India is a country of contrasts, very modern in many aspects and backward in certain others. Until 1947 she was part of the British Empire and it can hardly be surprising that despite Mahatma Gandhi’s influence the way into independence wasn’t always and everywhere peaceful. Above all the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, which led to the foundation of two countries – India and Pakistan – instead of only one, often burst out in violence… and as a matter of fact, it keeps smouldering until today. It goes without saying that the events of the time had an impact on the lives of ordinary people, too, as shows the novel Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai. The book, that a young friend from Hong Kong gave me last year, tells the story of a family of four orphaned siblings who were coming of age during those years of change and were estranged from each other by the choices they made.
Anita Desai was born Anita Mazumdar in Mussoorie, British India (today: India), in June 1937. As the daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father in India she early learnt to speak not just both her parents’ tongues, but also others used in the region including English which she adopted as her “literary language”. Already at the tender age of seven she turned to writing and saw her first story published when she was nine years old, but her true breakthrough as a fiction writer didn’t come until after she finished her studies of English literature and got married to Ashvin Desai in the late 1950s. The author made her debut as a novelist with Cry, the Peacock in 1963 which critics didn’t receive with acclaim. Her most notable works are Fire on the Mountain (1977), Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), Fasting, Feasting (1999), and the award-winning children’s book The Village by the Sea (1982). Her latest published fiction is a collection of three linked novellas titled The Artist of Disappearance (2011). As from 1987 she lived in the USA and taught at different colleges there, including the prestigious M.I.T. Anita Desai lives in New York, USA.
The opening scene of Clear Light of Day shows Tara with her older sister Bim in the garden of her childhood home in Old Delhi early on a summer morning. She has shortly before arrived from Washington, D. C., USA, with her diplomat husband Bakul to stay with Bim and their autistic younger brother Baba for a few days before moving on to Hyderabad for the wedding of one of their older brother Raja’s daughters which Bim refuses to attend. The sisters haven’t seen each other in many years and Tara is shocked to find Bim turned grey, heavy… and bitter. Also the once neat house with the beautiful garden has become a shabby and dusty place which Tara feels even more gloomy and suffocating than she experienced it decades earlier when she got married. Tara’s visit evokes many memories in her as well as in Bim who looks back on monotonous years devoted to teaching at the college just down the street for a living, to looking after Baba, who would never be able to take care of himself, and to keeping the house they were living in. She feels the burden that she has been carrying all alone ever since the death of their parents weigh ever heavier on her and she bears a grudge against Tara and above all Raja for having left her with all the responsibility and the problems. While it was a relief for Bim to see fearsome Tara well-provided for in a good marriage, it hurt her deeply when Raja abandoned her after she had nursed him back to health from malaria to join their landlord Hyder Ali whom he had worshipped since boyhood and who had moved from the neighbourhood to Hyderabad with his family to escape the violence against Muslims after Mahatma Gandhi’s death. Moreover he gave up his dream of becoming an Urdu poet in favour of marrying one of Hyder Ali’s daughters and entering his business. And then there was his letter after Hyder Ali’s death… how could she ever forgive him and go to his daughter’s wedding?
In Clear Light of Day a basic plot-line set in the late 1970s serves both as a frame and a mirror of the past drama of a middle-class Indian family which is inextricably interwoven with the major events of Indian history in the middle of the twentieth century. However, the focus of the third-person narrator is on the relationship between four very different siblings who were coming of age just when the Indian nation gained independence. One of them is autistic and consequently never paid much attention to his environment, while the other three got estranged in the turmoil of personal fate as well as the building of the Indian nation. Even decades later they feel the wounds they suffered, above all the eldest sister Bim whose sense of duty prevented her from taking life into her own hands in the way she would have liked to, while Tara and Raja succeeded in leaving behind their old lives. Anita Desai skilfully contrasts the characters of Bim and Tara as youths and as mature women alternating their present activities and conversations with memories of the past which sometimes are nostalgic. With lively descriptions and powerful images the author creates an authentic and highly emotional picture of a family that went through hard times and was torn apart by circumstances. The novel also is beautifully written and a great pleasure to read.
As you can see, I liked Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai very much. The historical aspects of the novel have been a particular treat for me although the author didn’t (need to) go into detail. For its melancholy atmosphere it might not be to everybody’s taste, but it’s certainly an excellent example of contemporary, though not recent Indian literature. I’m delighted to be able to recommend it to you.
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