Set in colonial India of the late 30s, Sunlight on a broken column by Attia Hosain paints a picture of a traditional, purdah-observing upper crust Muslim family in Lucknow. Narrated by the protagonist, a 15-year old Laila (who does not observe purdah), born into a wealthy family of taluqdars, but orphaned at an early age, the narrative follows her through her teenage years and early twenties, in what is essentially a coming-of-age story during tumultuous times of a freedom struggle and partition.
What worked for me
The language, the pace. It’s not a large book – it’s about 300 pages, more like a novella than a novel, yet it manages to maintain that there-is-all-the-time-in-the-world-for-this-story kind of pace. The language is lilting, almost poetic, and has the grandeur of Urdu in it. Not for a minute do you feel, that the subject matter could have been better expressed in Hindi or Urdu. This is not really a plot driven book, but the narrative evolves through its characters seen through Laila’s eyes. The book begins with a slice of life depiction and it does a fantastic job of looking at day-to-day life like a 15-year old. It reminded me of how I was when I was 15. Slightly self-centered, questioning, over-confident, highly distractible. Laila is all those things and it makes her an endearing protagonist. What I also enjoyed is the depiction of wealthy Muslims – their customs and traditions all portrayed through every-day events. The books starts with Laila’s life – her dreams, her desires and then it slowly but deliberately weaves a thick mesh of love, ambition and most importantly of a way of life that soon must become extinct. In that it evokes the same nostalgia, a wistful longing, a lament of sorts really that resonates with Gone with the Wind.
What did not work for me
The end. I did not really like how Hosain chose to end the book. It ends on a positive note, but I got the feeling that it was all too-constructed.
Hot or Drop
Definitely hot. It’s putdownable – and I meant it in the very positive sense of the word. While you will not feel compelled to stay up nights to read this book, you will want to come back to it after a long day like you would want to meet a dear old friend – for the warmth, the comfort and the nostalgia.
Thursday, January 22, 2009