Clear Light of Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Anita Desai’s novel, Clear Light of Day, is a small treasure rich in finely drawn characters, redolent with arresting imagery, and evocative of an India which challenges its inhabitants to survive the relentless environment. This story of change acknowledges the need to capitulate to that which is inevitable, and, in doing so, the characters experience love and hostility, resentment and acceptance, forgiveness and hate.

Tara, the wife of a diplomat, a woman with nearly grown daughters, has come to revisit her childhood home in Old Delhi, a dreary, disintegrating house where the paint is peeling, the varnish is crazed with lines caused by the oppressive heat of the shimmering summer climate, and the heavy curtains are suffocating with dust. The old rose walk in the garden boasts only a few, limp blossoms, their slight heads “lolling” on weak stems, the grass frizzles in the unbearable sun, and the garden gate stands neglected, sagging on its hinges. Here, Tara reflects, nothing ever changes.

Carefully taught by her husband to rise above the lethargy of her undisciplined background, to become organized and precise, she futilely tries to maintain an air of industry. Why does her sister Bim Das seem so content with these dismal, unkempt surroundings? Why is no order imposed, no personality asserted? Harshly, she confronts her younger brother Baba Das, but his hands hang limply at his sides and she is answered only with shadows and silences. Tara shrinks back: her harshness is out of place in this immutable world. Surely, Bim herself who has always possessed decision, firmness, and resolve will share her secret for dealing with the “heavy, turgid atmosphere” of the house which is relentlessly pulling Tara under, making her feel as helpless as when she was a child.

As she watches Bim and talks with her, however, it becomes slowly apparent that the impression of changelessness is a false one, for Bim is only persevering with the inertia of her life. She runs the house eccentrically, even cruelly, serving meals of leftovers “smudged” onto small plates and served day after day as if to a family of kittens; she urges poor Baba to spend time at the family business, to take a bus and come home for lunch—an impossible task for a man with no personality and no vitality. She only succeeds in agitating him unnecessarily.

It is especially disturbing to Tara to realize Bim’s bitterness toward Raja Das, their once much-adored older brother who left home years before to marry the landlord’s daughter and inherit the property. At the mention of Raja’s name, Bim becomes cynical and critical. She has saved an old letter from him which she secrets away in the rolltop desk in her cluttered, untidy room as if it were a relic. Fiercely clattering down the stairs, she insists that Tara come with her and read the offending missive for herself.

Tara, horrified at her sister’s acrimonious denunciations, protests the letter’s age, but Bim refuses to listen, so intent is she about having been abused. Raja, newly appointed as his late father-in-law’s successor, has offered to allow Bim and Baba to live in the family home at the same rent as always. It is an awkward, yet loving message, but Bim, left alone to care for Baba, is deeply offended.

This emotional tangle revealed in the musty, close room defies the neat rules and regulations of Tara’s adult life. She feels herself being drowned as if in a well, the scummy black water drawing inexorably over her head, a heavy weight pulling her down.

Bim is a woman torn between two worlds—the old and the new. The four children grew up in an India riven by partition, in a household dominated by absent parents who appeared only when leaving for their club to play bridge, or arriving home to retire. Their mother, a diabetic, often lay in bed with her face set in a stiff warning that she was not to be approached. The children spent most of their time sitting on the veranda steps staring at the gate, or lying on their backs at night looking at the stars wondering, dreaming, always aware of the ponderous ennui hanging in the air of their dismal home. The deaths of their parents made little difference for it was as if they were simply away playing cards.

Bim is left to be the head of the family. Her brother Raja, to whom this task would normally fall, has become terribly ill with tuberculosis, and Aunt Mira, who has nurtured them lovingly is further and further incapacitated by her addiction to alcohol. When Bakul, then Tara’s prospective husband, asks for her hand in marriage, he goes to Bim for permission. Bim replies, “I don’t think you need to ask...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Clear Light of Day is divided into four sections; the first and fourth sections are located in the present novelistic moment, and the two middle chapters are memories of the summer of 1948, when political and personal events came to a head in the Das family. By building the two central chapters up to a dramatic pitch, Anita Desai weaves together the political and personal past of the Das sisters, Bim and Tara, whose reminiscences and reconciliation constitute the plot. The main theme of the novel concerns a reinterpretation of past events that have cast shadows of guilt and betrayal on the Das children. By returning in their minds to a crisis point in India’s political history, Bim and Tara understand not only themselves but also their political relationships to the modern Indian state.

As a young girl, Bim dreamed of becoming an explorer—fantasies of glory that she shared with her beloved elder brother, Raja—but the adult Bim finds herself an unmarried and housebound professor of history. Her resentment toward her siblings at being left the sole caretaker of their alcoholic aunt, Miramasi, and a developmentally delayed younger brother, Baba, is the buried past that she must confront in order to reconcile herself with her present circumstances and with her younger sister, Tara. Bim is a well-developed, rounded character who grows throughout the novel; her consciousness, insights, and knowledge are the primary sources of action in the novel.

Having left Bim to take care of the family during the tumultuous summer of 1948—when she met Bakul, married, and escaped family pressures—Tara has to deal with her guilt in order to reconcile herself to Bim. Always timid, domestic-minded, and unromantic, as opposed to her daring elder brother and sister, Tara now comes to self-knowledge: She begins to perceive herself as strong and dependable, an assertive woman and not a...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Desai is an important commentator on the position of women in India. She was a child when India became independent in 1947, and she remains preoccupied with the tasks of nation-building. Within this larger concern, however, she is interested in gender experiences in the Indian social and political context. In her other novels, such as Where Shall We Go This Summer?(1975), she is directly critical of the Indian nationalist agendas: She argues that while the Indian nationalist leaders used women’s participation in their struggle against the British in the colonial period, women in postcolonial India have been excluded from all positions of political power. They are expected to emerge from the home in times of stress (such as the struggle for independence) and then to disappear when the crisis is over. Desai offers a sustained critique of Indian nationalism’s failure to deliver on their promises to women. She is one of the older generation of feminists who has inspired present feminist writers, such as Sunetra Guha, who also formulate social critiques of modern India.

Desai also broke the male ranks of the Indian postcolonial literary tradition. She added a woman’s perspective to a body of writing largely dominated by men trying to fashion an Anglo-Indian literary tradition, such as R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao. Desai’s individual style and talent was recognized in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, when she won the Royal Society of Literature’s prize for her novel Fire on the Mountain (1977) and the National Academy of Letters Award for a volume of short stories, Games at Twilight and Other Stories (1978); the novel In Custody (1984) was nominated for the Booker Prize. Desai’s national and international recognition placed her firmly in the Anglo-Indian tradition. She consistently experimented within this tradition, trying out forms that would best express a woman’s experience: For example, in Where Shall We Go This Summer?, she explicitly reconstructs Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) in order to represent an Indian female artist.

Desai has explored gender experiences, critiqued paternalistic structures, and formulated an Anglo-Indian female tradition. In addition, she has been actively involved in constructing global academic trends and feminist agendas.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Chatterji, Partha. “The Nationalist Resolution of the Woman Question.” In Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, edited by Kumari Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. A twenty-page article that gives a short but coherent summary of the nationalist use of the “woman” as a symbol in political rhetoric. Chatterji locates the present (modern) symbolizations of woman within the nationalist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (colonial India).

Chew, Shirley. “Searching Voices.” In Motherlands: Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South...

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