Clear Light of Day

by Anita Desai

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As in most of her other novels, Desai’s focus in Clear Light of Day is ostensibly narrow: She is interested in representing family relationships and individual acts of self-realization. In this novel, however, the personal explorations of guilt, betrayal, inertia, and responsibility double as political realizations. Women must find a new political role in postcolonial India after the country’s independence in 1947. Desai argues that women must struggle to make a place for themselves in a paternalistic nation, where womanhood is a mere symbolic construct (the “mother” nation). Her analysis of gender and politics thus extends into a critique of Indian nationalism, which excluded gender issues from its political rhetorics of liberation and rejuvenation.

Thus Bimala’s understanding of self and the nation is worked out through her reconstruction of the maternal figure: The mother is both a personal role to which she has been reduced by her family and a political symbol which is manipulated by the male political leaders of modern India. Bim must reinvent a positive maternal image in order to go beyond her personal role of caretaking and her politically inert position in society. The narrative of remembrance and reconciliation is effected through a complex web of maternal symbols and metaphors.

While the political implications of Desai’s work are clear, the personal dynamics of self-knowledge and insight are prominent as well. She uses the narrative structure of a flashback effectively to depict the workings of Bim’s mind; within the two-chapter-long flashback, events are jumbled and juxtaposed according to childhood associations, rather than represented in chronological order. For example, Tara remembers her marriage in conjunction with an earlier “bee-episode” because on both occasions she had abandoned her sister. These often-startling juxtapositions replicate the textures of memory. All action is restricted to the mind in this novel, which attempts a psychologically realistic depiction of consciousness and character. Physical actions are few: Bakul makes two trips to New Delhi; the sisters visit their neighbors, the Misras; and Tara’s daughters arrive from Washington, D.C. At all other times, mental interactions are represented in subjective memories, conversations, and verbal observations. Even the political history of India is sketched through events read in newspapers, heard through rumors (such as news of riots and Mahatma Gandhi’s death), read in history books, or felt through music and poetry. Thus Desai’s critique of political inertia, through her representation of personal self-knowledge, is oblique and complex.

The reader can access this political critique in two ways: by analyzing her web of maternal metaphors, reading them alongside examples of Indian nationalist political rhetoric, or by looking at the internal rhetoric of the text. In the first approach, the reader must move outside the text to fill in the accrued political and cultural significance of Desai’s prose. Using the second approach, the reader may note the negative tone that Desai adopts toward any helplessness on the part of her woman characters. Bim and Tara may be very different people; their language, manners, and actions are significantly different. When either of them feels helpless, however, she uses similar words of self-loathing and disgust at her condition. Words such as “moribund,” “decay,” and “suffocation,” used by both Bim and Tara, condemn the experience of powerlessness and reveal Desai’s own point of view. Her political judgments can thus be accessed in these points of similarly coded rhetoric, which intrude into an individual character’s particular speech and language.

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Critical Context