Anita Desai | Critical Review by Shouri Daniels

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 2,249 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Shouri Daniels

SOURCE: "Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day," in Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 107-12.

In the generally positive review below, Daniels discusses the themes, characterization, and narrative structures in Clear Light of Day.

Clear Light of Day is an English novel (as distinct from American, Russian or French), and it surpasses all other novels in English set in India in characterization, poetic use of landscape and integrity of vision. As might have been expected, the publisher's description finds in the novel "echoes we haven't heard since E. M. Forster's A Passage to India." This is somewhat misleading. Anita Desai's novel brings to mind not the Forster of A Passage but the Forster of Howard's End. In broad conception, the similarities between the two novels are obvious: the atmosphere of both novels is built around a house, both might have been titled Two Sisters (in Desai's novel, the sisters—Bim and Tara—share an inner sensibility that sets them apart from others, as is the case with the Schlegel sisters in Forster's novel); both belong to the tradition of the comedy of manners; both use the domestic to suggest the larger social fabric; both rely on symbols that are drawn from the inner as well as the outer world, while managing to convey the nineteenth-century view of man as something continuous with nature.

In Clear Light of Day Tara returns to her childhood home on Bela Road, Civil Lines, Old Delhi, to visit her sister Bim and their retarded brother Baba. (Civil Lines is a leafy residential area where one can find families with old money.) The time is summer. The days are dry and dusty; the reunion throws up images of past years. We move through the present to the past and back again through the separate perspectives of the sisters. A fourth member of the family, the older brother, Raja, lives in Hyderabad. Bim and Raja once perceived themselves to have affinities and heroic aspirations in common, but they are now estranged.

The narrative of the story concerns the forthcoming wedding of Raja's daughter, an event Tara means to attend with her diplomat husband and daughters, but Bim cannot bring herself to go. Her sense of injury and hurt isolates her. Today in every Indian family there is a Bim, a daughter who stays home to take care of members of the family who have nowhere to go and no means of support. Such women seldom discover the luxury of self-definition and do not see themselves in a heroic light. The society demands it of them, and they are taken for granted. (The fatted calves are reserved for the prodigals.) Tara is aware that she deserted Bim. Though morally sensitive, Tara resists the circle of oppression, and the resulting ambiguity and tension between the two sisters has a compelling reality. The final movement of the novel is toward harmony, as in many English novels. When Tara and her family pile into a car with their American suitcases, even though Bim's face seems made of "dried clay that had cracked," there is a recognition of affinities between Tara and Bim, and a suggestion of a possible meeting with the absentee head of the household, Raja.

Bim is the strongest character in the novel. She perceives Old Delhi as a city that does not change, but merely decays. Old Delhi, she says, quoting one of her students, "is a cemetery, every house a tomb. Nothing but sleeping graves." Just as Old Delhi has more life in its burial grounds than is suspected by Bim, Bim has more vitality than is suspected on the surfaces of the narration. Tara perceives her sister as "part of the pattern." For Tara, the pattern had grown old, and

Bim, too, gray-haired, mud-faced, was only a brown fleck in the faded pattern. If you struck her, dust would fly out. If you sniffed, she'd make you sneeze. An heirloom, that was all—not valuable, not beautiful, but precious on account of age. Precious to whom?

The question is an ironic one. Bim had stayed on to nurse the sick, cremate the dead, and watch the retarded. Abandoned to this task, she endured—earned a degree, found work, held herself and her world together. She had perceived herself as the center of that world, but there was no one left in it other than the near-mute brother who could do nothing at all except listen all day to "Lili Marlene" and "Don't Fence Me In" on an old gramophone.

To escape the waiting, the wanting, the sense of oppression and absence that hung over their house, Tara married a diplomat. The parents were obsessed with their games of bridge after the Roshanara Club; they came home to sleep or dress. The mothering the children received came from a hand-me-down aunt, Mira, a widow who had served another household of relatives from her twelfth year, as unpaid servant—for that is the lot of widows. Mira had been paying off her guilt of widowhood. Finding her unattractive and useless, her in-laws wished to place her with another family. A new home was now to "find some use for her: cracked pot, torn rag, picked bone." Tara needed her most, and folded herself in Mira's white sari, yet it was Bim who nursed her when Mira finally drank herself to madness and death. At the end of the novel, the parallel between Bim and Mira is brought up defensively by Tara.

The poetic way the novel gains depth might be best seen in the symbol of the cow and the well. Mira persuades the parents to buy a cow for the children's supply of milk, soon after she joins their household. Within a week the cow drowns in the well and

the well then contained death as it once had contained merely water, frogs and harmless floating things. The horror of that death by drowning lived in the area behind the cavanda hedge like a mad relation, a family scandal or hereditary illness waiting to re-emerge.

It does re-emerge. In her final delirium, Aunt Mira is obsessed with the well,

the hidden, scummy pool in which the bride-cow they had, had drowned, and to which she (Aunt Mira) seemed drawn. Bim held her wrists all night, wondering why of all things in this house and garden it was the well she wanted, to drown in that green scum that had never shown a ripple in its blackened crust since the cow's death.

The use of the word "bride-cow" extends the image of the cow to Aunt Mira:

There was something bride-like about her white face, her placid eyes and somewhat sullen expression. The children fondled her pink, opaque ears that let in the light and glowed shell-pink in the sun.

Mira, scarcely a bride-child, had been interred after the death of her husband (who was sent abroad for an education). The green scum would then be the appropriate spot for one who had lived and been exploited for most of her life. The image does not end there, it goes on to envelop Bim, whose life takes on the complexion of her aunt's life:

… for Bim dreamt night after night of her bloated white body floating on the surface of the well. Even when drinking her morning tea, she had only to look into the tea-cup to see her aunt's drowned face in it, her fine-spun hair spread out like Ophelia's, floating in the tea.

Bim takes on the guilt, though least guilty. Bim endures; Tara escapes. Bim has a power, therefore, that Tara's moral nature dreaded:

That rough, strong, sure grasp—dragging her down, down into a well of oppression, of lethargy, of ennui. She felt the waters of her childhood closing over her head—black and scummy as in the well at the back.

The two sisters pick up the image of the well, each in her own way; they have a moral dimension that is lacking in the make characters in the novel. Neither the parents, nor the absent brother, nor the wastrel sons of the Misra family next door, have any qualms. The Misra men live off the earnings of their widowed sisters. The novelist wisely refrains from any authorial remarks on the sociology of a situation that is becoming all too common in Indian cities.

Old man Misra sits on his patriarchal divan—he eats, sleeps and lives on the veranda—casting his patriarchal eye on his sons, and remarks to Bim:

Look at them—fat, lazy slobs, drinking whisky. Drinking whisky all day that their sisters have to pay for—did you hear of such a thing?

He nonchalantly goes on to admit that he was not any different at their age, but boasts:

When my sister's husband died, I brought her to live with us. She has lived here for years, she and her children. Perhaps she is still here, I don't know. I haven't seen her.

The irony underscores the callousness and the piety. The reader guesses there is an Aunt Mira in the Misra home.

Desai does not preach; she presents a narrative in which there is not one man who has a moral consciousness. And Desai's style is not tilted. She gives the absent brother full scope in the remembrance of things past. He had fallen in love with the image of a man (their Nawab-like Muslim neighbor and landlord, Hyder Ali) on a white horse on the white banks of the River Jumna, a peon ahead of him, a dog behind him, riding each evening. Entranced, Raja took to Urdu poetry, Islamic culture, pro-Muslim politics (during the holocaust years of Partition) and finally followed Hyder Ali to Hyderabad, where he married the Muslim's daughter, inherited his wealth and lived out the life of his dream man. Raja is now Bim's landlord. He writes her a letter in which he decides not to raise the rent!

Traditional Indian families were bastions of male privilege, and with the privilege went certain duties. Family identity, caste names, communal affiliations and familial functions defined a person. In Clear Light of Day, the family name (Des) is revealed just once after the parents' deaths. Desai's voice is quiet and ironic, but she has a sure understanding of how to project a fractured tradition. The persecution of widows, the burning of brides, the economic exploitation of women in Indian family life—these would be too horrible in a novel of sensibility, where a little goes a long way.

Desai has a gift for evoking a physiognomy with a phrase (for example, Aunt Mira's "bird-boned wrist" at her death, or her "bride-like face" on arrival) and she can bring alive an entire way of life in a few lines, as in the case of the surly driver who continues to sit outside the garage door, after the family car has been sold, sometimes smoking, "staring over the caps of his knees," till finally they permit him to be the gardener's helper.

It seems a shame to cavil at so splendid an offering, but cavil I must. Anita Desai seems to be intoxicated with similitude. When these work, they are brilliant and refreshing and add to the immediacy of the writing ("… his mouth shut in astonishment so that he looked like a fish that had snapped up a hook by accident") but sometimes they do not work: "… his voice rising to a shrill peak and then breaking on Baba's head like eggs, or slivers of glass," or "Just one injection and the old woman lay still, slipping neatly as a little tube into heavy sleep." There are too many passages, as well, each about a page long, where the stream-of-consciousness technique is used, and each time it throws the narrative out of focus without adding anything to it.

Although the sisters are negative about the house and the old city, the reader's reaction could with justification be different, if only because the world within the novel pulsates with life in an unexpected way. It has memorable moments with mynahs, koels, kites, pigeons, egrets, budgerigars, hornbills, horses, crickets, frogs, snails, caterpillars, cats (a cat stalks a butterfly), and dogs and river birds. Never have so many flowers, creepers, bushes, trees raised their heads in fiction: the bougainvillea, the spider lilies, the asparagus ferns, the cannas, the jasmine, the chamelis, the hibiscus, the roses (smelling of tea-leaves), the begonias, the oleanders, the jacaranda, the papaya, the guava, the lemon trees, the fig trees, the silver oaks, the mulberry, the eucalyptus, the castor oil plant … Never since the nineteenth century has a city raised such "jocund" company.

One enjoys Deai's sudden clairvoyance: "The navel of the world it (the well) was, secret and hidden in thick folds of grass, from which they all emerged and to which they must return, crawling on their hands and knees." And anyone who has written fiction will notice the success of the concluding insight: "'Nothing's over,' she agreed. 'Ever,' she accepted." Desai takes a cliché ending from the popular English tradition and makes it work—the character who utters the concluding insight ("Nothing's over") has earned the right to say it, and the "English" design of the novel is fulfilled by suggesting continuity and connections, while, at the same time, a deeply Indian attitude is reflected in such a closure.

This novel was not written for "Export Only," as too many Indian novels in English tend to be. Anita Desai's success here proves that the comedy of manners is particularly suited to representing Indian life where the heroic and the anti-heroic invariably have a domestic frame.

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This section contains 2,249 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Shouri Daniels
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