42 pages • 1 hour read
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Clear Light of Day (1980) is Anita Desai’s sixth and—according to the author—most autobiographical novel. This novel was the first of three of Desai’s books to be nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize. Like other books in her corpus, such as Cry, the Peacock (1963) and Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), it deals with gender struggles in a modernizing India. Set against the backdrop of Indian Independence and Partition, it explores the lives of the Das family, focusing on the two sisters, Bim and Tara, whose lives have taken very different trajectories, and their relationships to their brothers Raja and Baba.
A work of postcolonial literature, the novel explores the lingering effects of British colonialism on a newly independent India. It also falls into a narrower canon of Indian and Pakistani novels addressing the Partition of the two countries following independence. This canon is referred to as Partition literature. Divided into four sections, Clear Light of Day is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator. Most of the novel takes place in the Das family home and garden in Old Delhi before, during, and after Indian Independence from British rule and the country’s Partition into India and Pakistan. The story shifts in time from the present adulthood to the adolescence, the childhood and back to the present of the Das siblings from the points of view and through the memories of the two sisters. This guide uses the First Mariner Books 2000 edition located on the Internet Archive. Themes explored in this guide include the Struggles of Women in Modern India, Family and Nation in Postcolonial Literature, and Trauma, Memory, and Silence.
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Content Warning: The novel includes isolated incidents of animal cruelty.
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Clear Light of Day primarily takes place in the Das family house in Old Delhi, where Bim and Baba have lived their entire lives. Back for a family visit to attend the wedding of Raja’s daughter in Hyderabad, where the family now lives, Tara and Bim retrace family traumas and silences as the narrative moves in time from their adulthood in the present to their adolescence and childhood and back again. The family history of trauma and silence mirrors that of India as it experiences Independence and the Partition at the end of the British Raj in 1947.
The story opens in the Das family home in post-Independence India. Bimla (or Bim) is a college instructor of history and has remained in the home to care for her younger brother Baba, who has an intellectual disability and spends his time listening to old music on a gramophone. Bim has never married, preferring to spend her time in her garden or caring for family members, including her aunt’s cat and neighbor’s dog. Tara, her attractive younger sister, has come to visit from Washington, DC, where her husband Bakul is a diplomat. She does this every three years. This year, however, their brother Raja’s daughter is getting married, so she will also travel to Hyderabad, in Southern India, to attend the wedding. Bim will not be attending the wedding, as she has never forgiven her brother for abandoning his dreams of becoming a poet to marry their wealthy neighbor’s daughter instead. She also cannot forgive him for a letter he wrote in which he described himself as the landlord, since he inherited the rented Das house from his wealthy father-in-law.
The second section of the novel shifts back in time to their adolescence, which coincides with the period of Indian Independence from British rule and the nation’s Partition into India and Pakistan in 1947. Bim and Raja are close at this time, sharing a passion for poetry. Raja, despite being Hindu, develops a fascination for Urdu language and literature, associated with the Muslim population of India. Raja becomes drawn into the intellectual circles of their wealthy neighbor Hyder Ali. They exclude Bim from this male and predominantly Muslim world, so she devotes her time to her own studies in history.
The Das children become even more distanced from their parents when their mother falls ill, and the duty of caring for their Aunt Mira who has an alcohol addiction and their brother Baba, who has an intellectual disability, falls almost entirely to Bim. Both parents die, and when Raja falls ill with tuberculosis, it is Bim who cares for him, too. Tara, isolated by the death of her parents and their aunt’s alcohol addiction, spends more time with the Hindu neighbors the Misras. They introduce her to Bakul, whom she will eventually marry. Raja’s Hindu colleagues at university become suspicious of his loyalties, and once he has recovered from his illness, he joins Hyder Ali and his family in Hyderabad, where they are hiding due to increased tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
Chapter 3 goes back even further in time to their childhood and the decade leading up to India’s Independence from British rule. The three older siblings are awaiting the birth of Baba. Not long after Baba’s birth, it becomes clear that he has an intellectual disability (ID) and possible autism, and the parents invite a poor relation, the widowed Aunt Mira, to live with them to care for the boy. The Das parents are more interested in spending time playing cards at the club than caring for their children, and Aunt Mira is relieved to have escaped the cruel treatment she experienced as a young widow living with her husband’s family.
Bim excels at school while Tara suffers constantly from teasing both there and at home, where her two closely bonded older siblings often exclude her. Bim and Raja want to become “heroes” when they grow up and ridicule the younger Tara for what they see as her insignificant dream of becoming a mother. Increasingly excluded by her family, Tara seeks solace in the company of the more compatible Misras sisters.
Chapter 4 returns to the present day and tensions between the sisters come to a head. Tara confronts Bim about her damaged relationship with Raja. Bim reveals that she is struggling financially. The pressures of supporting the family and caring for Baba mount, as does her anger at Raja for having abandoned her with all the familial responsibilities. She turns her anger toward Baba, but he does not acknowledge it and instead responds to her in his familiar and loving manner. She realizes how much she loves him and the rest of her family, including Raja, and asks Tara to bring Raja back to the house for a visit after the wedding. The novel ends with a concert in the Misras’ garden.
By Anita Desai