The people who came to see Attia Hosain honoured at a book launch a few weeks ago could have been forgiven for expecting a subdued and fragile old lady. After all, Hosain was 84, had had a long and turbulent life and for years had been in poor health. The launch demanded nothing of her but that she sit on stage as a sort of icon and accept the homage of her admirers, while her daughter - the film producer Shama Habibullah - read from one of her mother's early World Service pieces.
But Hosain was not one to sit back passively letting encomiums wash over her. Despite her physical difficulties, she immediately engaged with her audience, vividly sharing her emotions and memories. Her indomitability and eloquence swept problems aside, with a degree of hauteur and a magnificent sense of style.
Those qualities must have stood her in good stead. She was born in 1913 into an aristocratic family in Lucknow - a city that is a byword for Muslim scholarship and culture. From her father she inherited a keen interest in politics and nationalism. From her mother's family of poets and scholars she drew a rich knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Arabic. Her knowledge of English came from an English governess, and subsequently as one of the few Indian girls at an English medium school. She was the first woman from her background to take a degree at Lucknow University.
From early on she was a communicator, first through feature articles for Indian papers, the Pioneer and the Statesman, and membership of the radical Progressive Writers' Movement. The fiction came later, as a result - she recently speculated - of politics and dislocation.
In 1947, when India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, Hosain was in London with her husband, who had been posted the year before to the High Commission. The division of the two countries and the separation of two religious communities caused her great pain. Immensely proud of her heritage as both a Muslim and an Indian, she chose to remain in England and bring up her daughter and son - now the film director Waris Hussein - on her own. The change brought her a career as a regular broadcaster with her own women's programme on the BBC World Service and a new perspective.
But the sense of damaged cultural roots never fully died away. "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." It was that, she said in her last piece - to be published in an anthology later this year - that drove her to write.
In 1953, Chatto and Windus brought out her book of short stories Phoenix Fled. Eight years later came Sunlight on a Broken Column, an evocative and carefully detailed novel which traces, via the story of young Laila, a society in transition. It was over 20 years, however, before the book was widely recognised. Brought out of oblivion by Virago in their splendid Modern Classics in 1988, it re-established Attia Hosain in the public eye and gave her a platform which she embraced with zest.
- Naseem KhanReuse content