Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain is an autobiographical account of a fictional Muslim girl, Laila, based in the pre- and post-independent India. This is the first Muslim novel I have ever read and even so in a much debatable background. Mainly set in Lucknow of the pre-independent India, this novel tries to give insights into a young Muslim girl’s mind-frame and her thoughts.
Laila is the teenage daughter of a late Muslim taluqdaar, living in the household of her grandfather, under the care of her aunts, Abida and Majida. Aunt Abida is unmarried while aunt Majida has a teenage daughter named Zahra. Laila constantly compares her life with that of her cousin, how Zahra being the less frivolous one, simply admits to her fate, gets married and hangs on her husband’s arm, and Zainab, with all her worldly wants. While Laila tries to empower the women around her in her own might, asking them to think about themselves, it saddens her that she can’t do anything for the situation of the servant class, especially the woman, particularly the teenage girl who was seduced by a man, made pregnant and abandoned, only to be banished by the patriarchs of her family as well.
After the death of her grandfather, uncle Hamid takes up the reins and it is in his house that Laila lives now. She has been allowed the fortune of having a western education and going to the university with her cousin brothers only because her late father had wanted so. Though her uncle is liberal, he is also cold and insensitive towards his son’s wishes. Growing up, Laila meets many people at her university, while most of them have sides on the current political scenario and the impending partition, she can only think about her own freedom. She even gets the chance to enjoy parties, which otherwise unmarried girls are not privileged to, thanks to her now married cousin Zahra.
Laila is a spirited girl and she quests for her identity. When her uncle wants her to marry his son Asad, she dares to fall in love with Ameer, a lowly relative of their family friends, whom she knows will be disapproved as her match. Nonetheless, she marries him, only to lose him early. After Ameer’s death, it is Asad who provides a shoulder to Laila, who in turn sees it as a new beginning, though it is uncertain if she chooses him or not.
The novel, though narrated by the protagonist as an autobiographical manner, brings into light stories of other characters aptly. There are contrasting differences in the women characters’, aunt Abida’s self-sacrificing nature, aunt Majida’s fretting over her daughter’s marriage, Zahra’s unfazed determination to get settled and get away from her imposing mother, Zainab’s knowledge of sex and they want to serve her in-laws in return for nice clothes and jewelry, Sita’s dilemma to choose between her love and her religion, Nandi’s exploitation and misfortune, aunt Saira’s hypocritical attitude. A topic that is central to the story is marriage, Zahra’s marriage, Nadira’s marriage of convenience, Sita’s marriage to someone from her religion, Aunt Abida’s marriage to a widower, and Laila’s marriage to Ameer and later an apparent alliance with Asad. It is a novel of a young girl’s struggle for freedom from traditional constraints. She finds it temporarily during her marriage but on losing her husband to death, she realizes one can never get freedom from the memories of ones they love.