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In an effort to wean myself off crime fiction, I searched the ordinary fiction shelves in my local library for some books that looked interesting and ended up with this one. Written in 1980 by one of India's most famous writers in English, Clear Light of Day is about the reunion of two sisters in Old Delhi. I know very little about India, old or new, but I found this book to be a fascinating insight into Indian culture.
Anita Desai was brought up and educated in India. She has written a number of novels, including children's novels, short stories and novels for adults. Three of her books, including Clear Light of Day, have been short-listed for The Booker Prize. She teaches literature in the US, but also spends time in the UK and India. Her books are written in English.
Tara returns to India from overseas with her diplomat husband, Bakul. She goes to stay with her sister Bim and brother Baba in her old family home. However, the visit, although welcome, opens some family wounds, including Bim's long-term split from her other brother, Raja, whom she hasn't seen for a number of years.
During the course of Tara's stay, the two sisters are forced to face the memories of their past, some good, some bad. Tara is worried about Bim, who seems to be losing her grip on life and wants to reunite her with Raja at his daughter's wedding; whereas Bim sees Tara as interfering in a life that she is happy with, except when she sees it through Tara's eyes. Slowly, it seems that the sisters are heading towards an argument that may be the end of family life as they know it.
Bim, the eldest sister, is the one that didn't get away. While her brother Raja left home to marry into a rich, much respected family and Tara went abroad with her diplomat husband, Bim was left at home to look after her younger brother, Baba, who is mentally handicapped and her aunt Mira-masi, who was an alcoholic and eventually died. Bim has a teaching post at a nearby college and that and some revenue from her father's old company just about manage to cover the household expenses. She never married and never forgave Raja for leaving her in Old Delhi. Bim is a complex character; intelligent, but she finds it hard to accept that things have changed from her childhood days when she and Raja ruled the household. Despite her nursing abilities, she is quite a cold person, yet I did sympathise with her. She finds her relationship with Tara particularly difficult to handle, because she feels that Tara looks down on her life now that she is a jet-setter with two nearly grown-up daughters. For Bim, Tara's visit is an important milestone in her life, although she hardly knows it.
Tara is very different from her sister. She looks back fondly on her childhood days, but is not sorry that she has left them behind. As a child, she always felt inferior to her older brother and sister - she struggled with school and games, whereas they excelled and took the first opportunity she could to leave. Yet she has never been truly happy with her husband and feels a lot of guilt that she left her sister to cope with the family after she had gone, not even returning home when Mira-masi was so ill. I felt deeply for Tara; I saw much of myself in her, because I lived abroad for a long time and felt the same type of guilt for having left my family. Both sisters are superbly described; I found their feelings for each other portrayed very realistically.
This is a superbly written book. Descriptions of even tiny things like the rose garden, the verandah and the wildlife are so exact that I could see the images vividly as I was reading the book. One of the girls' childhood memories was of a cow that their aunt bought for the fresh milk, which later fell into the well and drowned. Thereafter, the girls were terrified of going anywhere near the well. Their fear is palpable. Poetry is used throughout the book to highlight the sisters' feelings, which links into their childhood when their brother Raja thought of himself as a poet.
The story is told by switching between the views of Bim and Tara. There is quite a lot of cross story-telling - we read about the same event more than once, from the angle of the sister telling the story at the time. This could have been boring, but somehow the author manages to embellish the language in such a way that it was just as fascinating, if not more so, when reading if for the second time.
I think my only criticism of this book is that the ending is somewhat flat. The third quarter of the book reached such a crescendo of emotion that I really thought something big was going to happen to end the book, but it kind of drifted to an end. I suspect this may come from having read too many crime fiction books, where the ending is (nearly) always exciting; nevertheless I was disappointed.
Despite this, it is a book well worth reading. Recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.99. Published by Vintage, it has 192 pages. ISBN: 0099276186
Clear Light of Day is both an examination of contemporary India and a family history in which two sisters, Bim and Tara, learn that although there will always be family scars, the ability to forgive and forget is a powerful ally against life's sorrows. Twenty years ago when Tara married, she left Old Delhi and a home full of sickness and death, while Bim continued to live in the family home, taking care of their autistic brother, Baba. Now Tara has returned, her first visit in ten years, for their niece's wedding. Bim refuses to attend; she can't visit their brother Raja who, like Tara, left her many years ago. Instead Bim dwells bitterly on her feelings of abandonment and the impact on her of her country's recent history: the violent conflict between Hindus and Moslems, the death of Gandhi and the ensuing struggle for political power, and the malaria epidemic that killed so many. In Bim's presence, Tara once again feels herself shrink into that small miserable wretch of twenty years ago, both admiring and resenting her tall striding sister, while Bim was calmly unaware of any of her sister's agonies, past or present. With language that describes both the harshness and beauty of family and the land, Anita Desai takes the reader with Tara and Bim on their struggle to confront and heal old wounds.