Clear Light of Day

by Anita Desai

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Clear Light of Day

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Last Updated May 17, 2024.

Along with Fasting, Feasting and In CustodyClear Light of Day is one of Indian writer Anita Desai’s three books that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. However, what separates Clear Light of Day from the other two is that it is Desai’s most autobiographical work. Even though the characters of the novel are “not based on real people,” the complex relationships between the Das siblings are anchored in Desai’s own family ties. In a 2022 interview with the Booker Prize Foundation, the author discusses how tension and friction often accompany such intimate relationships.

Although the novel is a contained family drama—set mainly in a single location, the Das house in Old Delhi—it also flourishes with multiculturalism. Since Desai herself had grown up in a multi-lingual environment, the characters of the novel are exposed to different languages: Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali. Most notably, Raja and Bim also grow to love English poets such as Lord Byron, Tennyson, and T.S. Eliot—often committing their pieces to memory. 

The siblings’ appreciation for different languages mirrors their own personal complexities. Raja becomes infatuated with Urdu from a young age—the so-called “language of the learned and cultivated” due to its use in Muslim and Moghul courts. Even though he learns to appreciate English literature in college, his favorites do not measure up to the graceful couplets of Urdu poets such as Iqbal. In contrast, Raja looks down on Hindi—soon to be declared the national language of post-partition India—as the clumsy, inefficient language of the everyday man. Such snobbery and elitism would be one of the main reasons Bim grows disgusted with her older brother. 

Apart from literature, the novel also references different types of music. Baba, for example, is obsessed with his gramophone, refusing to play any modern records in favor of old American hits such as “White Christmas” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—in effect, contributing to the atmosphere of staleness and stasis in their home. Meanwhile, Dr. Biswas stumbles and blunders through every conversation except when talking about his beloved Mozart—something Bim and Raja poke fun at him for behind his back. In the novel, music is often employed for anachronistic, comic effect. 

Music accompanies one of Bim’s most crucial moments of realization at the end of the novel. While attending a celebration at the Misras’, the birthday celebrant—an elderly musician and Mulk’s guru—starts singing verses by the poet Iqbal. Far from being comic, the music softens Bim’s heart, leading her to reflect on her family’s shared history:  

With her inner eye she saw how her own house and its particular history linked and contained her as well as her whole family with all their separate histories and experiences—not binding them within some dead and airless cell but giving them the soil in which to send down their roots, and food to make them grow and spread, reach out to new experiences and new lives, but always drawing from the same soil, the same secret darkness.

It would be an oversimplification to conclude that Bim has forgiven her siblings at this point in the novel. Instead, she experiences the floodgates of heart opening up to new experiences—and perhaps, the possibility of grace and reconciliation. At the end of Part One, Bim herself explains to Tara that life does not “flow” freely—rather, it is contained behind floodgates, jumping forward only when the locks are opened. 

The significance of openness and continuation can be seen in another conversation between Bim and Tara right before the latter departs from Old Delhi. Unlike her relationship with her two brothers, Bim’s bond with Tara...

(This entire section contains 782 words.)

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is governed by neither literature nor music; instead, it is fraught with pregnant silences, slights, and misunderstandings. 

While Tara desperately wants Bim to forgive her abandonment of the family, Bim refuses to acknowledge that there is anything to forgive, pointing out that it was all so long ago. As a compromise, Tara gets her sister to admit that “Nothing’s over, ever.” This humble concession is what lies at the heart of Clear Light of Day—brief glimpses of love and understanding amidst the painful fog of the past.  

She saw in Tara’s desperation a reflection of her own despairs. They were not so unalike. They were more alike than any other two people could be. They had to be, their hands were so deep in the same water, their faces reflected it together. ‘Nothing’s over,’ she agreed. ‘Ever,’ she accepted.

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