Anita Desai | Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 1,050 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

SOURCE: "Dreams in Old Delhi," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4040, September 5, 1980, p. 948.

In the review of Clear Light of Day below, Annan discusses characterization and plot, concluding that the ending of the book is too explicit.

"The sense of dullness and hopelessness that reigned over their house took on an aspect of intense waiting." That is how one of the two sisters in this Indian novel [Clear Light of Day] remembers her childhood, and she sounds like one of Chekhov's three. The two works have much in common: the theme of frustrated expectation, an elegiac mood, and a tender amusement at people's absurdities.

The novel begins with the triennial visit of the younger sister Tara and her diplomat husband to the old family home, a decaying, suburban mansion on the banks of the Jumna outside Old Delhi. Here Bim, the older sister, lives with the youngest brother, Baba. Baba is autistic, a childlike, speechless whisp of a man who spends his days playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "Donkey Serenade" on an ancient wind-up gramophone. The eldest brother, Raja, has moved away.

The book divides itself equally between the present of Tara's visit and the sisters' memories of the past. "It seemed to [Tara] that the dullness and boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty rugs, in the bloated brassware, among the dried grasses in swollen vases behind the yellow photographs in oval frames." It was far from the usual cheerful chaotic childhood in an extended Indian family. The parents were remote, either shut up in their room or endlessly playing bridge—their refuge from the twin horrors of the mother's illness and Baba's condition. The children grew up neglected until a poor relative was brought in: Aunt Mira gave them love, but only the timid, unpopular Tara was glad to accept it: the older two made fun of the feeble old maid who grew more helpless and incompetent as she relied more heavily on the bottle, eventually drinking away her poor wits and dying in delirium tremens. That was some time after the parents had died in quick succession, the mother of diabetes, the father in a car accident, neither much missed by the children.

Each child is shown as having had its own fantasy of escape from the oppressive milieu. Raja fell in love with the rich, cultured Muslin family across the road, whose father rode a splendid white horse and gave literary and musical parties. Under his influence Raja dreamed of being a poet, and when the Hyder Alis fled to Hyderabad during the 1974 riots, Raja followed them. But instead of becoming a poet he married the fat Hyder Ali daughter and went into his father-in-law's business. Many years later Bim, who had worshipped his talent, finds his early poems and sees that they were competent but uninspired.

Raja and Bim had been inseparable. She was a tomboy: ebullient, bossy, brave, clever at work and good at games. She loved school—that was her refuge. As she grew older her only hope of escape seemed to lie in education. She put herself through the local girls' college—and ended up teaching there still rooted in the dismal old house. The strong adventurous sister, she was the one who got left behind.

Tara was the feminine untalented diffident one. She was miserable at school. When Aunt Mira failed her, she found solace with the commonplace, vulgar family next door. She was pretty: they soon found her a husband, and thankfully she left Bim to cope with their retarded brother and mad, moribund aunt. Propelled through life by a conventional, energetic husband and two bouncing daughters, she was content to become the passive, helpless member of her new family.

Now, in the present, each sister has a hang-up about the past with which she maddens the other. Tara's is her abandonment of Bim: tormented by guilt, she torments Bim with her confessions of it. Bim, on the other hand, suffers from a recurring rage at having been left in the lurch by the others—especially by Raja who had been so close to her. Years ago she had picked a quarrel and broken with him, and now she refuses to accompany Tara to the wedding of his eldest daughter. Tara is shocked by her implacability, and by other signs of a harsh, ingrowing old-maidishness in her sister—particularly by her squalid parsimony. The visit is a strain—a series of under-the-surface estrangements and rapprochements, with sisterly love ebbing and flowing. Anita Desai puts this across with much subtlety and humour. Finally Bim's rage erupts: she threatens to sell up the family business and turn Baba out of the house.

Remorse follows immediately during a sleepless night when Bim recognizes the claims and strength of family love, the necessity for forgiveness. She accepts Tara's tiresome remorse, and though she can not bring herself to go to the wedding, she sends a loving message to Raja. The visit ends with a sunny idyll: Tara's jolly daughters arrive from boarding school to spread merriness, affection and hope.

This unexpectedly up-beat ending is not difficult to take because it is done with a light touch, and realists and pessimists are left free to feel the poignancy of a happiness which they know won't last. But there is, as well, a final explicit set-piece which does seem a mistake. It recalls the equally explicit passage in Howards End when the Schlegels go to a concert. On the day of her niece's wedding Bim, too, goes to a concert and hears an ancient guru sing:

With her inner eye she saw how her own house and its particular history linked and contained her, as well as her whole family … giving them the soil in which to send down their roots … always drawing from the same soil, the same secret darkness. That soil contained all time, past and future…. It was where her deepest self lived, and the deepest selves of her sisters and brothers and all those who shared that time with her.

There can be no doubt after that what [Clear Light of Day] has been about, but it seems a shame to tag an explanation on to such a carefully constructed, beautifully written, sensitive, funny, atmospheric work.

(read more)

This section contains 1,050 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gabriele Annan
Follow Us on Facebook