbing events are the result of the narrow-

minded parochialism of the religious fanatics and corrupt politicians. Characters like Nita,

Hamid, Kemal, Saleem and others are downright agitated by the treacherous politics of the State

that was harping on the possibilities of a divided country. However, Laila herself is unable to

contribute something to the ongoing freedom movement in the public sphere partly because she

is bound as an unmarried girl of a respectable family which practices ‘purdah’ and partly because

she is entirely caught up in her attempts to free herself from the stronghold of patriarchy so that

her feelings for Ameer, the husband of her choice may attain fruition through marital union.

Ameer is looked down upon by her family due to his lack of wealth and an upper-class

pedigree but Laila sees him as her true soul-mate who understands her better than her guardians

who brought her up. She takes the bold step of asserting of her choice in marrying him against

the wishes of her family and steps out of the four walls that had suffocated her entire being since

her childhood. She discovers the pleasure of passionate physical union with Ameer and begets a

child by him but he dies in the freedom struggle, leaving her desolate and her hopes crumbled.

However she is never regretful of her decision to have married Ameer and in this she appears

almost like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet who would rather stay single than engaging in a marriage
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of benefit devoid of the emotion of love. Progressive-minded as she is, Laila displays a strong

objection to the notion of a marriage of convenience which is devoid of the elements of love and

compatibility, prioritizing only hollow, meaningless social conventions. She sympathizes with

Sita for the latter’s unhappy marriage and unfulfilled love for Kemal which makes her

emotionally distraught and ultimately impotent. She is also intuitive enough to realize the

insubstantial positions that both Aunt Saira and Zahra have in relation to their supposedly

‘modern’ husbands since these women submissively adapt themselves to the role of trophy wives

for their ambitious, dominating husbands. All these arranged marriages that seek to commodify

young women with little regard for their inner selves are looked down upon with disdain by Laila

who perceives them as “luxurious incarceration” of womanhood. She even openly declares her

objection towards being married off simply like cattle being herded away, in the early part of the

novel. Laila’s marriage with Ameer seems the appropriate union of souls whereas people like

Zainab and Nadira make their choices based on material profit and religious convictions.

Although the readers tend to initially regard Laila more as a woman of words rather than action,

yet she is finally shown to exert her inner strength and determination through her decision to

marry Ameer although it meant severe repercussions for a woman accustomed to a luxurious

way of life. It is a little disappointing for the readers that Laila seeks her freedom only to be

associated with Ameer directly and not for some greater aspiration as well. However, it has to be

understood that it was difficult for her to indulge in some other activity directly because she

neither had the means nor the opportunity of doing so. She and her husband struggle hard for

their day-to-day existence, until the ongoing communal disarray and raging conflict in the public

sphere encroaches upon their personal life and peace when Ameer is killed and she, along with

her baby, has to be rescued by a Hindu man from amidst such chaos.
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Laila is depicted as being very closely attached to Aunt Abida right from her childhood

till her widowhood but it is very poignant that never does she gets overwhelmingly influenced by

the conservatism of her aunt. She observes many of the norms out of respect and love for her

aunt but remains unconvinced about them in her heart of hearts. Certain acts and words on her

part meet with Aunt Abida’s disapproval since they prove counter to the traditional mindset of

the latter and the value-ideals that are ingrained within it. It is however interesting to note that

Laila is very much aware of the injustices meted out by these supposedly mature, sensible

women upon the marginalized servants and poor tenants in the name of custom and tradition. She

goes out of the way to display her sympathy and affection for Nandi and Saliman who are ill-

treated not only in their own class but also by their social superiors. She is especially admiring

and appreciative of Nandi who exudes immense strength of mind and will-power as well as the

resilience to fight all odds in her life on her own. Nandi is very much aware of the disadvantage

of beauty for a woman of her class but dexterously tries to struggle for survival in a world of

predators who threaten to exploit her womanhood. Outspoken and brazen in her ways and

actions, Nandi punishes Ghulam Ali for impregnating and eventually causing the death of

Saliman. She does not get deterred even when the vengeful Ghulam Ali scars her beauty forever

by slashing her cheek with a knife but goes on to marry an old man but have a child with another

young lover of her own choice. She does not allow any narrow moral scruples to come in the

way of her realization of fulfillment and happiness in life. Nandi’s zest for life and freedom

influences Laila considerably since it is this saucy servant girl who remains her close companion

all throughout her life. Although Laila observes ‘purdah’ in front of outsiders so as to pacify her

aunts and other elders, she shares the one of the closest bonds with her male cousins, Saleem and

Kemal whom she does not see as potential husbands as is expected of her by the norm but as
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brothers and friends. In marrying Ameer, she disappoints Aunt Saira the most who is anxious

about the division of family property along with the maintenance of family honour. After the

death of Uncle Hamid and the abolishing of feudalism, the condition of Aunt Saira’s life is filled

with pathos with her desperate attempt to retain the glorious past but her repeated encounter with

a different reality in the world outside. The entire family which had been united at one point of

time now becomes fragmented as the inmates separate out and migrate to different places, some

even to Pakistan which is now viewed as the newly-found homeland. Laila remains alone in the

end, with only the memories etched in every nook and corner of the dilapidated ‘Ashiana’ to

nostalgically haunt her and transport her mentally back to the past.

Laila emerges as a unique character, a caged bird which desperately yearns to free herself

from the metaphorical cage of the patriarchal world within which she is entrapped. In an age of

nationalist reformation which heralded the model of the ‘mother’ or chaste/pure woman as ideal

womanhood, Laila succeeds in negotiating with the rigid socio-cultural norms and gender

constructs to achieve a sense of liberated selfhood in the end. She is bold enough to go against

the will of her family to marry a poor man and give up material wealth in exchange for spiritual

and emotional satisfaction. She refuses to be held down by the patriarchal values and ideals that

posit women only in the stereotypical roles of being silent, subservient consorts of their

dominating male counterparts. Her mind is free from narrow prejudices or shallow ideals of

femininity although she behaves very much like a normal woman all throughout the novel. The

dexterity of the writer’s art lies in the fact that she succeeds in sketching a very human character

in the figure of Laila, a woman who is intelligent, socially-aware and politically-informed but

who is very much feminine and experiences the usual pangs of suffering under the brunt of a

male-centric society. The credit in Laila’s character lies in the fact that despite being a normal
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woman, she has the capability to realize her own bound existence as well the irony in the lives of

other self-proclaimed modern, liberal women. Laila strives her very best to overcome the perils

that confront her in everyday life and assert at least some part of her own individual identity in

an age which relegated women to only liminal positions. Her widowhood is not her nemesis for

her so-called ‘transgression’ but an opportunity to prove her strength as an independent woman

and a single parent.


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WORKS CITED:

Hosain, Attia. Sunlight on a Broken Column. New Delhi: Penguin Publishers, 2009. Print.

Munshi, Auritra. “Recuperation of Marginalized Muslim Womanhood: A Reading of Attia

Hosain’s The Sunlight on a Broken Column”. Literary Quest 1.9 (2015), 59-70. Web. 12 Jan

2017.

Parmar, Atulkumar M. “Patriarchy, Feudalism and Colonialism in Sunlight on a Broken

Column”. Scholarly Research Journal for Interdisciplinary Studies. III. XVI (2015), 2346-2356.

Web. 12 Jan 2017.


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Stella Chitralekha Biswas

M.Phil in Comparative Literature

Department of Comparative Literature

Central University of Gujarat,

Gandhinagar-382030, Gujarat.

DECLARATION

I do hereby declare that the paper titled ‘The Caged Bird: A Feminist Reading of Attia

Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column’ submitted to Pondicherry University in partial

fulfillment of the requirements for the Two Day International Seminar on ‘New Feminist

Writings: Emancipation to Representation’ is a record of original work done by me.

Signature of the Candidate

Place: Gujarat Stella Chitralekha Biswas.

Date: 23/02/2017