Narinder K. Sharma
Assistant Professor in English
DAV Institute of Engineering & Technology
Anita Desai is a writer who does not believe in weaving the plots of her novel merely on a figment of imagination. As one delves in the world of Desai, one feels that though a work of fiction, her creations are grounded in lived experiences that humans often come across. It is important to mention in the present context that her treatment is often subjective as she herself admits. Her greatness as a novelist is not confined to wiping the tears of her female characters or simply empowering them to take cudgels but also to delineate the existential ‘duality’ that we as individuals as well as members of mass culture often face. This may be considered as conflict, choices or absurdities as our scholar critics may love to call.
The fictional universe of Anita Desai is conceptualized around dualities. Life is imbued in with complexity and it does not offer a single formula as its solution. Dualities weave the fundamental texture of life. It is this bewildering ambiguousness of life Anita Desai’s weltanschauungweaves and the signifying code suggests the same. Desai skillfully reflects the tragic ‘gap’ between the individuals who fail to become the carriers of positive values as they proceed on dialectic of desire to achieve a sense of negotiated meaning. The narrative involves them in a mutual ‘dialogue’ of inter-subjective desire. Usually the characters are unable to achieve a sense of constitutive ‘otherness’ due to which all the conflict and suffering come into being.
Desai’s characters are special in the sense that they find it very difficult to connect authentically to ‘others’ as they find even very intimate relationships to be hostile to their core being. The relational gulf adds fuel to their lacerated existence. The absence of a desired presence makes them feel utterly lonely and they are left with dualistic state of mind foregrounding repression of innermost feelings / yearnings. Extending it further, it won’t bewrong to say that the metaphysics of absence create a cyclic phenomenon wherein the metaphysics of presence seem over-shadowed. Her narrative is an attempt to displace “some conventional discursive dualisms, such as public/private, empire/nation, popular/elite and male/female. Her texts expose the constructed nature of such polarities” (Chakravarty:27).
The major dualities woven in the fiction of Desai are of masculine vs. feminine, tradition vs. modernity, illusion vs. reality, self vs. other, oriental vs. occidental, rational vs. irrational, emotion vs. intellect, lack vs. desire, presence vs. absence, attachment vs. detachment etc. These dualities become foregrounded with the use of the technique of counter-pointing one issue with the other connoting darker or brighter aspects of existence. The supporting technical characteristics of her writing connected with the motif of dualities are of recurrent metaphors, metonymic parallelism, ironic reversals, frequent flashbacks, cultural coding, stream-of- consciousness symbolizing dissection of the psyche etc. Her exploration centers on inner emotional world and psychic dilemmas of her individual characters, particularly of her women in all the novels. The psychic dilemmas are basically the result of an ever-evolving and ever- intensifying duality present in the narrative. Her women characters are caught in the dynamics of lack and desire. Moreover, they always desire to get “freedom”-talking in existential context-
from the shackles of human society and are involved in an endless struggle to find out the basic truth of life which can show them the union of opposites manifesting a state of trance and tranquility. The present paper aims at exploring certain dualistic patterns which, in turn, constitute the thematic conflict in the novel Clear Light of Day (1980).The novel Clear Light of Day “surpasses all other novels in English set in India in characterization, poetic use of landscape and integrity of vision” (Daniel: 107).
It is sine qua non to understand the etymological meaning of the term duality before we trace it in Clear Light of Day. The term duality has come to us from ‘dualism’. Dualism as in the register of philosophy refers to the doctrine that man has two natures, physical and spiritual. The duality between the two forms the matrix wherein the contradiction takes birth. For long, the debate is being discussed and rather over-discussed but the establishment of a negotiated stance seems to be the crux problematics signifying core existentialist mores and this keeps the humanity wandering in pursuit of wholeness/self-actualization. Search of such a kind becomes the life force and in the case of Desai and this search becomes the signifier of despair and frustration although Clear Light of Day reveals a standpoint of evolving thought of the novelist. In this context, it will be worthwhile to say that her protagonists get the ultimate triumph not because they prefer escape but because they maintain their wholeness, which also means“holding on to their privacy, not surrendering to the innermost being to the roles they are called upon to play” (Jain: 112).
Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is a unique fictional creation as this novel strikes a significant chord of a desire of the protagonist(s) to revive her/their primary self/selves. The linear time has changed the circumstantial reality of all the characters as we witness that there is a shift in their worldly roles and the same is manifested in their geographical displacement from their old ‘home’ to new places contextualizing Tara and Raja. The two significant protagonists of the novel namely Bim and Tara become the carriers of subtle signification wherein the dynamics of duality can be traced with a potent desire to return to the primary self of fulfillment with special reference to the character of Bim. The desired ‘being’ has made them experience chaos and misery only. They now wish to experience a solace in returning to their primary self which connotes a state of unity and tranquility in their beings. The conflicting voices expose the dualistic pattern which the characters experience throughout the narrative. Considering the subtlety of discourse of the narrative, the novel under discussion becomes a unique fictional construction of the authoress in the sense that in this particular novel we are able to see a ‘negotiated sense of duality’ signifying a state of trance and equilibrium with respect to the writings of Anita Desai. There emerges an understanding unique wherein the dualities integrate and desires are gratified thereby signifying the celebration of existence adding another quality dimension in the ever-rich world view of Anita Desai. In her novel, Clear Light of Day (1980),“Desai skillfully aims at the theme of light” (Kumar: 69).The novel Clear Light of Day can be considered a transition point in the fictional world of Anita Desai- a name which equals Virginia Woolf in multifarious interpretations. Elaborating on the given argument, this novel is somewhat different from the previous fictional creations of the writer. It can rightly be said that this work is the first clear light witnessed by her super-sensitive characters with special reference to feminine sensibility. The title of the novel is very apt as it connotes the thematic structuration of the narrative. The novelist has successfully been able to delineate the multi-layered consciousness of the central character of the narrative, i.e., Bim (Bimla) who is able to reconcile the incongruous duality patterns of existence.
This paper is an attempt to explore the discursive semantic significations with a view to understand the central character of the novel, i.e., Bim. Bim can be placed at the center of the narrative while the other characters constitute the ‘essential’ structural and thematic design thereby contributing the creation of existential conflict in the novel. The narrative clearly manifests a dualistic pattern of illusion and reality in the narrative and the technique of counter- pointing and cross counter-pointing is extensively used in narrative.
Existentially, the journey of Bim- the main protagonist of the narrative- relates to a search and re-search of her own identity with relation to exploration of meaning signifying the celebration of being. She surges towards an understanding of her own relational placement/situationality with relation to understanding and re-understanding the relationships. The desire to fill in the existential gaps can certainly be seen in her psychic agony as exposed by the narrative. The quoted desire may also be held responsible in the later rejuvenation and re- negotiation which the narrative brings forth about her being. Bim experiences the clear light of the day at the end of the narrative wherein the all the dualities collapse and are negotiated resulting in the conversion of meaninglessness into meaningfulness. Speaking existentially, “Repentance, obligation, and commitment are properly ethical categories and they come into play after a ‘leap’ or ‘conversion’ experience that is an exercise of free choice and thus an individuating act”(Flynn: 31).
The novel Clear Light of Day is somewhat different from the earlier fiction of the Anita Desai in the sense that it makes a transitional point with relation to the fictional canvass of the writer. The charge which is labeled by a majority of critics relates to the stance that the novel does not have a story. The observation seems to be correct when looked at from the angle of linear depiction of events in the narrative. The moment the focus shifts from this linearity to the psycho-semantic elements of the narrative, the structuration becomes complex rejoicing multi- layered significations.
The setting of the novel is typical as per Desai’s fictional world view. It is an old home in old Delhi which is counter-pointed to New Delhi. Shifting from the depiction of the old house symbolizing boredom, meaninglessness, pathos and decay, the inmates further enhance the thematic impact of negativity and passivity wherein absence of mutual love is strongly foregrounded. It appears that the house is always been like this, with its overgrown bushes and undernourished flowers, stultifying and strangling human life, and people either die or abandon it(Jain: 417).The parents have been depicted as the carriers of unconcern signifying mechanical relationship with their children. Furthermore, the novel is divided into four parts. The first part refers to Tara’s visit to the old house, the second corresponds to the Great Partition, the third paints the character of Mira Masi and the fourth depicts the “individuation” of Bim. The novel is somewhat special with reference to the function of time. The novelist herself says,“my novel is about time as a destroyer, as a preserver and about the bondage of time does to the people. I have tried to tunnel under the mundane domesticity” (Desai: 142).
The other important dimension of the novel refers to the examination of the major symbols used in the narrative although the quantity of the symbols may be less as compared to the earlier novels of Anita Desai. Desai has resorted to her characteristic technique of using an image as an apparently independent artistic unit or as an objective correlative with a view towards vivifying the psychic state or emotion of a particular character (Prasad: 369).The major symbols of the narrative having metaphoric and metonymic significance are of “well”, “home”, “tomb”, “music”, “city”, “time”, “soil”, “mosquito”, “dust storm”, “tree”, “pond”, “garden”,
“water” to quote a few. The symbols employed in the narrative weave the dualistic thematic texture of the text as some of the symbols are counter-pointed in the narrative.
In Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai has wonderfully depicted the lives of the women characters and how they strive for their autonomous existence. Through the use of flashback techniques that depict the memories of the female characters in the novel, we see both Bim’s and Tara’s past experiences, and the narrative also co-ordinates their past with their present. Clear Light of Day, the title of the novel, suggests the characters may escape from oppression and repression and arrive at self-determination. It may also be interpreted as the attainment of some form of spiritual enlightenment, a better understanding of their present situation and their ability to come to terms with it.We can see in the novel that some women characters like Tara just moves from one domain of oppression to another, and some, like Bim repudiates the conventions of becoming a wife and submissive to men only faces isolation. Bim has to make adjustment to her own value system and to accept reality so as to connect herself to her family and thus the community.The current paper is also an attempt to analyze how women’s experiences of oppression, suppression and self-determination interact with their spatial existence in the domestic and public sphere both in their childhood and adulthood signifying the dualistic patterns of existence. The plot interweaves family history with the nation’s history signifying postcolonial undercurrents as well.
Bim-the eldest daughter in the family- is the main female protagonist in the novel. The evaluation of Bim with other women characters in the novel, like Tara, the Misras girls or Aunt Mira, represents a subversion of the traditional model of women. She is portrayed as assertive, firm, and insistent on ruling others rather than to be ruled.She makes an existentialist choice of assuming the role of ‘heroine’ in the narrative. Her aim is at achieving autonomy by rejecting the traditional role and destiny of a woman.She appears to be the only one who can achieve a greater degree of individuality in her lived experiences. Throughout Bim’s childhood and adulthood, her spatial movements are only confined to places in the house and its limited surroundings: out on the veranda; into her neighbour, Misras’ house; to LodiGardens, and then to the college as a teacher. Unlike her brother, Raja, and her sister, Tara, who are both able to leave the country, she is the only person in the family who treats her home as the only domain for her survival, and the small neighbourhood which she lives in as her territory for movement. In the novel, there are several instances to show that Bim cannot accept the way women are marginalized in society, and in her childhood and teenage years, she has attempted to break away from all the restrictions that result in women being treated unequally. Her one clear spatial movement, though still within the house, is made into men’s domain, when she leads Tara into Raja’s room. This contravention into men’s space and changing into men’s attire – putting on Raja’s trousers – make her feel superior and confident. What is signified here is that women’s attire imposes a certain societal value and expectation on them. Bim feels that her individuality is suppressed here and as such value system is imposed on women from the outside. Hence, the wearing of the trousers, which is the symbol of men’s power, can be seen as Bim’s attempt to raise her status in the family and ask for some kind of recognition normally only given to men. Speaking metaphorically, the act conveys a duality wherein ‘self’ desires to be privileged over the ‘other(s)’ and dominance seems to the signifying tool for the gratification of the quoted desire.
Interestingly, the time when Bim is asked to take up household duties coincides with the period of time of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The Partition, which is a momentous historical event, is interwoven into the smaller events that happen in the Das family. What happens outside in the nation runs parallel in some respects to events that happen in the
family.With the death of the parents, her brother Raja’s tuberculosis, and the widowed aunt Mira-masi’s gradual retreat into alcoholism, Bim formally takes over the charge of the Das household. Instead of a closely bonded family, each individual suffers his or her own misfortunes: the family threatens to fall apart, and Bim is left to hold the family together. In other words, the family is threatened with partition, and Bim has to perform the role of the unifier or integrator. Thus, the narrative of an individual family resonates with the larger pressures and counter-pressures of Indian nation at large. However, Bim’s dream of having a united family is shattered during the Partition War in 1947, and the meta-narrative of the nation is linked to the mini-narrative of the family in another way. The war that results in the separation of two nation states runs parallel to the separation of Bim from Raja. Bim’s sisterly love towards Raja and her act of taking up the duties of looking after her family members imply that family and the house they live in mean a lot to her. Her acts of self-determination and looking after the family exert contrary pressures and make her an ambiguous character because of the patterns of duality. This dualistic pattern also suggests that no matter how independent a woman wants to be in Indian society, she can never leave aside or separate herself completely from the traditional duties expected of her. In her adulthood, after Raja and Tara have left her and she remains in the house with only Baba, her half-witted, brother to accompany her, she suffers more from suppression than oppression.This is the result of the distance her brother and sister keep from her as it constitutes the paradox/riddle which disturbs her the most. As they have left and abandoned her alone in the old house, she can have no one to talk to or to share her sufferings of being isolated. With the arrival of Tara in the very first section of the novel, she finally has a chance to release her anger by being mean and sarcastic to Tara.On one occasion, for example, Bim teases Tara for not wanting to return to the life they used to have in the past and says: But you wouldn’t want to return to life as it used to be, would you? … All that dullness, boredom, waiting. Would you care to live that over again?(Desai: 4). This comment reflects Bim’s thought of not having any change or meaningful existence.
The narrative exposes a very subtle counter-point between the Old Delhi and New Delhi. The building of New Delhi by the British during the colonial period had left those living in the old city, like Bim, on the periphery of social change. The novel uncovers the anguished history of fratricide, of partition, of religious bigotry and of treatment and representation of women (Mukherjee: 199).Without the possibility of any personal escape, and disconnected from social change, they are left decaying in Old Delhi.Though Bim is not able to escape physically from the old house, she can still pass the existential test by attaining some form of spiritual enlightenment. As time goes on, she knows the family bond has been destroyed and the family members are all apart, yet the memories are still embedded in the old house. She has finally received the mental liberation from all the constraints and frustrations she has experienced in the past. Bim opts for singlehood, establishes an identity for herself as a teacher; manages her household activities as well as looks after her retarded brother, Baba. The seclusion into home and hearth, the caressing of husband, the nurturing of children, are all beyond Bim’s imagination (Mukharjee: 12).We may believe that Bim who had sacrificed her ambitions and abilities to be “dutiful” is a tragic figure in that she does not comprehend her own wasted potential.This lack of comprehension of her potential and the sacrifices she has made; may also be seen as an inability to reach at the ‘clear light of day’.
Bim’s relationship with the male character ‘Raja’ also holds an important factor. Though Raja is her only male companion in her childhood and adolescence, she still shows her individuality by not conforming to all her brother’s way of thinking.Raja is a man of senses and
emotions and in this manner a carrier of confrontation signifying the dualistic patterning of the narrative.One instance is when Raja brings her romantic fictions but she feels that she wants ‘something different – facts, history, chronology.’Though she is accused by Raja of not having any imagination, she has her own perspective on the world. She thinks knowledge is much more important than imagination. The counter-point is very subtle conveying strong dualistic weaving. She challenges Raja’s assumption that romantic fiction is the appropriate reading matter for women, or is what young women like to read. Once again, Bim is able to show her self- determination by choosing what she likes, and defies her brother’s conventional male perspective on her. Though at first she is accepted, such acceptance later turns to rejection when Raja abandons her and leaves the house. Bim is eventually thrown out from the Raja’s domain of recognition.Her encounter with Bakhul and DrBiswas also shows her individualism.When they are at the Misras, and Bakhul is leading the conversation, as he used to, Bim is able to disrupt his conversation and make sarcastic comments so that Bakhul cannot be the ‘chairman’ of the meeting. This shows that she is capable of behaving unconventionally. Her short encounter with Dr. Biswas who is interested in her and wants to marry her also shows that Bim is not the same as other ordinary women in India. Her refusal to marry Dr.Biswas shows that she has her own freedom in marriage.However, Dr. Biswas sees Bim’s refusal to marry him as a result of her family responsibility and that assumption shocks Bim. Dr. Biswas’s view of Bim as a self- sacrificing woman arises mostly from traditional values. Nevertheless, Desai has actually used Bim as a means to mock and reject earlier discourses that portray women as self-sacrificing heroines arousing sympathy in others. This is consistent with her earlier rejection of romantic fiction and those patriarchal assumptions that make Raja offer her the romantic fiction.
The second counter-point in the narrative is Tara- another conflicting voice in the novel.The family dynamics become foregrounded“as the sisters confront their differences and struggle to balance old and new worlds”(Lacom: 143). She appears to have escaped from the sufferings and oppressive atmosphere in her childhood house after her marriage and residence in a foreign land although the changes she thinks she has accomplished are just delusions.Part one of the novel describes the memory she has after returning to her childhood home.Tara’s visit to her parental home in Delhi stirs up innumerable memories of the past. Inspite of the differences in their personalities and attitudes, the sisters Bim and Tara try to forge a close relationship by recalling and reliving the past(Nityanandam: 19). Her reason for the return to her domestic home is to seek a sense of continuity. However, the way she expresses this desire sounds forced, as if what she says represents what Bakul wants rather than her own thoughts. This shows that after marriage, she has lost much of her self-identity and determination and is like an object moulded by her husband. Her spatial movement, like all her travels, is not individualistic but accompanied by her husband; even her escape from her domestic home is only the result of her marriage. Hence, we cannot say that she has attained liberation at all from such physical movement away from her domestic home to her marital home in America. Her reliance on her husband shows her lack of self-determination. In Tara’s case, ironically, physical movement is not described as a sign of liberation from a subordinate position to men or from the domestic sphere. Though Tara seems mobile and Bim immobilized in their childhood home, in fact, Bim attains greater self- determination by being mistress of her own house, and as an unmarried woman, gains better control over her own life. As a child, in the childhood house, Tara feels it is filled with boredom and dullness. For her, the house is a place of ignorance, death and hopelessness. She is ignored by her parents who spend most of the time playing cards and by Bim and Raja, who spend time with each other reading poetry and having their own expeditions outside. All the sufferings that
she experiences are suppressed and no one in the house ever pays any attention to her. She later confesses that her marriage to Bakul is a means to escape from all the frustrations she experiences and sees in the old house as a child.Finally after marrying, it seems that she can physically escape from this existential decay and see the ‘Clear Light of Day’, but still we can see that mentally she cannot free herself from all the past memories like seeing her father injecting her mother and thinking he is murdering her, or feeling guilty about leaving Bim when her sister is in need of help. Besides, the escape from her childhood house to her marital home abroad only represents her movement from one type of oppression to another. In her childhood house, she is ignored by her siblings; in her husband’s domain, he treats her like an object to be moulded at his will. There is really no true escape for her. As an adult, coming back to India has matured her mentally and she seems able to see things objectively. She is able to study Bim more carefully and know that her sister is not contented with her life. She realizes that what she thinks of Bim when she is a child is no longer true. Bim is no longer competent and capable of managing the house.She even blames Bim for having no taste of her own: ‘Had she developed no taste of her own, no likings that made her wish to sweep the old house of all its rubbish and place in it things of her own choice?’ (p.16) This interior monologue shows that Tara is disappointed to see the old house remaining motionless while she appears to have changed so much herself. Her physical movement seems to arouse in her a new perspective of seeing things. However, she has not realized that her perspective of seeing the old house and judging Bim is just superficial. The old house has certainly changed with the death of Mira-masi and the leaving of Raja and Tara herself.Through her stay in the house in Delhi, we know about her relationship with her husband. Most of the time, we can see her husband is not able to understand her. He wants Tara to live a life according to his own will and wants to instill in her the qualities that she lacks, like decision, firmness, and resolve.Therefore, in her husband’s domain, she feels constrained, tired and powerless. The house has also aroused in her the strength to refuse her husband’s demand. Though she feels anguished and impatient at the sight of old habits and things still kept in the house, the place reminds her of the pleasure that she is no longer able to have under her husband’s control. It is a place of nostalgia for her: ‘If she had been sure Bakul would not look out and see – she would have run down the veranda steps and searched for one
(i.e. a guava) that was whole.’ (p.18 )
The above analysis of the central character of the narrative, i.e., Bim (in relation to the other major characters of the novel) certainly highlights the inter-play of duality of illusion and reality and the same finds its trace on the perspectives of the major characters of the novel. The major characters of the narrative may be tagged as the representing the conflicting voices which counter-point and cross counter-point each other resulting in the creation of the dualistic pattern of existence which poses a great challenge with respect to achieving a negotiated a sense of being in the universe. Voice is presented in the novel as an inescapably intertextual device that foregrounds the composition of subjectivity(Mohan: 50). The dynamics of lack and desire certainly force the characters to search for the gratification of their desires although the quoted search results in another search although the main protagonist of the novel is able to negotiate this dualistic matrix at the end of the novel. The spatial journey ends at the point which may be referred as the ‘initial’ point- the point of the primary self. The quest of life and peace, for selfhood is a fundamental human need; the search is the goal of life (Patil: 64).This kind of realization can be seen in the evolution of Bim towards the end of the narrative wherein all the dualistic opposition collapses and an existential synthesis takes place. The classical raga of the old master produces the moment of illumination of Bim after which the ‘transcendence’ happens
as she feels, “her own house and its particular history linked and contained her as well as her whole family with all their separate histories and experiences- not binding them with in some dead and airless cell but giving them the soil in which to send down their roots, and food to make them grow and spread, reach out to new experiences and new lives, but always drawing from the same soil. That soil contained all time, past and future, in it.”(p. 182)This is how Bim is able to see the ‘clear light of day’ wherein the contradictions are harmonized out of which a rejuvenated self emerges celebrating existence.
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Daniel, Shouri. “Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day”, Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No.1, Summer 1981: 107-112.
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(All subsequent textual references are from the same edition and page numbers are given in the parentheses.)
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Jain, Jasbir. “Airing the Family Ghosts: Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day”, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Vol.24, No.2, 1984: 416-422.
Jain, Jasbir. Stairsto the Attic: The Novels of Anita Desai. Jaipur: Printwell publishers, 1987. Kumar, Brajesh. “Feminist Perspectives in the Novels of Anita Desai”, Critical Responses to Feminsim, Ed. Binod Mishra, New Delhi: Sarup& Sons, 2006.
Lacom, Cindy. “Revising the Subject: Disability as “Third Dimension” in Clear Light of Day and You Have Come Back”, Journal of Feminist Disability Studies, Autumn 2002: 138-54. Mohan, Rajeshwari. “The Forked Tongue of Lyric in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 32.1, 1997: 47-66.
Mukharjee, Shubha. “The New Women in Anita Desai’s Novels”, Women Writers in English, Ed. Gauri Shankar Jha, Delhi: Authorpress Global Network, 2008.
Mukherjee, Arun P. “Other Worlds, Other Texts: Teaching Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day to Canadian Students”, Third World Women’s Inscriptions, Vol. 22, No.1, February 1995: 192-201.
Nitanandam, Indira. Three Great Women Novelists. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2000.
Patil, Ujwala. “Sexual Violence and Death in Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain”, Studies in Indian Fiction in English, Ed. G.S. Balarama Gupta, Gulbarga: Jiwe Publications, 1987. Prasad, Madhusudan. “Imagery in the Novels of Anita Desai: A Critical Study”, World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No.3, Summer 1984: 393-369.
R. Flynn, Thomas. Existentialism. United States: Oxford University Press, 2006.