This is a foray into a field as yet unploughed by me, literary criticism of Indian novels! This summer I’ve read Anita Desai’s Clear light of day: perhaps some of you know the book? It was written in 1980, but tells the story of an Old Delhi family back in the forties, at the time of Independence. Well, in fact, that period is the backdrop of a long flashback, which we sense belongs very closely to the author’s life. This was confirmed when I did a little Internet research:
“Desai considers Clear Light of Day her most autobiographical book, because she was writing about her neighborhood in Delhi, although the characters are not based on her brothers and sisters. What she was exploring in this novel, she has said, was the importance of childhood and memories as the source of a life. She had wanted to start the book at the end and move backwards, into the characters' childhood and further, into the childhood of their parents etc., but in the end: "When I had gone as far back as their infancy the book just ground to a halt; it lost its momentum. It told me that this was done, that I couldn't carry it further. But I still have a sense of disappointment about that book, because the intention had been different" (Jussawalla). (link)
So, precisely, what is the intention of this book? I think it’s mainly a literary construction. By this, I don’t mean to say it’s artificial and superfluous, but rather one has the feeling the author is working with the language, and creating her work of art, so to speak. The writing is not effortless, even if it reaches a kind of formal perfection; it is masterfully done, and richly evocative, yet it is very present, and it is difficult to forget that one is reading, and at a price. I have constantly found it taxing to read, because there is so much behind the words. It’s very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, for example, where the text is like a fascinating pattern one has to explore, or an elaborate concerto, that one listens to, knowing that there are too many assonances to place during the first audition. I don’t know whether all this explains why Anita Desai is somehow disappointed about her book. It’s true it doesn’t have the straightforwardness of some great works of fiction.
But don’t get me wrong, there is a good reason for this opulent style: the author is evoking all the layers of her experience, her memory is continuously going back and forth between symbols and realities, and one does share the discoveries with her. Only they’re most of time dark discoveries, and so, added to the rather arduous task of reading, there is the hard plodding towards a past which hasn’t been happy. So much so, that one finds it surprising that the title should be “Clear light of day”… For there isn’t much clarity, I would say, in this novel, and the daylight of those youthful days in Delhi are far too bright and stifling to be enjoyable. In fact the story does move towards a sort of daylight, but through the tunnel of self-acceptance, disillusionment and coming to terms with one’s mistakes. One critic writes that:
Author Anne Tyler has written about Clear Light of Day that Anita Desai is "unexcelled at conveying an atmosphere. [she] takes us so deeply into another world that we almost fear we won't be able to climb out again." (link)
Reading through some descriptions of the author’s work, one would imagine that what attracts people is how she deals with feminism, modernity, identity, etc. Desai is half German, so obviously her perception of India is going to be influenced by elements that come from outside, and Germany has had one heavy history to deal with in the XXth century. But I think (judging it’s true from this one novel) that she’s mostly interested in that very literary problem of Time. She’s trying to convey a sense of time, its passing, its preciousness, its threefold dimension of past, present, and future which means so much for our existence and our experience of life. Her characters are always waiting, hoping, watching, wishing, desiring, regretting: all these attitudes find their common factor in a frantic perception that time is the one precious commodity we have, that it is allotted to us in great quantity, but that we spend it foolishly, and before long we realize that we have only a little left in which to make up for the loss. And more often than not, our reaction is then to nurture our memories, and go back in the past to find the explanation for what has been revealed to us, even though we know that quest to be fruitless. We know that only the present is ours. But we keep hoping that the future will be better and fuller, that the future will bring us what we miss so much: happiness and quiet, harmony and joy.
The story is really that of Bim, the brainy but unhappy eldest girl of the family. I say “really” because if the narration does not always originate from her mind, clearly she is the centre around which everything evolves. Bim is the brightest and the most promising of the children, and so she is constantly hoping for a destiny that would correspond to her level of achievement and worth. Her tragedy is that this destiny will elude her, and she will stay in the decaying house to look after her handicapped brother and her drunken old aunt, before she becomes herself the house’s old aunt, and accepts the limitations of her fiery nature. On the other hand, her undemanding sister Tara will find a husband and a life outside the enchanted circle of the old house, and her elder brother Raja will escape its perimeter too thanks to his acceptable level of normalcy: he is a poet, and even if he had dreamed (like her) of the honours of fame and glory, his poetry, Bim discovers, is really the work of an admirer of the great writers, without much originality, but perhaps this is what has enabled him to integrate a society where too much greatness can exclude. And her little brother Baba has escaped their world from the start. She remains alone, torn between the past, and its hopes of glory, and the future, which she had so much expected would fulfil her. She is trapped in a present time of responsibilities she hasn’t asked to perform, and of stillness she is too old to know how to shake.
The book for me was both wonderful and painful to read. Wonderful because of its vivid realism, its glowing symbolism, its passionate characters. One is seized by the sheer beauty of this passing world which the author’s style has recreated. Some of the images in the story haunt you certainly as they have haunted the little girl that she was. But all this is also painful, mainly because of the oppressive atmosphere, the sombre moodiness pervading the story. I foolishly wanted something to happen, some magic to occur: but nothing breaks the spell, or rather, only other spells can. Even Bim’s liberation towards the end is described in an almost mystical way; the psychology is so dense!
I don’t know whether it would make a good Bollywood movie. They would probably have to “soup it up”, as Richard Sherman says in Billy Wilder’s “The seven year itch”!
 “Throughout her novels, children's books, and short stories, Desai focuses on personal struggles and problems of contemporary life that her Indian characters must cope with. She maintains that her primary goal is to discover "the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality" (CLC). She portrays the cultural and social changes that India has undergone as she focuses on the incredible power of family and society and the relationships between family members, paying close attention to the trials of women suppressed by Indian society”. (here)