By Joel Joseprabu

The complicated conflicts of the Das household build slowly and resolve just the same.

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Figure 1: The busy streets of Old Delhi

Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is a novel set in Old Delhi that blends societal unrest with seemingly unusual familial tensions. In it, she presents a slice-of-life styled account of the Das family, whose relationships initially fail to add up, but align with the underlying societal struggles present during the time due to India’s 1947 Partition. By exploring the intricacies and reasons for such conflicts, Desai comments on the religious tension that exists between Hindu and Muslim groups, and its effect on the people of India, while telling the story of an imperfect family.

The reader is initially thrown headfirst into the present day, 1980. The four siblings are adults; Tara is married with children and lives abroad, Bim is a teacher and cares for their disabled brother Baba, and Raja has moved away to Pakistan and married the daughter of their Muslim neighbor and landlord. Baba, the youngest sibling, is described as having some kind of learning and social disability, resulting in his life being spent at home listening to old records on the gramophone. Here, we see the source of Bim’s symptoms of pent-up anger and frustration. “Whenever I begin to wish to see Raja again or wish he would come to see us, then I take out that letter and read it again,” she says with quiet anger. In this letter, Raja describes his desire to charge Bim a low rent for the use of their childhood home, the home he inherited from his father-in-law. The treatment of money, as well as Raja’s formal tone, insult Bim. Desai conveys a strange mood in this section, where the reader understands that something is off-putting but can’t quite tell what it is.

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Figure 2: A map of India immediately after the partition

When moving into the second section, Desai sends the reader backward in time to the young adulthood and adolescence of the siblings of the family. The year is 1947, the year of partition. This stage of the family’s development is filled with unconventional relationships, unrequited respect, and the unexpected emergence of Bim as the caretaker of the family. And so, as India’s partition begins, so too does the divide in the Das family. We see Raja’s romanticized views of the world at play many times in this section, but we also see his corresponding detachment from his family. His love for Urdu poetry is far more accepted at the house of their Muslim neighbor, Hyder Ali Saheb, which foreshadows his later departure. When Raja leaves, Tara marries, and Aunt Mira passes away, the family unavoidably falls apart, and the responsibility falls on Bim’s shoulders, as she struggles to support herself and Baba.

The third section sends the reader even further back, to the siblings’ childhoods. It’s here that we see some of the earliest signs of problematic relationships and lack of connection that is now seen as characteristic of the family. Bim admires Raja but resents him for his detachment, and she then takes this anger out on Tara. Tara similarly admires Bim, but is hurt by the admiration she gives Raja but cruelty she shows her. These complex connections provide clarity when dealing with the roots of the problems that Desai details earlier in the novel.

The fourth and final section of the novel brings us back to the present, in which the tension that was built throughout their lives finally cracks their desperately built façade of stability. In this way, Desai effectively examines the relationships between the characters in a backward manner; she starts with exposure to the awkward dynamic of the family, and then proceeds to explain the context and history behind such intricacies through a series of detailed flashbacks.

Figure 3: An interview with Anita Desai, the author of this novel

While the novel is not action-packed, it details several important events that define the characters with a surprising level of personality. We see throughout the novel that tensions build up due to lacking perceptiveness and communication. Each of the oldest three siblings is blinded by his or her own conflicts, and fails to notice that the others had their own. Bim’s anger explodes in the final section, but she breaks through and realizes “that she felt only love and yearning for them all.” While she doesn’t attend the wedding, she admits to Tara that they would all be welcome in the house. By no means is this a happy ending, but it isn’t necessarily an unhappy one. Bim takes her first step on the path to reconstruction; Desai notes with this that while problems may not always be solved immediately or perfectly, there are always steps one can take.

*This review’s featured image depicts one of the overcrowded trains used to evacuate the Muslim people from India as they migrated to Pakistan. It can be found here.

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