Wednesday 26 February 2020

Book Review: 'Clear Light of Day' by Anita Desai

This is the fourth novel that I've read, based on the partition of India. However, the treatment and story line is different from Bapsi Sidhwa's 'Ice Candy Man' and Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'. 'Tamas' by Bhisham Sahni was different too, as it dealt with the violent aftermath in the country owing to the division.
I have been curious about Anita Desai's work, ever since I read her daughter Kiran Desai's 'Inheritance of Loss' many years ago, when it won the Man Booker prize in 2006. 'Clear Light of Day' was of course, published decades earlier, in 1980 to be precise, and I was glad to have finally purchased it, earlier this year. 
This book is different from the earlier ones because, rather than dealing with the country as a whole, Desai focuses on delving deep into the psychological nuances of individual characters and the situations that shape the course of their lives. These in turn, serve as symbolic representations of the political upheaval of the country during the 1940s.
The handling of the story narrative is different, because it is on a more personal and familial level, rather than a national one. The key theme is woman-centric, blended seamlessly into haunting ghosts of the past that wield their powerful influence over every key character, in different ways.
Set in the scorching summer of 1947, in Old Delhi, the trials and tribulations of the Das family mirror those of a new country that struggled to tackle the changes, thrust upon its infant shoulders, owing to the end of colonial rule and the battering of partition. 

Characters and Storyline 
The Das family of four siblings, faces an upheaval of sorts, when the younger sister Tara visits Bimla. Raja, the estranged younger sibling, is in Hyderabad with his wife & daughters, while the youngest one, the autistic Baba is nursed at home, by Bim. 
Tara's visit to her ancestral home after her perceived escape to America, post her wedding to an IFO officer Bakul, causes a flood of past memories to assault both the sisters.
Although the tale seems to commence with Tara, it is soon apparent that the industrious Bim is the key protagonist of the novel. Layer by layer, the past intrudes into their reminiscent interactions. Readers are privy to the contrasting characteristics of the siblings and the consequences of the situations they have encountered. The role of their bridge-addicted parents who scar the psyche of their children with their perpetual absences, highlights the crucial role played by Mira masi, who is their pseudo-mother figure in the story.
Tara is the unambitious escapist who uses marriage as an excuse to leave home and find greener pastures in Washington. Bim is the ambitious history professor who ends up sacrificing her dreams of achievements, to stay behind and nurse her family: Raja's TB, then their aunt Mira masi's alcoholic illness and Baba's incoherent challenges, as well. Raja not only escapes from his dual responsibilities towards their father's insurance business but also Baba's care. He moves to Hyderabad and settles down after marrying their Muslim landlord's daughter, Benazir. His letter to Bim absolving her of having to pay rent for their home, which incidentally he has inherited from his father-in-law, Hyder Ali, enrages her and makes her cut ties with him. So much so, that Bim refuses to accompany Tara's family to Hyderabad for the wedding of his daughter, Moyna. This is the familial backdrop that is revealed to us through the reminiscences of the siblings. 
However, the more subtle but significant juxtaposition is that of the aftermath of the partition. The tensions between the Hindu-Muslim communities in New Delhi spills over to old Delhi too. The hordes of misplaced refugees on either countries are symbolised by the disappearance of the Hyder Ali family. Raja being forced to study English literature in a Hindu college by his father, as opposed to his dream of Islamic studies at Jamia Millia, showcases the unsafe environment for both the communities, doing the period.

Ample symbolism enriches the narrative. Desai's poetic prowess in language is a delight to absorb. Rich imagery of nature and its elements add the flavour of multiple senses of sight, smell, hearing and feelings of the characters. This, juxtaposed with the backdrop of partition, makes the narrative throb with myriad speculative undercurrents.
Many scenes are heart rending in the story. Important lessons may be gleaned from the depth of angst felt by the characters, owing to their skewed childhood, that manifests itself in all of them in various powerful ways. The sheer neglect of bridge-addicted parents makes one wonder why some people even have children in the first place. Desai's narrative highlights the tortured lives of its characters, who remain caged to the ghosts of their past.

Music is used as a defining attribute throughout the novel. A number of birds add to the musical elements that are already predominant in the story such as Baba's gramaphone or the neighboring Mishra family's strong ties to music. Bees form a crucial factor that tortures Tara with guilt. The river Jamna plays her role throughout the novel, by being a past-time for the Das children as well as showering sand through the wind, across their home doing the Summers. 
The neglected house in itself is a powerful symbolic element that signifies the turmoil of the country during the time. The constant struggle between choices of the old and the new is a repeatedly occurring motif.  The well adds sinister irony and fearful apprehension to the atmosphere, with its green slime and rotten body of the family cow. The repeated motif highlights the irony of the Hindu symbolism of cows, drowning in green water.(perhaps a subtle reference to the flag colour of Pakistan). 
Guilt is a predominant entity, shared by Tara and Mira masi, albeit for different reasons. Tara regrets her escapism, while masi rues her role in the cow episode. 
But perhaps the most crucial element is the woman angle. The position of women during the time is showcased with intense clarity through each of the female characters. Irony plays a viral role as well. For instance, Bim the ambitious one, who wanted to be a heroine and do things independently, ends up staying behind to perform the roles of a provider and nurse. Tara, ironically fulfills her unambitious dream of becoming a mother. Masi is ill-treated as the young widow and her constant sacrifices backfire into severe alcoholism and get subsequent death. Raja, despite being the male of the family, chooses to leave to follow his dreams. He does not become a great hero, instead marries and settles down into familial life after scoffing his father's business.
The Mishra sisters are providers of their  family, including the men, after being abandoned by their husbands. 
Time plays a vital role in the narrative that moves forwards and backwards, between the past and the present, to complete the picture for the readers. Time also acts an element that allows the characters to decipher their feelings and heal themselves of the repercussions of the past, through self realisation, and also by seeking and offering forgiveness. Tara seeks to be forgiven by Bim, while Bim endevours and succeeds in forgiving Raja's betrayal.

Resplendent with multiple facets, penned in rich, poetic, impeccable prose, Anita Desai's work is a masterpiece that ought not be missed. 
I rate the book a 4.8/5.
Hope this review was useful. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Share the review with literature lovers, who enjoy deep and enriching works, that stay with them long after the book is put down.
Happy reading!

Book Photography: Chethana Ramesh

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