By Michael James
A striking interpersonal drama built upon a firm historical subtext.
Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is a dramatic text focusing on familial ties and the importance of forgiveness. The novel follows the lives of one generation of the Das family, showing that the siblings have grown apart in their adulthood. Desai turns back the clock, however, taking the reader back to their adolescence and early childhood in order to examine the causes of this schism. Yet in the process of displaying the family’s past, Desai additionally paints an image of British India prior to and during its partition.
The book opens with the adult Tara and Bim, sisters, meeting in their childhood home in Old Delhi. While Tara has lived a life away from Old Delhi, Bim has remained in their old house taking care of their younger brother Baba (who has an unspecified mental disorder). Bim is a bitter, antagonistic figure; within minutes of reuniting, “Tara […] felt a prickle of distrust in Bim. Was Bim being cruel again? There could be no other motive.” Bim especially despises Raja, her older brother who lives in Hyderabad, Pakistan. Bim stubbornly refuses to attend his daughter’s wedding due to a longstanding grudge. Tara attempts to convince Bim to forgive Raja, to no avail.
The second chapter is set in 1947 during the Das children’s adolescence and the Partition of India. Raja has been ill with tuberculosis for most of the year, yet is still worried about the fate of Hyder Ali Sahib’s family, their Muslim neighbors. This turmoil is reinforced by the untimely deaths of the children’s mother & father and Aunt Mira, leaving Bim as the sole caretaker of her siblings. Shortly afterward, Raja recovers and decides to follow Hyder Ali Sahib and his family family to Hyderabad, Pakistan in order to escape the situation within the Das home, mirroring the flight of the Muslim refugees themselves. Tara similarly leaves the house via marriage, leaving Bim alone to care for Baba.
The third chapter moves even further back in time, examining the childhood of the Das siblings prior to India’s partition. Raja and Bim are inseparable, while Tara is excluded—a stark change from the discord between Raja and Bim as seen later on. Baba is born, and the family quickly realizes that he is not a “normal” child. Aunt Mira, a widow, is brought into the home in order to help care for Baba. Aunt Mira acts as a positive influence for Tara despite her assorted issues, whereas Bim and Raja reject Aunt Mira’s care after a short time due to deeming it “childish.”
The fourth chapter jumps back to the present, with Tara once again confronting Bim about the wedding of Raja’s daughter. This sets Bim on a downward spiral of irritation and depression; “her anger was as raw as a rash of prickly heat that she compulsively scratched and made worse.” Eventually Bim rages at Baba, whose terrified reaction snaps her out of her anger. Bim realizes that she must stop being angry at her family and accept them as a part of her. The novel closes with Bim still refusing to attend the wedding, yet instructing Tara to invite Raja and his family to visit her.
The primary focus of the text is unmistakably the tensions between the members of the Das family, and the interactions between Raja, Bim, and Tara are strikingly plausible and well-written. However, Desai’s novel additionally provides a look at the turmoil of Partition-era India. Desai’s clear, yet dense and metaphorical language describes the setting and the characters with the same strokes, showing the similarity between person and environment. The death and separation the family faces mirrors the death and division of India itself, while the reconciliation between Raja and Bim shows a clear hope for the future.
*This review’s featured image depicts Partition-era Muslim refugees boarding a train near New Delhi to take a train to Pakistan. It may be found here.