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Of Two Civilizations and Many Histories

Radha Chakravarty

By Attia Hosain. Edited by Aamer Hussein and Shama Habibullah
Women Unlimited, Delhi, 2012, pp. 234, Rs. 350.00


‘As a child, I remember a tree growing in my home, very deeply rooted, with strong wide branches that seemed to cover a whole world. . . . I think that is how I identify myself, with my life spanning two civilisations and cultures and many, many histories.’ So Attia Hosain describes herself, in her autobiographical essay ‘Deep Roots’. The name of Attia Hosain (1913-1998) has become more or less synonymous with her novel Sunlight on a Broken Column and her collection of stories Phoenix Fled, but the recently published anthology, Distant Traveller: New and Selected Fiction, offers us important new insights into the range and versatility of her oeuvre. Edited by Aamer Hussein and Attia’s daughter Shama Habibullah, this valuable edition includes not only ‘Deep Roots’ (1997), but also a number of short stories, several of them previously unpublished, and the fragment of an unpublished novel.   Born and educated in Lucknow, Hosain grew up in a household where she was exposed to indigenous and English cultural influences. In the 1930s, inspired by the nationalist movement and the Progressive Writers’ Group, she took up writing and journalism. In 1947, she moved to England, where she became a regular broadcaster and theatre personality. Her writings reveal her divided identity, as she wrestles with the dual pull of her roots in India, and her life in England. In particular, her works present a woman’s view of the impact of Partition on the lives of the people of the subcontinent.   The essay ‘Deep Roots’ dwells on questions of language, culture and identity. Here she speaks of the differences between cultures of the East and West, the diasporic writer’s encounter with the challenges of cultural translation, and gender relations in diverse social contexts. In an autobiographical vein, she speaks of the influence of her family upon her work, especially the mix of Anglophone elements absorbed from her father and the Persian, Urdu and Arabic she learned from her mother. She reminisces about her early work and the move to London in the post-war era. About the impact of Partition, she says: ‘My mind could not accept the division of India . . . Perhaps, subconsciously, to console myself for the maiming sense of the loss of identity, I began to write’. Britain, she asserts, seemed a neutral space where she could still meet those now divided by the newly drawn national borders created by Partition.   No New Lands, No ...

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