IT IS THE FIRST DAY of Tara Da's visit to her childhood home in the decaying suburbs of Old Delhi, and already her elder sister Bim and her younger brother, the mute and childlike Baba, have managed to frighten and and upset her. Bakul, her husband of 20 years, wants the two of them to leave and go to his uncle's comfortable house in New Delhi. When Tara protests, he argues like the smooth and shallow diplomat that he is, "You're not happy here," as though a person goes home, back into the web of ancient relationships, back into the jangling memories of childhood, expecting to find happiness.
Clear Light of Day is about the journey backward and inward of two sisters, their exploration of what it means to be part of a family, to draw "from the same soil, the same secret darkness." It is a book about shared momory, how often it divides and deceives, but how, sometimes, miraculously, it heals and unites. Nearly all the action of this book takes place within the confines of the dusty house and garden of the Das family. Tara's visit is the frame through which Desai leads us back into the sisters' childhood in British India and their youth, especially the fateful summer of partition, 1947, when from the terrace they could see the fires from the riot-torn city of Delhi. This was the summer that Ghandi was assassinated, but more significantly for the Das sisters, it was the summer during which their adored elder brother contracted tuberculosis, Tara was married, and their Aunt Mira, to whom they had clung since childhood, succumbed pitifully to alcoholism. It was, as well, the time their father died; but his death, like the earlier death of their mother, caused hardly a ripple in their lives, for "they were so accustomed to his absence that it was but a small transition from the temporary to the permanent."
Anita Desai was born in 1937 of a Bengali father and a German mother. Although she has been writing stories and novels of her native India for some years, she first came to international attention with the publication of her novel Fire on the Mountain, which is a work of art as dark and powerful as a Mahler symphony. Clear Light of Day is even finer. I have the feeling when writing about it that all the proper adjectives have been used up in other reviews of lesser books and the best approach would be to take the space allowed me and fill it with large block letters urging anyone who cares about reading or writing to READ THIS BOOK, but I resist the temptation. Anything in large block letters would violate the beautiful complexity of Desai's work.
The story has all the intricacy of a nautilus shell, infinitely and exquisitely chambered, curling back upon itself as Desai tells and retells an incident, showing not only how memories differ from one family member to another but also from the incident that prompted the memories. She takes us into the midst of the Indian heat, the dust, the untamed bougainvillea, the raucous birds squabbling over the fallen guava fruit, the bedraggled roses hiding a shining snail, describing everything in such consummate detail that a setting that should appear alien and uninviting becomes as startlingly familiar as the houses of our own childhoods. There is the dog, so eager to please, the cat, sulky and demanding, the poignant Baba, less able to communicate than the dumb beasts, his only voice a wind-up gramophone on which he plays over and over at a deafening volume his dwindling supply of American records of the '40s.
Unlike many Eastern writers, Desai does not simply set the scene and leave the rest for the reader to do. She allows us to come to know why certain things have happened as they have in this family. Why for example the brother and sister who were once inseparable have not seen each other or corresponded with each other for years. Why Bim, the daring, energetic schoolgirl, has become the harassed spinster who leaves home only to teach her classes at the local college, whereas Tara, the timid, friendless sister, is a diplomat's wife, traveling the world and bringing up two happy, modern daughters. At the same time, Desai is able to reveal that despite appearances, the sisters have not changed so much as the reader first thinks.
A writer who reads the book must ask herself how Desai does it. How does she take a simple image like the snail on page one and repeat through the course of the book, so that with each repetition it gathers power until on page 122 when she speaks of the children "following the path of the silent snail," the phrase rings in our ears like John Donne's bell? Then there is the matter of the well, the dark well in the back garden now covered with green scum into which the cow stumbled and where her body was left to decay. Here, what could have been a ponderous, melodramatic gimmick in less skillful hands is delicately and hauntingly invoked, an image that inspires increasing dread, throbbing in our temples when Bim, the strong, dependable member of the family, confesses in a moment of weakness: "I always did feel that -- that I shall end up in that well myself one day." Yet, isn't it also the well, mystically cleaned of its dark secrets, that Bim alludes to when she understands at last how alike she is to Tara. "They were more alike than any other two people could be. They had to be, their hands were so deep in the same water, their faces reflected it together."
This is a wonderful book where passages must be read and reread so that you may savor their imagery, their language, and their wisdom. A book that makes you call up your friends long distance to make sure they don't miss reading it. A book that gives you courage to bring up your own childhood memories from the deep well in the back garden and expose them to the clear light of day.
Perhaps it is Desai's dual ancestry, racial and cultural, that makes it hard for me to say who she is like, to set her amongst her literary kin. I suspect, however, that years from now, hers will be a standard to which the work of other writers will be compared.