fiction

Storm

By ATTIA HOSAIN | 1 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.

Storm

AFTER DINNER THE LADIES RETIRED in order of their husbands’ civil list precedence in the dining room. Conventions had to be made part of existence by an insistent repetition of their smallest details.

The men fell back on the inevitable problems of petty politics. Some warded off their boredom of each other with wine. The interesting witty ones talked of women—not of respectable ladies but women who existed only to add spice to life.

The five ladies were wary of each other. Alone in this drawing room they were more conscious of their appearances, their clothes, their faces. They drew upon their reserves of sharp comments upon those who were absent, as a defence against watchful eyes on themselves.

“Did you see her, my dear? At her age …with those painted toes.”

“Where did you get that delightful border?” and the thought behind it. Like mine—just like it. What shall I do now? That wretch of a shopkeeper, he said he had no more like it.

“Nothing seems to happen here this season. Do you remember that woman last year? Left her husband because she suspected he was not true to her.”

“More likely she was a bad woman.”

“And if you come to think of it, my dear, what else can one expect from a man? Why if every woman were to become as strong-headed as she, how many homes would not be broken up?”

“Yes, yes …they are all the same, these men.”

And the youngest of them all, to whom life had not yet unveiled itself, who lived in an imagined world, looked at them and wondered.

The hostess glanced at the jewelled watch which glittered on her spouse’s wrist. “Dear me, how late it is! We must hurry to be in time for the movies.”

Powder boxes snapped into bags, moist tongues evened the red on lips. There were parting glances into the mirrors of their vanity cases, narrowed furtive looks at each other.

On the tin roof the rain beat incessantly; it beat itself upon the consciousness like a roaring cataract. In the shelter of the room the storming wind sounded like the furious hissing of giants.

In the glazed veranda the storm became more real, menacing. Occasional flashes of lightning forked across the lowering sky and sombre hills lit up momentarily to show rugged peaks and writhing trees and steadily pouring rain. Thunder echoed around and around and lost itself in its own grumbling. The room was warm with the glow of lamps and the leaping flames of the fire.

The men entered to greet women taught to deify them. They seemed like schoolboys caught in a prank. The pretty prepared words of the ladies died on their lips and the smiles died with them. At the same time as the men a woman entered from the drawing room—a stranger breaking into the respectability of their preserve. The folds of her sari were crushed by the coat she took off. Her wet shoes made a faint trail on the carpet. The rain streamed off her hair which she pushed away from her eyes. Waved hair—real or artificial? Red nails—toes must be painted too under those shoes. Sari, red as the nails, a little wet at the edges, and clinging to a slim figure. Soft dark face, shy smile, eyebrows not plucked, strangely enough, deep eyes, but cold as the rain, hard as lightning on the bare peaks outside.

She cut through attempted explanations on the part of the host and anticipated the unspoken questions of the ladies. “I am sorry, but I was caught in the rain and the house looked so inviting. I have spoiled your lovely carpet with my wet shoes, I am afraid.”

Of course, the carpet was expensive. Was the uncomfortable insinuation in her voice imagined?

The ladies stiffened in spirit. They scented danger; they who domesticated and tamed saw their men wandering, and were bitter in their hostility to the wanton-eyed temptresses who roamed beyond the fences of respectability. Their eyes questioned their men sharply. Only the youngest among them was unmoved, quick in her sympathy. “What a fearful night to be out in alone!” The woman smiled at her and in her eyes the lightning no longer played on barren peaks. “Yes, I was wanting to take the short-cut down but it was so dark I dared not try.”

The hostess was coldly polite. “Have you far to go? I shall send a servant for a hired dandi. I am sorry, but we must go—we are late already. I hope you will excuse us.” She called to her maid, “Hurry up with my coat—yes, the fur—and see that the lady is comfortable until the dandi comes.”

A confusion of finding coats and wraps. Voices calling to dandis. Rain, wind and lightning—the coolies’ voices as they ran with their dandis rose in a noisy clamour. Rain poured from wet mackintoshes, it soaked men in “tails” trying to shelter under shared umbrellas. The coolies shivered, their bare brown legs slushed through the rain that ran along the pebbled path in dirty streams.

The ladies wrapped themselves up with care, stepped delicately into waiting dandis, arranged blankets around themselves with nicety. Then a straining of muscles, poles set carefully across shoulders and a rhythmic move onward, one dandi following another. Swish of water under bare feet, fitful light from lanterns in the leading coolie’s hands, occasional gleams from one of the men’s torches.

The woman, left alone, settled near the fire. The flickering light played over her smiling face. She thought, “They forgot to ask my name. Took me for granted—one of those women to whom one does not unbend. Once they are together again the women will not be afraid to whisper amongst themselves. And the men—”

When they were leaving only the young girl had said, “Please ask the maid for my spare mackintosh, it will be wet even in the dandi.” The men had wavered uneasily, trying not to look back or show any interest beyond chill politeness. At the door, before the first dandi moved off, one of the women had exclaimed, shrill-voiced above the sober sounds, “Poor coolies; I do feel so sorry for them.” With this thought to warm their hearts and remind them of the brotherhood of man, the procession had moved into the night.

To the ladies of the summer resort nestling in the hills, the day after the storm brought a new joy to life. They closed their ranks against a stranger and found new cause for wonder. Who was the mysterious woman blown in by the storm? What was she? Where did she come from? Where did she live?

“My dear, you could see from her face what she was. Didn’t take her much time to become friendly with the men.”

“Oh, men—they are all the same.”

Those who saw her that night felt a special pride as of explorers finding a new land. They could talk of her with so much greater knowledge, describe her face, her figure, her voice, her behaviour. New life was imparted to parties which were verging on dullness. It was becoming a bit tiring to meet the same people, eat the same food, talk the same talk—even though the people were the best people, the food remarkable for its quality, and the talk profound in its criticism.

It was not yet known where the woman lived. Ladies had not yet found out from their maids who had not yet gleaned information from their friends among the bearers who conversed with the coolies. The mackintosh had been returned with a polite note but the signature was illegible, though the rest of the writing had been clear enough. And the notepaper was good.

She was often seen walking on the less frequented roads, sometimes even on the fashionable mall. Always well dressed, always aloof and surprisingly—alone. She did not recognise anyone and the ladies were slightly annoyed, though they themselves were careful to turn their heads aside or seem suddenly interested in something in the opposite direction if she approached near enough for recognition. So greatly intrigued were they, however, that had she called on them they would even have invited her to a party or two. But she did not seem to care for the honour, as if she had never heard of the rules of etiquette by the observance of which people recognised each others’ existence.

There were many explanatory theories about her. She was an heiress from the far north come to recuperate after a long illness.

“But, really, that is most odd. Why is she alone? And she does not look a bit ill.”

She was not an Indian but only adopted the sari as her costume. “Nonsense, my dear, you can see it from the cut of her face, she is Indian.” That thought rankled with subconscious bitterness and envy of her freedom.

She was a woman who had run away from home and then been deserted by her lover. “That is really too romantic. She is nothing but a common adventuress.”

Once they had classed her as a woman beyond the pale, the ladies hated her. Had she appeared to be ashamed of herself, had she shown any deference, they could have said, “Oh, poor creature! She must have had no one to protect and advise her. Who knows what circumstances may lead one to do?”

But she walked alone in her pride, sufficient unto herself. Because deep down in their subconscious minds they would think of their security as chains forged by ever wandering husbands, they consciously desired above all to also humiliate her.

The interest in her had to flag from very surfeit. Parties to be given, balls attended—though one didn’t think dancing proper—tournaments watched, though one knew little of the game. New clothes had to be thought of, that could look more expensive than their actual cost or at least look original.

One day, however, she held all the attention again. In the evening, when out for a walk, a certain well known personage (whisper his name, it is so well known) had stopped to say something to her … “And believe it or not, my dear, she slapped him—slapped him on the face!” Oh, the joy of that story, for apart from its scandal there was the joy of that slap which each one of them, through jealousy, would have loved to administer.

“Is that true? You don’t mean to say so! Really? Goodness me!” Eyebrows raised, eyes glinting, smiles refusing to be hidden. True, only a few coolies and the bearer of another great personage had been the only witnesses; but it was too succulent a morsel for the gossips to ignore. “You know, now that I come to think of it, he has been very nice to his wife lately.”

“Yes, and he gave Rs 1,000 to the Fund for Fallen Sisters.”

“Don’t tell anyone, but at the jeweller’s the other evening when I went to get my pearls—such lovely pearls, you must see them—I was told he had bought a diamond bracelet. Have you seen his wife wearing a diamond bracelet? She would surely have worn it at the garden party last week, had she had it.”

In every household there was tension, a suspicion of the over-friendliness of the men.

Then one day, very soon after the famous slapping incident, she had gone as mysteriously as she came. And but for the fact that it confirmed the story of the slapping, which passed into the history of the place, no one cared—not among the ladies. As for the men—they move in very mysterious ways.

But the youngest of the party of the stormy night, did care. She remembered.

On one side the hill was gentle and comforting, its soft slopes inviting. In the distance gleamed the range of snows rising out of a mist like the dreams or illusions of an ice maiden. On the other side it fell away in sharp bleakness, and the rocks were menacing. Far below was the monotonous chequerboard of the plains, smudged by forests, heat shimmering as vapour above them. The incessant rhythmic wave of sound as all the tiny insects sang became, after a time, a part of the silence.

The young girl climbed through bushes which parted easily, shaking drops of moisture which glittered like jewels, yet were softer even than tears.

On top of the hill she met the woman of that night, gazing into the distance where the snows seemed to rise out of nothing.

They were both a bit embarrassed. “I thought no one else knew the way here,” the girl said. “I hope you reached home safely that night.”

“Thanks, yes. It was kind of you to lend the mackintosh. I didn’t wait long after you had gone. I borrowed a torch and walked.”

“Good heavens, why? It must have been dreadful!”

There was no reason—why tell the girl that the hostility of the house drove her into the friendlier storm.

There were veins of white in the rock against which she was leaning. White sari, black hair and eyes, jade earrings. The frank admiration in the girl’s eyes pleased the woman.

“Do you come here often?” she asked.

“Every time I feel a longing for the snows,” the girl smiled.

“I come here every morning. One loses oneself here.” Then suddenly, “Who were the people at your house that night?” She was skilful at drawing out information and seemed interested in details about the most important guests.

Then they talked of anything but the place and the people in it, and walked down the hill together to where the road met the path.

After this they walked together every morning, but the girl did not tell her mother, half fearful of being scolded for knowing “that woman”, half proud of being the only one who knew her. She was drawn to her because of the difference between them, by all she did not know of life that the woman knew. She liked to hear her stories, to laugh at her gibes at well known people (strange how well she knew them) who were known to the world as its greatest reformers, the champions of its sufferers. All the mystery that attracted her elders who did not know, attracted her also who knew, yet wondered.

One day the woman asked her, “What are you going to do with yourself?”

The girl was shy to reveal herself. “I don’t know. There is so much to do, so many different things I wanted to be at different times. Once I wanted to be a nun, when I was at the convent. Then I wanted to be a missionary, then a film star, then a great social reformer. Now I want to write. I look at people and think, if they only saw themselves as others do they would not be so false to themselves; they would be ashamed. If I could write truthfully, it would be like holding a mirror up to them. They can’t see themselves, they are blind—but I can’t do it; I can’t write. The surface of the mirror is dull and distorted.”

The woman smiled, “I like you because you are so young. Eternal youth—but always there comes age. One wonders sometimes whether these smug old people were ever young? Did they ever know the hope and eagerness of youth? Sometimes all that hope and eagerness are killed by reality.”

“That is just what I want—to face the realities of life. I am so protected. What can I write but of shallowness?”

“Reality! What do you know of it? Thank God for protection from it.”

“Heavens, no! Only by facing facts can they be understood. I want to change the world so that it will never forget I lived. Otherwise why live?”

“Again that youthfulness. But what do you know of facts and suffering? All that your books tell you. And all your pity is from books and in words. Sometimes I wish God would make human beings dumb, they sicken me so with their cant and empty chatter.” She turned to the girl and the bitterness left her voice, “But I am glad you do not know anything.”

The girl asked after a short silence, “Tell me of yourself now. Why did you come here? You do not meet anyone or go anywhere.”

“Meet anyone? I came here to be away from everyone—but people like me cannot escape. Have you noticed something strange about the people here? Whenever the most frothing and bubbling of streams meet, in their union is some depth. Here people meet, and all their individual worth, their depth is lost and there is nothing but frothing and bubbling and shallowness.”

“Yes, I have seen it. Perhaps it is only a sort of defence necessitated by the peculiar sort of social competition that exists here. Well then, if you do not meet anyone what do you do to amuse yourself?”

The woman seemed to withdraw spiritually and her eyes hardened, “I amuse myself by studying animals and their habits, I study them in their wild state when no civilising influence helps them to hide their real selves. I see them as they are—crude, crude.”

The bitterness of her voice shocked the girl who understood slightly. “One reads, one hears people talk.” The bitter voice continued, “At first I could not discriminate. When you are in school you learn everything, however unpleasant, later when your mind is developed you can pick and choose. I know now from whom I can get most knowledge—I mean, without wasting time, and myself. All you have to do to be successful is to never show you are hurt, and how your weaknesses can be exploited.”

She had been talking quietly, as though to herself, and she changed the topic abruptly. “Why talk of me? I am so uninteresting. Look, that hill is much more interesting. I look at it and think that side, the gently sloping one, is feminine in nature. Gentle slopes, very inviting, and down in those leaf-covered paths dangerous things might lurk. The other side is masculine—hard and strong, but when there is the slightest tremor of the earth the rocks break and roll. I’m being ridiculous now and dramatic, I think.”

That was the last day the girl went to the top of the hill. Her mother had heard from her maid who heard from the chaprassi who accompanied her on her walks, of that woman and their friendship.

One day the woman asked her, “What are you going to do with yourself?”

The girl was shy to reveal herself. “I don’t know. There is so much to do, so many different things I wanted to be at different times. Once I wanted to be a nun, when I was at the convent. Then I wanted to be a missionary, then a film star, then a great social reformer. Now I want to write. I look at people and think, if they only saw themselves as others do they would not be so false to themselves; they would be ashamed. If I could write truthfully, it would be like holding a mirror up to them. They can’t see themselves, they are blind—but I can’t do it; I can’t write. The surface of the mirror is dull and distorted.”

The woman smiled, “I like you because you are so young. Eternal youth—but always there comes age. One wonders sometimes whether these smug old people were ever young? Did they ever know the hope and eagerness of youth? Sometimes all that hope and eagerness are killed by reality.”

“That is just what I want—to face the realities of life. I am so protected. What can I write but of shallowness?”

“Reality! What do you know of it? Thank God for protection from it.”

“Heavens, no! Only by facing facts can they be understood. I want to change the world so that it will never forget I lived. Otherwise why live?”

“Again that youthfulness. But what do you know of facts and suffering? All that your books tell you. And all your pity is from books and in words. Sometimes I wish God would make human beings dumb, they sicken me so with their cant and empty chatter.” She turned to the girl and the bitterness left her voice, “But I am glad you do not know anything.”

The girl asked after a short silence, “Tell me of yourself now. Why did you come here? You do not meet anyone or go anywhere.”

“Meet anyone? I came here to be away from everyone—but people like me cannot escape. Have you noticed something strange about the people here? Whenever the most frothing and bubbling of streams meet, in their union is some depth. Here people meet, and all their individual worth, their depth is lost and there is nothing but frothing and bubbling and shallowness.”

“Yes, I have seen it. Perhaps it is only a sort of defence necessitated by the peculiar sort of social competition that exists here. Well then, if you do not meet anyone what do you do to amuse yourself?”

The woman seemed to withdraw spiritually and her eyes hardened, “I amuse myself by studying animals and their habits, I study them in their wild state when no civilising influence helps them to hide their real selves. I see them as they are—crude, crude.”

The bitterness of her voice shocked the girl who understood slightly. “One reads, one hears people talk.” The bitter voice continued, “At first I could not discriminate. When you are in school you learn everything, however unpleasant, later when your mind is developed you can pick and choose. I know now from whom I can get most knowledge—I mean, without wasting time, and myself. All you have to do to be successful is to never show you are hurt, and how your weaknesses can be exploited.”

She had been talking quietly, as though to herself, and she changed the topic abruptly. “Why talk of me? I am so uninteresting. Look, that hill is much more interesting. I look at it and think that side, the gently sloping one, is feminine in nature. Gentle slopes, very inviting, and down in those leaf-covered paths dangerous things might lurk. The other side is masculine—hard and strong, but when there is the slightest tremor of the earth the rocks break and roll. I’m being ridiculous now and dramatic, I think.”

That was the last day the girl went to the top of the hill. Her mother had heard from her maid who heard from the chaprassi who accompanied her on her walks, of that woman and their friendship.

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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.

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