Sunlight on a Broken Column


Attia Hosain (1913–1998) was a British-Indian novelist, author, writer, broadcaster, journalist and actor.[1][2]She was a pioneering woman of letters and a classic diasporic writer. She wrote in English making it resonate with the cadences of her mother tongue, Urdu.[3]Although she published only two fiction books, both acclaimed, the semi-autobiographical Sunlight on a Broken Column and a collection of short stories named Phoenix Fled, her work has been recognised as one of the finest in the Indian canon. Her career began in England at the end of the 20th centuries in semi-exile, and continues to resonate with new generations of commentators and communicators, recognising her contribution to post-colonial literature. Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Aamer Hussein and Kamila Shamsie amongst the younger generation of writers have expressed admiration for her work, and acknowledged its influence.[4]

Background and education

Attia was born in Lucknow, U.P., in undivided India, into the liberal Kidwai clan of Oudh. Her father Shahid Hosain Kidwai, was the Cambridge-educated Taluqdar of Gadia, and mother, Begum Nisar Fatima came from the Alvi family of Kakori. From her father she inherited a keen interest in politics and nationalism. From her mother's family of poets and scholars she drew a rich knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Arabic. She was the first woman from her background to graduate from Lucknow University, after having attended La Martiniere School for Girls and Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow.[5]

Hosain grew up on the cusp of two cultures, reading the canon of English and European literature as well as the Quran.[2]

Attia came of age as the struggle for independence was gaining strength and took for granted encounters with the era's major political figures.[3] Attia's father was a contemporary and a friend of Motilal Nehru at the Inns of Court. In 1933, Attia was encouraged by Sarojini Naidu, "my own ideal of womanhood from childhood", and attended the All India Women's Conference in Calcutta.[1]

In her own words, Attia said, "I had been very influenced by the political thoughts of the Left in the Progressive Writers' Movement, through my friends Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer and Sahibzada Mahmuduzaffar and was asked by Desmond Young to write for The Pioneer."[6] She also wrote for The Statesman, Calcutta.

She married her cousin, Ali Bahadur Habibullah, against the wishes of their families. They had two children, Shama Habibullah and Waris Hussein. In early 1940's the couple moved to Bombay, where Ali Bahadur was in government service, first in the Textile Commission and later as Supply Commissioner for South East Asia after the outbreak of World War II. Here, the "Attia effect" became legendary. She turned her home into an extension of her childhood open house, a Lakhnavi 'adda', a gathering that attracted an eclectic crowd of people, writers, filmmakers, members of social and business world of the city, which expanded to include her husband's more western world. A young Raj Thapar was brought in by her future husband Romesh Thapar to meet Attia, whom he called 'the only woman with a man's mind."[7]

Ali Bahadur Habibullah moved to England with his family in 1947, before India became independent, posted to the Indian High Commission, in the newly created Trade Commission. When India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the division of the country and the separation of two religious communities caused Attia great pain. "We belong to a generation that has lived with our hearts in pieces," she said.

Immensely proud of her heritage as both a Muslim and an Indian, she chose the official option to remain in England.

Later in life she wrote, "Here I am, I have chosen to live in this country which has given me so much; but I cannot get out of my blood the fact that I had the blood of my ancestors for 800 years in another country."[5]


In London, where a diaspora of displaced people had gathered in a post war world, Attia Hosain became a Quissa goh, the storyteller of her own roots. Her stories appeared in the English magazine Lilliput and the American Journal, the Atlantic Monthly?

Despite her cosmopolitanism, her creative directions as writer, broadcaster with the BBC and actress were enriched by her own identity and diverse cultural strands.

In 1953, Chatto & Windus accepted her first collection of short stories, Phoenix Fled. In 1961, they published Sunlight on a broken Column with Cecil Day Lewis as her editor for both books. For the quality of her writing, Leonard Woolf had wished he had published her in the Hogarth Press.

She had previously been included in an anthology of Indian short stories, The Parrot and the Cage by Iqbal Masud & Mulk Raj Anand.

For a long time this was thought to be her only published written work, until Distant Traveller, a collection, new & selected fiction was published in 2012, to honour her coming centenary year, which included excerpts of her unfinished novel, No New Lands, No New Seas, set in England. This contains the first publication of a section of her unfinished novel, No New Lands, No New Seas. Many of her stories have now been included in other anthologies.

In 1998 Sunlight on a broken Column and Phoenix Fled were re-launched as Virago Modern Classics. Attia Hosian was reborn as a writer, gained a new transnational reputation and stayed in the public eye as a public intellectual until her 84th birthday, a few days before her final illness in 1997. Her influence on two generations to follow would be immeasurable.[8]

To the young writers, she wrote, "You must keep trying because it is as essential as drawing breath – like exhaling! All the thoughts breathed out and shaping themselves visibly after being inside the cells of the brain, and then released. If you hold your breath and do not breathe out, you will suffocate."

Attia did not apologize for English as her chosen language of expression. "In the struggle for freedom, English was both a weapon, as well as the key to what I might call the ideological arsenal. The result of this clashing and merging of different cultures was that I, like many others, lived in many worlds of thoughts and many centuries at the same time, shifting from one to the other with bewildering rapidity in a matter of moments", Writing in a foreign tongue by Attia Hosain.[9]

To the end of her life, she retained a fierce, iconoclastic political consciousness and was scornful of hypocrisy, extremism and sectarianism. She struggled for harmony between the languages, cultures and beliefs that surrounded her and drew strength from socialism, humanism and enlightened Islam, although she accepted no philosophy without rigorous analysis.[4]

  • Phoenix Fled, Chatto & Windus, 1953. A collection of short stories. Reissued by Virago UK, 1988. Indian edition, Rupa & Co, 1993 - Foreword by Anita Desai.
  • Sunlight on a Broken Column, Chatto & Windus, 1961. A novel. Reissued by Virago UK, 1988. Indian Edition, Arnold Heinemann, India, 1979 - Foreword by Mulk Raj Anand. Indian Edition, Penguin India, 1992 - Foreword by Anita Desai.
  • No New Lands, No New Seas, Women Unlimited, 2013. Section of unfinished novel published in Distant Traveller, New and Selected Fiction. Ed. Aamer Hussain & Shama Habibullah. Foreword & Afterword by Shama Habibullah & Aamer Hussain. Introduction by Ritu Menon.
  • Shaam-E-Awadh, Writings on Lucknow, Oldenburg, 2007. Ed. Veena Talwar. Excerpt from Sunlight on a Broken Column. (Pgs165-178)
  • The Inner Courtyard, Virago Press, London, 1990. Rupa & Co, India, 1993. Ed. Lakshmi Holmstrom. Short story "The First Party".
  • Unbound - 2000 years of Indian Women's Writing, Aleph Book Co., 2015. Ed. Annie Zaidi. Excerpt from Sunlight on a Broken Column. (Pg. 52)
  • Infinite Riches, Virago Modern Classics, 1993. Ed. Lynn Knight. Short story "Time is Unredeemable". (Pg. 176)
  • Voices of the Crossing, Serpents Tail, 1998. The impact of Britain on writers from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Ed. Ferdinand Davis & Naseem Khan. Essay Deep Roots. (Pg. 19)
  • Loaves and Wishes, Virago Press, London, 1992. Writers writing on food. Ed. Antonia Hill.
  • Cooking the Indian Way, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1962. Ed. Attia Hosain & Sita Pasricha.
  • Indian short stories, The New India Publishing Company, 1946. Ed. Iqbal Masud & Mulk Raj Anand. Short story "The Parrot and the Cage".
  • Light on Divided Worlds, 1981. Article celebrating the new edition of her books Sunlight on a Broken Column and Phoenix Fled
  • Writers of the Indian Diaspora. An article on the occasion of the reincarnation of Sunlight on a Broken Column and Phoenix Fled. The Independent, 18 August 1998. Attia Hosain - A Diptych Volume - Raj Kumar Kaul & Jasbir Jain. Rawat Publications, 2001 The Diaspora Writes Home: Subcontinental Narratives - Jasbir Jain.
  • Unsettling Partition - Jill Didur, 2007. On literature, gender and memory.
  • Dwelling in the Archive - Antoinette Burton, 2003. On women writing house, home, history in late Colonial India.
Theatre and film
  • Mourning Raga by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter). Adapted novel for film.
  • The Bird of Time by Peter Mayne at the Savoy Theatre, London, 1961. As actor with Gladys Cooper.
Recordings and broadcasts

Attia lent her voice to the BBC broadcasts in Urdu, Hindi and English which were broadcast in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These included stories like Brain Trust, Radio Roundabout for women and children and a series called Asian Club. Attia also acted in several radio plays by Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Jean Cocteau in Urdu, alongside Zia Moinuddin, Ijaz Hussain Batalvi, Amira Ahuja for the BBC Urdu Service. Some of her notable parts were Lady Macbeth & Desdemona.

Attia also left behind a bank of audio conversations - public and private - with the Literary Estate of Attia Hosain.

Some of her notable broadcasts are:

  • Writing in a Foreign Tongue, BBC Third
  • Passport to Friendship, Woman's Hour, 7 May 1956.
  • Dialogue with Loneliness, 1962
  • Pakistanis in Britain - Life in Britain, 1961.
  • Women in World Today, 1960.
  • English Writing - Caesar & Cleopatra, 1959
  • London Calling Asia
  1. ^ a b Distant Traveller, new and selected fiction: edited by Aamer Hossein with Shama Habibullah, with foreword and afterword by them, and introduction by Ritu Menon (Women Unlimited, India 2013). This contains the first publication of a section of Attia Hosain's unfinished novel, No New Lands, No New Seas.
  2. ^ a b Ghoshal, Somak (15 August 2017). "India at 70: A Muslim Woman's Story of Nationalism, Partition and her awakening into Feminism". HuffPost
  3. ^ a b Hussein, Aamer (31 January 1998). "Obituary: Attia Hosain". The Guardian
  4. ^ a b Hussein, Aamer (19 June 1999). "A passage from India". The Guardian
  5. ^ a b Khan, Naseem (5 Feb 1998). "Obituary: Attia Hosain". The Independent, UK
  6. ^ Hosain, Attia (1998). "Deep Roots". In Davis, Ferdinand; Khan, Naseem. Voices of the Crossing. The impact of Britain on writers from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Serpents Tail. p. 19. 
  7. ^ Thapar, Raj (1991). All These Years: A Memoir. Seminar Publications. 
  8. ^ Hussain, Aamer; Menon, Rita (2013). "Celebrating Attia Hosain". Wasafiri
  9. ^ Hosain, Attia. "Writing in A Foreign Tongue". SALIDAASouth Asian Diaspora Literature & Arts Archive - broadcasting, scripts and correspondence. 
  • The Literary Estate of Attia Hosain, 1928-1998. Diaries, letters, images, notes.
  • Celebrating Attia Hosain, Ritu Menon & Aamer Hossein. Wasafiri, 2013.
  • A part of the whole, Rakshandha Jalil, The Hindu, 2 Mar 2013.
  • The Silent Gap, Shashi Deshpande. Biblio, May-June 2013.
  • The Heart in Pieces Generation, Mushirul Hasan. The Indian Express, 21 Feb 1998.
  • Attia Hosain (1913-1998) - The Sunlight on a Broken Column, Batul Mukhtiar. Blog, 1 May 2017.
  • Making Britain: Attia Hosain page. The Open University.
  • Attia Hosain Collection: finding aid. The Brunel University, London
  • Attia Hosain. The Literary Encyclopedia.
External links
  • Attia Hosain - A life. A compilation of photos.
  • Literature Help: Novels: Plot Overview 514: Sunlight on a Broken Column.

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