Shortly after Independence, Attia Hosain left India, and went to England. Pakistan was not an option for her, but then, nor was India, not now that zamindari had been abolished and all the erstwhile taluqdari families, like hers, left more or less bereft of their lands. Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961), her one and only novel, was also part of the memorable Partition literature of the time, written in an idiom of loss and longing. It was her requiem for a time that would never return, for a country she could no longer call home.

In 1972 Attia began writing what would be her unfinished, untitled novel, her only fiction located outside India. The novel is set in London of the 1970s and the characters are diasporic South Asians (as they are now called), Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis making their way in a country, and at a time, that was tense with a reactionary politics. Enoch Powell, conservative MP, had threatened that “rivers of blood” would flow if there were not an immediate and drastic curb on immigration.

Murad, the protagonist, has decided to return to India, to Lucknow, feeling “stifled by the alien pressures” of this new environment. That very environment which had stimulated him when he first arrived, breathing the air of freedom, is now oppressive; life in this society, it seems to him, is conducted in “an aspic of aloofness”:

He lived among people as elusive as mist, as cold as fog, as warm as sun shining through it, kind and helpful as if they doctored him patiently, wearing gloves and masks, settling him comfortably in a glass-barriered special ward. But he would keep on breaking out and reaching out for the solidity, the warmth, the inescapable reality of human relationships. He had expressed this need in many small and often, to himself, laughable ways.  

Murad has just been to offer his condolences over the sudden and tragic death of his friend, Isa, killed in a drunken brawl; as he walks the streets after his meeting with Isa’s (Pakistani) widow, he is assailed by memories of his friend who, when the country was divided, became Pakistani. Neither Murad, nor he, is at ease with their new nationality, nor yet in their newly-adopted country, as Murad recalls an earlier drunken conversation between Isa and himself.

Isa recalls:

“There was a time, my friend, when there was no gap between appearance and reality to be filled in with explanations. No one asked ‘Are you Indian?’ just as no one said ‘Are you alive?’ And I? Living or partly living. Drink to partly living!”

They drank.

“But, my friend,” said Murad, in a drowsy haze of intoxication. “The time did come for questions. You and I together did need explanations. Indian? Yes. Pakistani? Yes. Both Muslims. Yes. Yet different? Yes. How? Why not? Appearance the same. Reality? Different. Let us drink to the different sameness.”

“Let us drink.”

“To Pakistan, where you went!”

“To India, where you will return!”

“To the Siamese twins.”

“To their midwife.”

“Rule Britannia!”

They were both floating now towards a lachrymose melancholy.

“I swore loyalty to the Queen and country, I, a citizen of the UK and Colonies. Mark the words, Murad. What does the word loyalty mean? You, who have a country, tell me. Do you swear loyalty to a patch of earth or what it stands for? To an abstraction or ideals? I brandished banners against Colonialism. My father was beaten and imprisoned for his country’s freedom from the country I have sworn loyalty to. We were poor, and my mother suffered when my father took to going in and out of jail. You wouldn’t know what it was like, with your people comfortably bargaining for equality in drawing-rooms with English guests over a glass of whisky.”

“I resent that. It’s bloody nonsense. Partly class jealousy. My family weren’t toadies.”

“Come now, my brother, my friend. We have been made to fight enough. Let us drink to freedom.”

They drank to freedom with tears in their eyes.

“I absorbed hate for this country to which I have sworn loyalty, with my mother’s milk. She, nursing me, would remember the lathi blows on my father’s body. I grew up to the language of rebellion against white rulers. I grew up with words in my mouth that today I must swallow. See, they do not choke me. Because I learned to swallow words before, not with glory but with dust and ashes. My father fought for a great India. But when freedom came, where was I? When the country cracked apart I was on the other side of a bloody chasm. And I swore loyalty to the background of a cry of hate against my father’s country, against your country, against my country that was. Tell me, then, who I am, what I am, with no roots attached to any piece of earth, a creature mechanically walking and talking, with no sense of history any more. Tell me, what is history? Dates? Battles? Or the story of all that nurtured me and made me part of a culture? What language is mine now? What poetry? What songs?”

“God Save Our Gracious Queen. Drink to the Queen.”

‘Thank you, Britannia, for giving me shelter. I have no land, no home, no people – because you have bloody well taught your lessons too well and they have turned against each other....’

In this rendering, Attia Hosain’s “country” is the no man’s land of exile; her two protagonists, Isa and Murad, have renounced their erstwhile “country”, India, by physically leaving it after Partition and living in England, a place that they can never call their own. The country they have left exists now only as a memory, or as painfully, futilely, unattainable. Their unbelonging is real and almost unbearable. They drown this realisation in drink.

Excerpted with permission from India On Their Minds: 8 Women, 8 Ideas Of India, edited by Ritu Menon, Women’s Unlimited.