Clear Light of Day (1980) is set in India’s Old Delhi, which was once home to the ruling Mughals but is now, centuries later, the center of New Delhi. It is a portrait of the Das siblings and their shifting, changing relationships.
The book opens with Tara’s visit to her childhood home. She is the youngest sister, somewhat unambitious, who got married and escaped her family’s many conflicts during the country’s partition. Her relationship with her older sister, Bimla, is strained and tense. Bimla is an ambitious, though dissatisfied, college professor who stayed behind to look after their mentally handicapped brother, Baba. Then there is Raja, their successful older brother, who married into a rich family and leads a very glamorous life in Pakistan.
The siblings’ history mirrors that of India’s Partition. There are lost opportunities, pain, sacrifice, and an underlying tension due to what could have been. How they could have been different had they acknowledged each other’s needs and stayed together.
There are also the familiar tropes of post-colonial literature, particularly around questions of identity and the nature of independence. Above all, it is a story of forgiveness and self-acceptance.
It is a well-written and accomplished novel; the story is informed by the author’s own childhood. Yet, I found this book difficult to read. There were many similes and an abundance of descriptive language that weighed down the story. The atmosphere was dark and moody. Intense too. But, there wasn’t much in the story to justify this intensity In contrast to the title, the atmosphere was foggy and turbid.
I rarely dislike a book if I do not feel a connection to the characters. Clear Light of Day is an exception. No, I think dislike is the wrong word. I just did not find it compelling enough. I fully grasp the author’s intentions and I can safely say that she achieved it. It is largely a well-regarded book. But it did not grab my attention and emotions. I’ve been thinking that, perhaps as an only child, I simply don’t appreciate sibling conflict. Perhaps. Pity though, because I’d been looking forward to an enjoyable introduction to Desai’s work.