Clear Light of Day (1980) has an old world feel about it. You almost don't expect the redemption it affords -- somewhat tacky, I felt -- at the end of the novel to rescue it from its morass of misgiving. While I was thrilled it was an alaap by Mulk the failed musician who offers the insight into Bim's life, I was wondering why he was waiting in the wings for so long. His master who musters up a rendition which fails to ennoble seems to afford the obvious realization that youth and old age are two sides of the same coin.
The novel has the girth to push it to another 200 pages -- what with just finishing the gargantuan Glass Palace (2000) by Amitav Ghosh. Still, Anita Desai's cameos of her characters are compelling. But the novel is clearly written for Bim. Her self-knowledge and her openness to meet Raja shows her rising to maturity. But does the novel only hinge on reconciliation?
This is a kunstellroman is it not? Which is a tale of a girl's growing up to be a woman. In the novel there are 4 or if you like 6. The Das's daughters, the Misra's daughters and Tara's daughters. Raja's daughter Shabana in Hyderabad does not really qualify as she is hardly seen. The love-hate relationship between Tara and Bim is fraught with guilt, anger and painful reminisces of childhood memories. The absence of their parents who go to play cards in the club make the sisters lean on each other not always successfully. But the psychological complexity could be plumbed more, something that her daughter Kiran Desai seems to do with more vigour in The Inheritance of Loss (2006) (see this blog for a review). In a sense the two novels belong to two different moments in India's history. Clear Light of Day is set at the time of the partition; Inheritance is about independence in the fractious frontier of Darjeeling. The latter is understandably more modernist.
It is sad to see how the close bond Raja and the sisters shared in childhood is riven in adulthood, by what one suspects is Raja's marriage to Hyder Ali's daughter. Ultimately it is Iqbal and Eliot who provide the coda to life -- if we don't count Aurangzeb. The light offers its commentary on the blindness of obstinacy in the characters in the novel: 'The light of the full moon was so clear, surely it could illuminate everything tonight (247). It is the soft light of the night, not the clear light of day to which Tara implores to for healing.
Old Delhi is certainly a character in the novel. How time hangs heavy on an afternoon with the turntable rasping Baba's songs is lyrically portrayed. The soirees at Roshanara bagh invoke an old world charm safely tucked away from the horrors of Tamas or Train to Pakistan. Gandhiji's murder in 1948 raises the tempo of the novel in the middle (148) and is what causes Hyder Ali to go underground. In the end sanity prevails and Raja marries his daughter affirming Hindu-Muslim amity.
Some of the long sentences are tiresome. Mira Masi tethers on being a caricature inextricably linked to the dead white, 'bride-like' (156) cow whose cause she championed. Her pathetic end is a resounding indictment about the state of Indian women who are at the receiving end of their in-laws. The Misra daughters also have absent husbands to leave their wives to forget their wedded status in their frantic ministrations. Tara is the only one who seems to find fulfillment -- if only by leaving India with Bakul.
It is difficult to escape the pessimism of the novel. Lawrence's Ship of Death is quoted at length (155) where we are advised to prepare for the final voyage. Birth, childhood, adulthood, death are all contained in Clear Light of Day. Through a process of self-effacement we realize our meaning in this life. Time the destroyer, is time the preserver. (283)
Citations from Random House edition with an introduction by Kamila Shamsie. Pix courtesy flipkart.