01 October 2012

ABOUT THE STORY Attia Hosain (1913-1998) was widely admired by her contemporaries in both India and in England (where she lived after Partition) for the purity of her prose style and the clarity of her perception. Her novel Sunlight On A Broken Column (1961), set in the feudal world of post-Independence Lucknow, is one of the greatest Indian novels in English. Of an aged woman in that book, Laila, the novel’s narrator, remarks, “She spoke the sweet tongue of the true Lucknavi—delicate, flexible, rich in imagery, pointed with wit, polished with courtesy.”

Some of these descriptions could be applied to Hosain’s own work. But as we see in Hosain’s story “Storm”, in fiction some thoughts which appear “polished with courtesy” can actually carry a savagely satirical undertow. In the story, a storm blows an outsider into a world stratified by both class and gender. The mysterious and elegant visitor is herself a storm in this environment; as the days pass, her apparent freedom and disdain for convention become so provocative to the women around her that she comes to see the inclement weather of the night when she met them as “the friendlier storm”.

Hosain explores one of fiction’s most resonant conundrums, the balance that we must all seek between innocence and experience, security and danger. It would seem, from the sarcasm with which the small society of the story is described, that the narrator sides with the protagonist. But towards the end of the story, the savagery with which the protagonist mocks the aspirations of the younger woman who looks up to her suggests that she is a disillusioned observer of her world, but not an unbiased one. This small, glowing, many-sided story shows how, in a metaphor used by the story itself, fiction can hold up a mirror to the world that shows to it an aspect of which it may be oblivious. “Storm” is taken from a new anthology of Hosain’s work, Distant Traveller: New and Selected Fiction, selected and edited by the writer Aamer Hussein and published this month by the feminist press Women Unlimited. Accompanying the story is a reproduction of one of the draft pages of the manuscript of “Storm”, written in Hosain’s own hand.

Attia Hosain is the author of the books Phoenix Fled (1953) and Sunlight On A Broken Column (1961). She was born in 1913 and died in 1998.