Attia Hosain: an exquisite writer who deftly analysed female power

Hosain’s fiction evokes a lost world—but also one in great flux

August 24, 2021
Attia Hosain. Credit: Vic Singh
Attia Hosain. Credit: Vic Singh

Attia Hosain was the first person to ever speak to me as though I was an adult. I was eleven years old, in London with my parents and sister for a summer holiday, escaping Karachi’s oppressive June heat. My mother told her aunt Attia that I wanted to be a writer, and Attia did something no grown-up had ever done before: she pulled me away from everyone else so she could tell me something important. “No matter what happens, no matter what anyone says, don’t ever stop writing. You see, writing is a muscle, and if you stop exercising it you lose the use of it. I know because I did.”

I always thought the loss of that muscle was Attia’s tragedy; it is only now, re-reading her works for the first time as someone old enough to appreciate their humour, wisdom and complexity, that I realise the tragedy is mine, and that of countless other readers too. And yet, even as I write that I want to retract it, because how can I use the word “tragedy” when her two books exist—the short story collection Phoenix Fled and the novel Sunlight on a Broken Column—and not only do they exist, but they are having their third life in a new Virago edition. And miraculously, in the way that great fiction is miraculous, they seem as changed now as the world itself—not only since their first publication, but also since the 1980s’ editions.

When I was growing up, I often heard that the strength of Attia Hosain’s work was in its evocation of a world now gone. That is, perhaps, why I first approached it as a teenager with something less than burning enthusiasm. I was interested, of course, in this wildly glamorous great-aunt who had written books that had actually been published and then re-published as classics. But I heard enough about the world gone by from my grandmother and other relatives; I hardly needed to reach for it in novels or stories, however exquisitely it was written about.

In my twenties, I returned to her work and read it differently and with far greater appreciation for what the books were really about, rather than what I’d been told they were about. It was the way Attia wrote about women’s lives in pre- and post-Partition India that was particularly striking to a university student fired up by newly discovered feminist texts. Her characters, in both books, come from different points in a class structure that is profoundly hierarchical but also allows for unexpected alliances, bitter feuds and occasional reversals of power within that hierarchy. In Sunlight on a Broken Column, the young heroine Laila tells us that the most interesting of the characters who comes to her stately, sprawling family home is Mushtari Bai, a courtesan of culture and learning who has lost her beauty and her much remarked-on singing voice and has turned to religion. Short of money, she pays occasional visits to the families who knew her in her previous life; the grand ladies of the family show her the greatest of respect, but the ancient female retainers who serve the family leave the room in scandalised silence. It’s a little vignette within a much larger story but the deftness with which Attia handles the interplay of manners, class, culture and different forms of female power is gorgeously done.

The courtesan, the ladies of the house and the retainers are all part of an old world that has “continuity” as its byword. But Laila, and many of the characters in the short stories, belong to another kind of reality: they were born into a world of continuity but their lives are beset by change as the end of British rule approaches and India is pulled apart by different versions of what its future should look like. Much of what drew me so deep into Sunlight on a Broken Column and Phoenix Fled when reading them for the third time, in my forties—in fact, at the age that Attia was when Sunlight was published—is her understanding of the intricacies and contradictions of this world of change. It is also one of the things that makes the books feel so pertinent to the moment, as increasing numbers of people are living lives very separate to the ones into which they or their parents were born. Laila herself is desperate to live a life of far greater choice and independence than was available to the women who came before her; and yet, she mourns the loss of the old world when it is gone. At one point Laila says of her cousin Asad and his unwavering certainties: “I resented and envied his cohesion of thought and action,” but it is precisely because Laila lacks that cohesion and finds herself, instead, pulled in different directions that she is such a remarkable heroine—sharp, spirited and passionate. Her ability to spot—and skewer—any fakery is a particular pleasure.

Laila wants what hasn’t been an option for the women before her—an education, a love marriage, political opinions, the company of men with whom she can argue and laugh. It is hard not to read something of Attia Hosain’s own life into Laila’s—she was, after all, the first woman from her elevated class background to graduate from university; she married against her mother’s wishes; and she had so much to say on matters of politics that her editor Cecil Day-Lewis had her remove much of the political writing from her novel. She deeply regretted, in later life, that she hadn’t kept those edited-out sections. No one in England wanted to hear an Indian woman’s political opinions in the 1950s, I remember her saying.

Attia left India in 1947, at Partition, and moved to London with her family. Like Laila, she knew a great deal about loss, as well as about breaking through barriers and getting your own way. Beyond that, she also knew that the various privileges of her life made it possible for her to move with ease between different worlds. But she understood that for many Indian women the encounter with modernity could be traumatic. One of my favourite stories in Phoenix Fled is ‘The First Party,” which centres on a woman newly married to a man whose Anglicised world is a foreign country to her. At a party with his friends she is befuddled by the talk around her: “She could not understand the importance of relating clothes to time and place and not just occasion.” In just one sentence Attia Hosain conjures up the gulf between the new bride and everyone around her. She comes from a reality in which “fashion” simply isn’t a concept; it is an idea too reliant on change to make any sense. There are wedding clothes and there are Eid clothes; but how can there be different clothes for different years, different countries?

There is so much to love and admire in these books—their understanding of heartbreak, their attention to affection and love across many divides, their intelligence about power structures, their antenna for artifice, their range of sympathies, their vividly drawn characters, their sly humour. Long after I finished reading them I found myself still recalling the tiny moments, so beautifully rendered, that made them come to life—there goes Mrs Martin who “walked with small unhurried steps, a squat battleship in festive bunting”; here, from another direction, drives a young man on “roads that were holes put together with broken stones or dust”; elsewhere, “Mrs Lai and Sita gushed over each other with a sweetness that only dislike could engender.”

It makes me wish so much that my great-aunt and I had known each other writer to writer. But although we didn’t, she is deeply bound up in the story of how I came to be published. At twenty-one, I met an agent who liked a short story I had written; shy and self-conscious, I didn’t know how to speak to her but I did know that she’d previously worked as an editor at Virago, and so I said that my great-aunt Attia Hosain had been one of their authors. “I published those books,” said the agent, Alexandra Pringle. And then she added, “I believe in connections like these. You should turn that short story into a novel and send it to me.” I did, she became my agent, and at the end of 1997 the novel was accepted for publication. Attia was in the last days of her life then, with no words left in her. But my mother faxed her daughter, Shama, to tell her the news. I am told Attia smiled.

This piece is taken from Kamila Shamsie’s introduction to the new Virago Modern Classics editions of Attia Hosain’s “Phoenix Fled” and “Sunlight on a Broken Column”