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Clear light of day by Anita Desai.

June 9, 2012

Clear light of day, by Anita Desai.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England ; New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 1982, c1980.

A multi-layered novel, set in Old Delhi, of two sisters and the need to reexamine memories.

Anita Desai is at her best teasing out the thoughts and feelings of her characters, especially when they contradict what they are saying and doing. Her story of a woman’s visit to her childhood home, now presided over by her older sister, gives her plenty of opportunity for such explorations.

Tara, the younger sister, returns to Old Delhi with her husband, an Indian diplomat. An arrogant, self-centered man, he has changed her from a shy and passive girl into a cosmopolitan woman. Her sister, Bim, a single woman whom Tara had always looked up to, still keeps their childhood home functional as she looks after their retarded brother, Baba. But the home itself is dark and neglected, filled with cobwebs and gloom, and Bim herself seems to have lost her former vitality. Bim and the house in Old Delhi have not changed as she herself had done, Tara reflected ambivalently.

Part of her was sinking languidly into the passive pleasure of having returned to the familiar—like pebble, she had been picked up and hurled back into the pond, and sunk down through the layer of green scum, through the secret cool depths to the soft layer of mud at the bottom, sending up bubbles of relief and joy. A part of her twitched, stirred like a fin in resentment: why was the pond so muddy and stagnant? Why had nothing changed? She had changed—why did it not keep up with her? Why did Bim allow nothing to change?

The relationship of Tara and Bim to each other and to others is at the center of the book. Tara is still submissive and obedient to her husband, but her attitude toward her sister has changed. She no longer looks up to her with complete admiration, but gradually questions the wisdom of her actions. Bim had been the outgoing, competent one in the family, but she is worn down with responsibility. She is particularly bitter toward their older brother, Raj who had married into a highly successful Muslim family. Tara’s visit forces Bim to face some of the old resentments she has harbored with “the clear light of day.”

Once the characters are established, Desai takes us back almost twenty years to the violence surrounding the division of the country into India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim. At that time the children were adolescents and Tara and Raj were just leaving home. Then we go back even further to see the relationship of the characters as children. In the final section, the tension between Tara and Bim builds and break,s revealing their fundamental closeness as sisters. We begin to understand the process by which the family became divided, not by some cataclysmic event, but by the tensions of daily life.

The beauty of this book lies in the details and ambiguities that echo through it, the depiction of its characters with their own complexities, and the re-establishment of the bonds of sisterhood. Hard as it is to convey in a review, these details and ambiguities make the book an enjoyable read. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

I heartily recommend The Clear Light of Day to all readers who enjoy a well-written novel and are interested in the subtler effects of division of India and Pakistan.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2012 2:14 am

    Sisters and memories — and India. Sounds like a good read and the sort of subject matter that I love. Must admit I haven’t read Desai yet … but she’s in my radar.

  2. June 10, 2012 1:47 pm

    I had never heard of her before either and picked the book up rather casually. I am glad I did. Desai has a quiet but strong gift.

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