Our Favourite CRT: Attia Hosain

by | 28 Oct 2020

Attia Hosain, Sunlight on a Broken Column (Chatto and Windus 1961) 

A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to participate in a workshop in India to support early career academics with their writing. The workshop was geared towards addressing the countless issues with academic publishing and the ways knowledge production in the “Global South” is treated. One of the main consequences of these problems is that academics based in the “Global South” are hugely underrepresented as authors in academic journals. We are simply not publishing enough of their work and editors need to do more about this. I was excited about the prospect of visiting India because my personal history leads back there. My father was born in Multan in the Punjab region of Pakistan, but his parents were born in India before it was divided and Pakistan was born. On my mother’s side, her father was born in Gujarat in pre-partition India but travelled to Malawi as a small child with his family to avoid the partition process.

Having visited Pakistan, I saw this workshop as an opportunity to support my colleagues and connect with another place and people that I thought I would feel an affinity with. Reality set in quickly after discovering the visa process for the daughter of a former Pakistani passport holder. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming far right nationalist sentiment underpinning Indian state politics and immigration policy mean there is little interest in individuals of “Pakistani origin” applying for entry clearance. The process required a form to be filled out with information I didn’t even readily have access to such as my grandparents’ places of birth. My confusion lay with pre-partition and post-partition names for places as well as the number of phone calls I would have to make to establish for certain where they were all born. It was not enough that 4 of my 5 grandparents were born in places that were in India at the time. The later association with Pakistan was enough to dismiss that. More than that, I would also have to attend an in-person interview at the Indian embassy nearest to me which was in the next city where they would assess if I should be allowed to visit. I gave up.

This experience has stayed with me, leading me on a journey where I try to understand partition and the founding of Pakistan: something that I never directly lived through, but its lasting effects have an impact on my identity and mobility today. It would be naïve for me to say that there weren’t any tensions between religious communities in India before its partition, but British imperialists exploited and magnified this extremely well. One way for me to build my understanding and make sense of all of this has been to look to the literature about this era such as Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column. Hosain was born in India in 1913 and was influenced by the struggles for independence from British colonial rule to become a journalist and writer. She moved to the UK in 1947 right before independence and partition and published Sunlight in 1961. 

The novel follows Laila, raised in an orthodox feudal Muslim household by her two aunts. She later goes to live with her uncle in a more “liberal” environment during the 1930s amidst the growing independence movement. Absorbed into a world where the politics confuse her just as much as the behaviour she observes of those around her, her personal struggle for independence from her family’s expectations mirrors the greater struggles around identity, land and love resonating through societies and families at the time. Laila’s inner conflict spoke to me as I still struggle to make sense of the different political positions that presented in the struggle for independence. Independence from the empire was desired but there were so many different ideas about how to achieve this and what the post-independence reality should be. 

Near the end of the book when Laila is a widow with a teenage daughter, she has an argument with her cousin Zahra about the horrors of partition and Zahra’s perception that Laila has remained unaffected by it because of her decision to live in isolation. Laila angrily recounts the times that her childhood Hindu friends had saved and protected her and her daughter during the violence. Years after the official partition happened, her feelings were raw and palpable. Partition and different forms of segregation are still happening today: there is no definitive end point to them and it is painful. Painful for someone like me who always knew about partition but never really understood the implications or consequences of it. I remember someone telling me that their grandfather cannot to this day speak about what he witnessed during partition and cries whenever it is mentioned. I am only just starting to unpack what happened and its reverberating impacts on those who came before me and are still around me. As Hosain said later in her life: “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.”[1]  

Even though current right-wing feelings in India towards my Pakistani roots are so antagonistic, the blood of my ancestors tells me I have a connection to the place and its people. I grew up away from the direct effects and awareness of partition and its lasting consequences today but I cannot forget or deny the Indian blood of my ancestors, nor do I intend to. I remain encouraged by Laila’s Aunt Abida who in trying to inculcate in her niece a love for Persian and Arabic alongside English literature says, “I thought you would learn one cannot live fully out of what is borrowed. You must love your own language and heritage” (139). I continue to love and want to know more about my heritage despite the practical challenges to building that connection and will remain inspired by the wonderful stories that support my journey.  

Zainab Batul Naqvi, De Montfort University

[1] Attia Hosain, ‘Deep Roots, New Language’ in Naseem Khan and Ferdinand Dennis (eds) Voices of the Crossing: The Impact of Britain on Writers from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa (Serpent’s Tail 2000) 27.


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