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...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)