Clear Light of Day

by Anita Desai

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Last Updated May 17, 2024.


Clear Light of Day is a novel by Indian writer Anita Desai, first published in 1980. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the same year. The novel has also been included in the BBC's and The Reading Agency's 2022 "Big Jubilee Read," a list of 70 books by authors from the Commonwealth of Nations intended to commemorate the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II.

The novel is divided into four parts. While it jumps back and forth from the present to the past, it is set almost entirely in the Das house in Old Delhi. It centers on four siblings—Raja, Bim, Tara, and Baba—and the rift that grows between them through the years. 

Plot Summary

While visiting her childhood home in Old Delhi, Tara is dismayed to learn that her sister Bim has been holding a bitter grudge against their brother Raja, who is married to their landlord's daughter, Hyder Ali. Upon Hyder Ali's death, Raja had sent Bim a letter assuring her that he would not be raising their rent—a supposedly gracious gesture she took as an insult. Only two people live in the house now: Bim and their youngest sibling, Baba, who is autistic. 

At night, Bim, Tara, and her husband Bakul visit their neighbors, the Misras. The Misra siblings are impressed with Bakul's stories, as he works as a diplomat for the Indian embassy. Upon returning to their house, Bim confesses to Tara that she had seen the ghost of their Aunt Mira shortly after her death. The two sisters also reminisce about the 1947 Partition of India and what a troubled time it was. 

Part Two of the novel is set in the years leading up to the partition. Because of his interest in Urdu literature, Raja forms a close relationship with their Muslim landlord, Hyder Ali, throughout his childhood and adolescent years. He plans to attend Jamia Millia University, but his father advises him to enroll in Hindu College instead, citing the escalating tensions between Hindus and Muslims. 

The siblings' mother dies after a lifelong battle with diabetes. Shortly after, their father dies in a car accident. During this time, Raja is confined to his bed, having fallen ill with tuberculosis. He is devastated to learn from Bim that Hyder Ali and his family have fled Old Delhi because of the partition. Meanwhile, Tara goes out with the Misra sisters to escape their troubles at home. 

On one of her outings, Tara meets Bakul, who starts courting her. He asks Bim for permission to marry Tara and take her to Ceylon. Soon after Tara has gone, Bim and Baba visit Hyder Ali's abandoned house at Raja's insistence. They find the dog Begum and take it home, as well as an old gramophone and records. Finally, Raja receives a letter from Hyder Ali, who assures him they are safe and living in Hyderabad. 

Raja's doctor, Dr. Biswas, begins courting Bim. However, she is too preoccupied with household affairs to entertain his advances. He introduces Bim to his mother, but a language barrier makes it an awkward affair. Around this time, Aunt Mira, who has developed alcoholism, dies from a prolonged nervous breakdown. Shortly after her funeral, Raja leaves for Hyderabad. 

In Part Three, the novel flashes back to Baba's birth. Their mother enlists the caretaking services of Mira, her cousin who had been widowed at fifteen. The children grow close to Aunt Mira immediately, as she gives them the much-needed care and attention their parents failed to give.

One afternoon, Bim and Tara join the Misras on a picnic. While exploring a cave,...

(This entire section contains 784 words.)

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the two sisters are attacked by bees. Tara outruns the swarm and leaves Bim to call for help—something she has felt guilty about all her life. When Bim declares her plans to attend college, Tara realizes her life ambitions are very different. 

In Part Four, the novel returns to the present. Once again, Tara attempts to convince Bim to attend the upcoming wedding of Moyna, one of Raja's daughters. Angry and hurt, Bim takes her feelings out on Baba, faulting him for never attending to the insurance business their father had left behind. However, she immediately regrets her outburst, reflecting on her complicated, enduring love for her siblings. 

Tara's two young daughters arrive at the house. Before Tara and her family leave for the wedding in Hyderabad, Bim surprises her sister by imparting a message for Raja: he and his family should come and visit sometime. Bim and Baba attend a modest birthday celebration at the Misras that night. She softens when the celebrant, an elderly musician, plays one of Raja's favorite poets.