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Critical Review by Meredith Marsh
SOURCE: "The Ambiguities of Independence," in The New Republic, Vol. 184, No. 8, February 21, 1981, pp. 39-40.
In the mixed review of Clear Light of Day below, Marsh discusses the themes of identity and autonomy.
"Only connect" was E. M. Forster's most famous piece of advice, and his most famous novel is about the near impossibility of carrying it out. In A Passage to India, the small moments of connection between friends seem all the more valuable as the riptides of history, social convention, and passion sweep them into misunderstanding and separation. In that book, especially as we read it with hindsight, the oncoming struggles of both India and Pakistan for independence hover over all the action like rarely glimpsed but restless gods who shape the lives of mortals to what may, but probably will not, turn out to be higher purposes.
Anita Desai, an Indian novelist whose father was Bengali and mother German, was barely an adolescent during her country's turmoil over national and religious identity, and much of her work reads like the younger generation's reply to the issues that Forster so presciently and masterfully defined in the 1920s. Beware the loneliness of independence, he warned, remember that it must entail pushing others away. Like Forster, Desai puts her finger directly on the ice that lies at the heart of freedom; she keeps reminding us that it is cold, very cold, and no less cold for being beautiful.
Perhaps the bitterest fights for individuation take place between brothers and sisters, and Clear Light of Day, Desai's third book to be published in this country, is the story of the Das children growing up together, fighting their way apart in order to keep growing, and finally trying as adults to reconnect, all against the backdrop of national partition. Told in flashbacks that tend to blur rather than convey the poignancy of loss, the book first introduces us to the adult sisters: Tara, the younger, now the competent if deferential wife of a diplomat, and unmarried Bim, who at first, with her teaching job and bossy manner, seems by far the more independent of the pair. But is Bim really? Tara asks. Then why did Bim, who used to dream of being a heroine and gypsy, stay at home? Does her gray hair indicate a deeper sterility, one at the very core of her strength?
With these questions and Bim's evasive replies, Desai evokes the mixed blessings of homecoming. On the one hand, no one ever knows us as our families do, those who loved us when we were only primal processes playing hide and seek with identity, and for that reason no relationships run deeper. Yet now that we have grown up and found serviceable identities for seeking and hiding in the larger world, will our families put aside the old labels and respect us for whoever we have become, are becoming?
Bim, whom all believe to be so strong, has not married partly because she would never buckle to a man as Tara does, but also because she has never let go of her older brother, Raja, once a tubercular poet, whom she will not forgive for abandoning her to follow his wife's Moslem family to Pakistan, where he has become a plump, happy, sentimental householder. Hate now binds her to him just as passionately as love once did, and it is only when Tara comes to understand this furious dependence that she can help Bim to let go. For herself, the more conventionally feminine Tara can easily admit dependence on husband and children. The surprise for her, and for Bim in coming to understand her, is recognizing how coolly she chose her husband in the first place as a vehicle for seeing the world, the adventure that her older sister dreamed of but that she has lived. True, she is dependent, but she can switch her dependence from an old hanger to a better one just as efficiently as she unpacks her traveling clothes. For years Tara has felt guilty for having once, on a picnic (in a scene that is a counterpoint to the bee scene in A Passage to India), abandoned Bim to a swarm of angry bees, but she realizes that her real desertion was simply ceasing to need Bim.
Identity and autonomy, Desai is telling us in this interesting book, always amount to trade-offs, compromises, many of them hidden even from ourselves. Just as people who cling may be surprisingly shrewd about where they plunk their weight, so those who appear the most self-sufficient and detached may, in secret, be feeding on old loves that they have reduced to fantasy in order to control. It is the latter striving for detachment that especially fascinates Desai. Like Forster, she admires the transcendent religious impulse in such a letting-go while sharply regretting that it means letting go of so many outstretched hands. For a Christian, Forster suggested, love is personal, inseparable from individuals and their special cases, whereas for an Eastern mystic love is a holistic acceptance so vast that it cannot value any particular over another. Forster deeply felt the wisdom of this, yet asked what it means when "particulars" turn out to be real people who are suffering, begging for our care. Desai does not associate this conflict with East and West; rather, she locates it within each of her characters, and although in the end she urges connection, what she makes most alluring is solitude. Her best scenes sing of withdrawal and stillness, and this is true both thematically, in that her most powerful characters yearn to get away, and technically, in that all her work has a tableau-vivant quality, as if she has arranged her people on a lit-up platform while warning them not to move one unseemly muscle. Perhaps the freest character in this novel, she hints, is Baba, the youngest brother, who has a simplicity of spirit that borders on sainthood—yet that is because Baba is retarded.
From the moment the reader learns that Raja is in Pakistan she can predict that this novel will hinge on a reconciliation, and in that sense it is too schematic. Its real emotional center, however, is the relationship between the sisters, which Desai does not focus on firmly enough. She devotes too much painstaking prose to landscape and revery and too little to the complex adults she has invented and the changes they work between them. The musical celebration that ends the book is moving and graceful, yet because it is only the last in a series of static poses it cannot bring dramatic resolution but seems more like a final illustration, tacked on.
There is one new perspective which the younger generation can offer Forster. Desai's characters live in the aftermath of national liberation and to a considerable extent of social liberation, free of foreign imperialism and native superstition alike, reasonably free to invent their lives. Yet they still find it nearly impossible to connect. Forster admired individualism and yearned for connection and could to some extent blame a hidebound, snobbish society for stifling both. Living in a far looser society, Desai finds it more difficult to pin the blame. Although her central characters tend to be women, she nowhere suggests that society spares men the tension between duty to others, need of others, and the longing to transcend such ties. Instead she traces with insight and care the ways that each of us, eagerly, stifles love in quest of an independence that is pure, free, and frigid.
This section contains 1,253 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)