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Critical Review by Brijraj Singh
SOURCE: "The Fiction of Anita Desai," in Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December, 1981, pp. 40-3.
In the positive review of Clear Light of Day below, Singh discusses Indian elements in the novel as well as the themes of memory and familial relationships.
A friend said the other day that Anita Desai's latest novel [Clear Light of Day] seemed to be derivative of Virginia Woolf. I do not agree. Any novel that seeks to evoke moods and atmosphere, that mixes memory and yearning in almost equal proportions, and illuminates a consciousness that is conscious above all of itself; any novel, moreover, which, in lighting up this consciousness, brings the protagonist to a crisis and then resolves this crisis through an experience of art which further enlarges her consciousness, is bound to have affinities with Virginia Woolf. But here all resemblance ends. For Desai's achievement is original—and Indian. What is evoked so beautifully and successfully throughout the novel is a part of Indian life, and the denouement, when it comes, is very Indian also.
The India of Clear Light of Day is Delhi from just before partition to today, and not all of Delhi either, but a few houses in the Civil Lines area, just off Bela Road, very close to the river. The rhythm of life of middle-class children growing up in such a setting, their play, their hopes and frustrations, the seasons, especially the summer, the river and the sandbanks, the dusty garden, the koels, the coppersmiths, the barking dogs, the carts on the road, ice cream, promenading on the terrace, sitting on the lawn with cold drinks, sleeping out in the open, the whirring fans and bamboo chicks—all the details of the kind of life being described, its sounds end smells and sights, are vividly recreated by Desai, till the reader who has lived through them all begins to feel that it is a part of his own life that is being evoked, while one who is a stranger to these moods and experiences gains an inwardness with a small part of north Indian middle-class culture which is nonetheless Indian for being so tucked away. And even as Desai works on the limited canvas of middle-class Civil Lines Delhi, she is able to bring into her work the larger political themes of the day: Partition, Hindu-Muslim riots, Independence and the new India, and the emancipation of women. Desai's world may be small, but it is a world through which the same winds blow as sweep through the whole of the sub-continent.
Of a piece with this sensitive and wonderfully evocative quality of the novel is its climax. Bim has been angry all summer long with herself, her family, her neighbours, but most with her absent brother Raja for the callous fetter he once wrote her. And as the summer temperature rises, so does her anger, till it erupts in a brutal confrontation with her younger brother, the retarded Baba. The violence causes the anger to break, and her movement towards a new-found equilibrium is helped by the fact that her nieces come and fill the house with freshness and laughter, and the fact that she cleans up her desk, destroys Raja's letter, and is strangely moved by reading Aurangzeb's last words in a history book. But her regeneration is not complete yet. Though she is now willing to accept a visit from Raja, she is not yet made whole. More is needed; and it comes when she is invited to hear her neighbour Mulk and his guru sing on the lawn in Mulk's house on the day when Raja's daughter is to be married in Hyderabad. Bim does not want to go to the concert, as she has not wanted to go to the wedding. She has known Mulk all her life, and knows that he is a waster, a drunken lout, a musician manque, whose tastes have to be paid for by his hardworking, unattractive and unlikable sisters. When she does go to Mulk's house, her worst fears are realized: there is chaos everywhere. But then Mulk sings, and finally his guru; as Bim sits there among people who are more interested in food and gossip than in music, her feet out of her chappals, she realizes that the guru is singing an Iqbal composition, a favourite of Raja. The discovery excites her; and though the novel ends here, we know that the discovery has finally made Bim whole again. Through Iqbal being sung on the day when her brother's daughter is getting married, she has once again established a creative equation with her estranged brother.
The denouement shows the crucial importance to Bim's life of family ties, and the significance of Iqbal in re-establishing them, and is very Indian on both counts.
But though I have laboured the point of Desai's Indianness as a counter to my friend's charge that her work smacks of Virginia Woolf, it is not in terms of its Indianness that I would praise it. The essence of the work is the consciousness of the two sisters, Bim and Tara, and their memories of the past—of their parents, their aunt, their house, and, most important, of their relationship to each other and to their elder brother Raja. Bim and Raja, close in age, have always had a very close emotional relationship. Bim is Raja's admirer and his equal; she encourages him in every speculation, act, and ambition and every time his thoughts leap up, her own are there too, understanding, sympathizing and encouraging. Tara, on the other hand, is considerably younger, less gifted and more ordinary. She admires her elder brother and sister, but is also awed by them and occasionally persecuted by the efficient, talented and ambitious Bim. Raja and Bim want to do things, be a hero and a heroine when they grow up, they want to leave their old house and go away into the big wide world. Tara, on the other hand, is content to be herself. Her ambition is to be a wife and mother when she grows up. She does not want the world; she only wants the security of her house and the warmth of Mira-Masi's bed.
Life has a way of upsetting childhood dreams. Raja does go away, but he doesn't become a hero. He becomes, instead, a fat and complacent property-owner who wounds Bim through his unthinking callousness, and is too unthinking even to know what he has done. Tara becomes a wife and mother all right, but she becomes also a sophisticated woman of the world. Bim, on the other hand, stays at home and goes somewhat to seed. She takes up a teaching job in a college, becomes eccentric and even rather weird in her manner, ignores the family business, letting one Mr. Sharma run it and pocket most of the profits, and allows the house to grow shabby and run down. Once the house had been a constricting prison for her; now it becomes a refuge from the world on which Bim resolutely turns her back. She lives there, bitter and angry and alone save for Baba, who is retarded, childlike and utterly defenseless and spends all his time playing the same old cracked records on an ancient gramophone.
It is thus that Tara finds Bim when Tara returns home for a holiday. To begin with, Tara thinks that nothing has changed, and heaves a sigh of relief. But of course everything is different, as she soon discovers—Bim, the house. Only Baba is unchanged, and in that lies tragedy. Tara's return triggers off memories of their childhood for both her and Bim. Sometimes together, but more often in solitude, they remember the past; sometimes together, but more often in their own minds, they try to understand past events which, at the moment when they took place, had a significance which was lost on the protagonists. Bim is fond of quoting from Four Quartets, and a line from that poem sums up the sisters' situation well: when young, they 'had the experience but missed the meaning,' and now that they are mature enough to 'approach to the meaning,' they have to recreate the experience in their memory; and Desai's art enables this reconstruction to take place in a surprisingly pristine form, in all its depth, texture and colour. Not that the act of remembrance isn't fraught with pain and even terror. But Bim's present condition, her relationship with Tara, and the atmosphere of the house (which, as the novel progresses, acquires a personality and force of its own) compel the sisters to remember; and what they remember, and how they understand what they remember, constitutes the novel.
So the past is of supreme importance in the novel (a fact that again recalls Four Quartets), and it is most skillfully and seamlessly woven with the present. Indeed, even the most casual reader of Clear Light of Day is likely to be impressed with this weaving of past and present info a single and unified whole. An incident occurs, or words are spoken, or a scene is described in the present; this leads effortlessly to the recreation of past incidents, words and scenes; the past is explored, and then just as effortlessly we move back to the present with greater illumination, only to take this light of understanding back to the recessed and shadowy events of the past. What is remarkable is not merely the skill of this weaving but also its economy. For there is nothing in the present which is not related to the past and vice versa; and every incident in the past or present that is described is an integral part of the whole, of the totality of the sisters' consciousness, and of the many that this consciousness points to. Moreover, the past is not all in one lump and the present in another; the two are so interfused that we keep going back at different times in the present to the same event of the past—the drowning of the cow in the well, for instance—but always with the knowledge that the intervening description of the present has given. So, too, though the sisters may keep on starting their voyage from the same point in the past over and over again, it is never the same voyage, and the outcome is always different. This superb handling of past and present requires a talent for plotting, and a sense of control, of the highest order: if the author had herself not conceived of the whole in the clearest light of her vision, the result would have been obfuscated, the incidents unrelated, and the work would have lacked what it possesses in abundant measure—a rich complexity of texture and structure.
Perhaps the best analogy for describing Desai's achievement is music. In music, themes and patterns recur and are integrated; the artist goes back to notes that were used earlier, and, making a fresh start from them, develops them in altogether new ways which are, however, entirely appropriate to—indeed, contribute to—all that has already happened. If past and present are seen as the notes, themes and patterns that Desai uses, Clear Light of Day can be appropriately described as an extended piece of music, subtle, sensitive, sensuous in its line and melody, but also complex and richly integrated in its total effect. And perhaps it is proper for the novel to be compared to music. For Four Quartets, from where Desai has obviously learnt, has affinities to music; Iqbal, who is Raja's favourite, has been set to music; and it is through the singing of Iqbal that Bim achieves final peace.
This review has not touched on certain characters in the novel, notably Mira-Masi, to whom most readers are likely to respond with sympathy, interest, and a sense of the ludicrous. Nor have I been concerned with the way in which Desai shows the gradual break-up of an older way of life, or her success in creating a sense of the boredom and emptiness of life. Other reviewers have talked about these aspects of the novel, and will perhaps continue to do so. I have preferred instead to dwell on certain aspects of the novelist's art, for though she creates characters well, it is at the level of structure and construction that Clear Light of Day represents a great leap forward in Indian English fiction.
This section contains 2,057 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)