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Phoenix Fled by Attia Hosain

Phoenix Fled (1953)

by Attia Hosain

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This book is a collection of short stories set in India just before the Partition of the country into India and Pakistan. The author is Muslim so the stories often have that cultural slant, as opposed to a Hindu or Sikh point of view. These stories are domestic tales about the very poor in the households of the middle class. They are tiny pictures which portray life, not on the grand scale of a world stage, but in a village or behind the door of a house in a modern city. Ancient customs exist with 20th century reality, sometimes peacefully, but more often uncomfortably.

A few stories stood out for me as I read them from a 21st century western background. Two dealt with arranged child marriages. In "The Daughter-in Law", a little girl who is too young to live as a wife is sent to live with her mother-in-law. Her family no longer wants the responsibility of keeping her since she is "married." Her husband is in another part of the country, out of work, and ill. So Nasiban, the mother-in-law brings the child into the home where she is a nursemaid. The frightened child hears "ghosts" in the walls of her room and is suspected when items start to go missing among the servants. In "The Street of the Moon", a child too full of spirit for her own good is married off to a drug-addicted old man who needs someone to take care of him. She is too young to really understand the preparations for her wedding and is delighted with her new clothes, pretty jewelry, and makeup. When she runs away from her abusive husband she has only one option in order to survive.

The stories show the position of the working poor in relation to their employers. The wealthy expect service and hold the power, but they provide a safe haven for, not just the servant, but the entire family of the servant. If not for the work, these poor would be dead on the streets. In these households they are housed (even if on a mat under the stairs), fed well, clothed, and given a stipend. They could also be tossed on the street at the whim of the employer for breaking a vase or sticking a baby with a diaper pin.And yet, the employers are not bad people. They have been entitled all their lives and expect a servant to pick up a dropped handkerchief. And the servant is grateful for the job of picking up that handkerchief because it means her children are being fed and not having to beg on the streets.

This is a incisive look at an India of not so long ago. An India of ancient mores and customs trying to cope with (or to avoid) change. ( )
3 vote Liz1564 | Aug 13, 2012 |
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Everyone who lived in the village or the hamlets nearby knew her. (Phoenix Fled)
In India, the past never disappears. (Introduction)
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From the back cover: "Listen to me, child. You will be a woman soon and must behave well and with modesty. The Kazi will ask you three times whether you will marry Kalloo Mian. Now don't you be shameless, like these modern educated girls, and shout gleefully 'Yes.' Be modest and cry softly and say 'Hoon'"

A marriage is arranged between a little servant girl and a middle-aged cook with an opium habit; an idealistic political worker faces disillusionment; a servant returns to a wife he scarcely knows; a conventional bride has her first encounter with her husband's "emancipated" friends: telling of the lives of servants and children, of conflict between the old traditions and the new, modern civilisation, and exploring the human repercussions of the Muslim/Hindu divide, these twelve short stories present a moving and vivid picture of life in India. To each episode Attia Hosain brings a superb imaginative understanding and sense of poignancy of the smallest of human dramas.
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