Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day has a quiet strength that slowly creeps up on you. Against the backdrop of the political upheaval and turmoil in pre-partition India is the story of the four children of the Das family. The novel opens with the four siblings as adults. Raja, the eldest son, has moved away, married the Muslim daughter of their former landlord, and lives in Hyderabad. Tara, the youngest daughter, has come home with her husband to spend a few days in her childhood home visiting her sister, Bimla, and their mentally challenged brother, Baba. Bimla, a single, middle-aged college professor, assumed the care taking responsibilities for Baba and for the aging Aunt Mira while she was alive.
Tensions surface between Tara and Bimla. Although Bimla claims she is satisfied with her life, she harbors a torrent of anger and resentment toward her siblings, especially Raja because she feels abandoned by him, and Tara because she married a diplomat and has become a well-traveled socialite. As the tensions smolder between the two siblings, we are thrust back to their childhood.
We discover the children were neglected by parents totally absorbed with themselves and their own activities. In many ways, the children were orphaned long before their parents died. With the arrival of Aunt Mira, the children are finally wrapped in a cocoon of love and acceptance. An aging, balding woman, Aunt Mira’s affection for the children is evoked with gentle, loving detail. The description of her arrival to the Das household is particularly poignant. She earns the devotion of the children by mothering, nurturing, and loving them in ways their mother never did.
The four siblings are depicted as unique individuals, each struggling in his or her own way to find a path out of their stifling environment. Baba doesn’t speak. We are never sure if he understands what’s happening around him since he doesn’t react. He withdraws into a bubble by continuously playing old songs on a windup gramophone. As a young girl, Bimla competes with her brother Raja. She is an exemplary student, athletic, accomplished, popular, ambitious, and a high achiever. Raja is restless, torn between his Hindu identity and his desire for acceptance by his Muslim neighbors, especially the Muslim landlord whose daughter he eventually marries. Tara struggles with school. Bullied by classmates and her older siblings, teased mercilessly, friendless, and desperately lonely, her only comfort comes from snuggling up to Aunt Mira. She eventually finds a way out of her environment by marrying a diplomat.
This is a story about family, about the sibling rivalries, guilt, frustrations, petty jealousies, and cruelties experienced during childhood continuing to haunt well into adulthood. As Tara says to Bimla, “…but it’s never over. Nothings over, ever.” It is also a story about childhood aspirations and dreams and the disappointments we experience as adults when those dreams fail to materialize. And, finally, it is a story about aging.
Skilled in evoking a sense of time and place and in capturing the tensions and frustrations of childhood, Desai is a master storyteller. Her prose is lyrical as she slowly draws you in to the lives of her characters. Themes introduced early in the novel recur as it progresses, shedding light on the divergent paths taken by the siblings. Desai shows the childhood baggage we carry into adulthood will never leave us until we make a conscious effort to let it go. The novel ends on a suggestion of acceptance and forgiveness—a glimpse at the clear light of day. Bimla indicates a willingness to reconcile with her estranged brother by recognizing that no matter how their paths have diverged, they are all inextricably linked by a past rooted in the same soil:
That soil contained all time, past and future, in it. It was dark with time, rich with time. It was where her deepest self lived, and the deepest selves of her sister and brothers and all those who shared that time with her.
A beautiful novel told with sensitivity and compassion. Highly recommended.