Clear Light of Day

by Anita Desai

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated May 17, 2024.

Ghosts of The Past

Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the Das house is a site of much death, illness, and trauma. Aunt Mira's fate, particularly, is foreshadowed by that of their heifer—the first death to ever strike the Das household. The cow, which they took in at Mira's insistence that the children have access to fresh milk, falls in and drowns in their stone well one night. During one of her nervous fits, Mira envisions the well as the "navel of the world"—where all must eventually go to die. Upon her aunt's passing, Bim dreams of Mira as having drowned in the well, her hair spread out like in Millais' famous painting of Ophelia. 

At one point, Bim confesses to Tara that she would often see the ghost of Aunt Mira after her death. Much like how the cow's death haunted Mira, Mira's death haunts Bim. Reciting a passage from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Bim likens Mira's ghost to the apparition seen by Antarctic explorers: 

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

Although she claims she was not "frozen or hungry or mad," there is a reason Bim—and only Bim—found herself tormented by Mira's ghost. Hers and Mira's fates are curiously intertwined. Bim seems somewhat aware of this, as she tells Tara that she will end up inside their stone well one day. The hauntings are not simply the result of a tragic death but also of a tragic life—one lived thanklessly in service of others. 

Stagnancy versus Change

Returning to Old Delhi, Tara is struck by how little has changed: the unkempt rose walk, the dusty veranda, and even Bim and Baba have remained the same through the years. Meanwhile, her life back in Washington, D.C., has been packed with housework, child-rearing, and traveling. The stagnancy in the air also seems to have a regressive effect on her, as she rejects Bakul's wishes to roam around New Delhi; somehow, she is compelled to stay behind and "collapse, inevitably collapse." Bim herself remarks on such stasis:

Old Delhi does not change. It only decays. My students tell me it is a great cemetery, every house a tomb. Nothing but sleeping graves.

Although Tara claims that she returns to India from time to time to keep in touch with her roots, the unchanging nature of Old Delhi unsettles her. She attempts to force change in the Das household at multiple points—first with Baba and then with Bim. This wounds her sister, who feels that, in leaving, Tara has effectively relinquished her right to judge or appraise their anachronistic lifestyle. Change is reframed as a luxury—available only to those with averted responsibility, like Tara and Raja. Meanwhile, stagnancy is not only proof of survival; it is the preservation of a valued common past. 

Female Labor and Sacrifice

One of the novel's main themes is the sacrifices its female characters are forced to make. Although this can be seen most prominently in the characters of Aunt Mira and Bim, it is also present outside the Das household—in their neighbors, the Misras. Early in the novel, Old Man Misra complains that his sons are content to be "fat, lazy slobs" who rely on the income their sisters pull in. The men of the novel—from the Misra brothers to Raja to Baba—have all failed to become leaders and providers, as is promised in a...

(This entire section contains 816 words.)

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patriarchal system. Instead, it is the women who have taken up the mantle. 

In Part Three, Aunt Mira is likened to a tree growing in the center of the children's lives—a constant source of shade, support, and nourishment. She never questions this relationship, nor does she ever consider selfishness or withdrawal, feeling that it is simply nature's design that she must give so much. Once the children have outgrown their need for her, she withers away. 

In transitioning to adulthood, Bim is subject to the same parasitic, one-sided relationship. Upon reflecting on this relationship, she envisions her siblings as mosquitoes who turn their backs on her once they have finished drinking her blood. However, instead of succumbing to madness like Mira, Bim finds comfort in the realization that her family is simply an extension of herself:

No other love had started so far back in time and had had so much time in which to grow and spread. They were really all parts of her, inseparable, so many aspects of her as she was of them, so that the anger or the disappointment she felt in them was only the anger and disappointment she felt at herself.