We were from two extreme ends of the social spectrum. She, landed aristocracy. Me, respectable middle-class, at best. We also had 52 years between us. I met her when she was at the end of her long, eventful life. She was 83. She was articulate, gracious, full of words. Her voice, girlish and musical. Her laughter tinkling. Her curiosity untarnished.
I didn’t see her as an old person. It was only her political awareness that made her querulous and cranky at times. Dulled, as I was by my own hardships, I wondered, why she would not resign herself, why did she still need to get worked up about life around her?
It was inevitable I would love her. She was one of the few people in life whose love I never doubted. As a child I used to fantasize about finding my grandmother’s diaries. But my grandmother never wrote. I longed for a grandmother who wrote, who wrote diaries, who wrote all kinds of thoughts, which I imagined I would find some day, which would give me a glimpse into another world, another grandmother beyond the mundane one of everyday life.
Attia was not my grandmother. I never thought of her as one. But she met the longing in me to know someone filled with words. Someone older, someone from a different world. I learned little things watching her. Dignity, graciousness. The pouring of tea. The serving of tea. She was the first person to tell me that I must always insist on my name being pronounced right. Until then, through school, college, work, I had let my name be taken over by different accents, by people indifferent enough to think it did not matter how they said a name. Often, I pronounced my own name wrong, conscious only of making it recognizable to others.
There used to be many kites opposite the house she lived in then, where we met, her daughter, Shamaji’s house. I wrote a story about her and the kites. My first tangible story, which had a form, a shape. I showed it to her. She said this is not me. I knew then, of course, the old woman in my story was not her. Attia was not old even at 83. I thought she had rejected my story. But days later, maybe months later, she said, don’t stop writing, never stop writing, whatever keeps happening around you. Life will go on, life will be hard, but don’t stop writing.
She knew that my life was hard, but we never spoke of it. She never probed at wounds I was not ready to heal as yet. She had enough wounds of her own, unhealed, unspoken about. She had given up writing. Except her diaries. I recorded a long interview with her. I transcribed it. Her diaries are not accessible to me; there is no reason they would be. Yet it warms me that they are there.
I used to get her jasmine flowers from Grant Road station when I got off the train. Mogra. It had been a while since she had received mogras. They reminded her of her home. She seemed to me like the mogra. Delicate, fragrant, incredibly beautiful.
Sunlight on a Broken Column’ is semi-autobiographical. I am not curious to know how exactly it reflects her life. Now that I write regularly, I know every story, every character is semi-autobiographical, and yet, transcends reality. But I do see her in Laila. Whether or not Laila’s story is hers does not matter. But Laila’s observations, her quiet opinions, her absolute questioning of everything, her acceptance of her life and yet, her conflict with it, her ability to always see both sides, to feel so deeply for those for her and against her, that is certainly Bi’s. Attia’s.
She spoke whenever she could to taxi drivers, home delivery people, domestic help. She felt particularly drawn to them if they were from near her home, her state. Though she was effortlessly regal, she never came across as patronizing. Which is like Laila too, who relates to her relatives, her servants, the world around her with the same, troubled, questioning mind, irrespective of their status.
The world she describes in ‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’ is dazzling, glittering, feudal, a life irretrievable now, with its wealth, its privileges, its acceptance of the existing feudal order. And yet, history proves stronger than opinions, arguments, action. It washes away both, those against the tide, and even those who are with the tide. And there is nothing to do but move forward, to carry on, from wherever it is that you have been washed up.
Though the glamorous world she was part of, was far from my own, I see what we had in common. Growing up in a traditional, conventional Muslim household, but one in which education and books played a part, leading to a dichotomy of thought, of a feeling of never quite belonging anywhere, of seeking one’s center finally in words.
When Attia left for London that last year, I knew then the chasm between worlds, between countries, that knowing that you were never going to see someone again because they were so far away, in distance and in time. That chasm which she had lived with for most of her adult life after Partition. That wound which never healed.