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Anita Desai's Art and Narrative Technique in her Novel 'Clear Light of the Day'

Anita Desai employs a narrative technique in her Clear Light of Day that has a similarity with the narrative techniques employed by R.K. Narayan in The Guide and Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Line. Like these two great Indian novelists Anita Desai also makes memory and flashback as the main narrative strategies in her novel  Clear Light of Day. This is a novel about memory: about places and people who go through change and transformation in an attempt to find their true identities. B. R. Rao has said that ‘Each novel of Mrs. Desai is a masterpiece of technical skill’. In Clear Light of Day Desai portrays her characters through various uses of symbols and images, and the language is often very poetic. Desai’s protagonists ‘associate their emotions and feelings with the buds, flower [sic.], petals, birds, animals and insects around them’.

At the very beginning of Clear Light of Day we see that already on the first two pages we are given the images of singing koels, of ants, of a rose garden, of a snail. All images that bring Tara right back to her childhood and to bitter sweet memories. By making use of flashbacks and stream of consciousness Desai ‘steers her story and unravels the hidden thoughts and feelings and emotions of her characters’.

Desai’s novels are known to be well organized, and Clear Light of Day is no exception. Desai’s novels are usually divided into either three or four parts, and Clear Light of Day is divided into four unnamed parts. The division often conveys symbolism and meaning. Desai takes liberties with chronology and ‘there is a constant intermingling of the past and present with a hint of the foreboding future’ in the novel . The first chapter deals with the present time, and we are introduced to the characters as they are now. The two sisters are re-united after some years apart. Tara, who is married to a diplomat, is back in India to attend their brother’s daughter’s marriage in Hyderabad. Tara’s first stop on her journey however, is in Old Delhi to visit Bim in their childhood home. The second and third chapters deal with the memories of the past, and through Bim and Tara we are taken back to the years around the partition. The relationships among the siblings are described here, as well as their relationship to their parents and their aunt. The political situation in India before, during, and after the partition can be traced through the characters and their different experiences. The third chapter also reveals the ‘predicament of aunt Mira’ through a series of events .

In the fourth and last chapter the characters find themselves in the present again, but now with a profound realisation which they lacked in the first chapter. Bim, who has struggled with anger and bitterness, now realises that she has to make peace with herself and the ghosts from her past in order to live a full and meaningful life.  
By shifting between present and past time, between what happens between Bim and Tara ‘now’ versus past memories, moments of importance are revealed slowly. From the very beginning we sense that the tone between Bim and Tara is a bit tense. Bim is at times ironic and sarcastic towards her sister, and Tara’s experience is that ‘the elder sister did not take the younger seriously’ . We also hear of Raja, and his closeness to Bim as a child, and that this changed as they grew up. At times it is as if she longs for him: ‘“I and Raja,” Bim mused, continuing to look up at the sky […] “I and Raja” she said, “I and Raja”’ (25). By giving the reader these glimpses of almost forgotten feelings Desai reveals that there is something lurking below the surface. We learn about Bim from Tara, and about Tara from Bim.The sisters themselves must work in order to understand why the other sister acts and feels as she does. Early on for instance, we see how Tara is shocked by Bim’s negative attitude towards Raja:

The feeling of bitterness, anxiety, uncertainty, and chaos can be traced from the very beginning of the novel through the conversatitions between the two sisters, and it creates a gradually increasing tension in the novel. The world is shown as a place that can be confusing, exciting, and dangerous. It is in constant change, both in the neighbourhood of Old Delhi, and in the rest of the country. The children of the Das family grew up in a time of political unrest and uncertainty. Their parents failed to create a safe and stable home for them, and this failure haunts the characters as grown-ups. Tara, for instance, suffers as a child, and feels unsafe and unprotected. As a result she wants a husband who can protect her and take care of her, and give her the stability her parents never gave her. Bim, on the other hand, is left to manage on her own. She lives in clutter and dust, and as a result her life becomes overshadowed by all the things she holds on to. To Tara’s surprise Bim still has everything that their parents owned: ‘Had she developed no taste of her own, no likings that made herwish to sweep the old house of all its rubbish and place in it things of her own choice?’.

Desai has said that her novels are a ‘private effort to seize upon the raw material of life its shapelessness, meaninglessness, the lack of design that drives one to despair’ . Life can be complicated and lack structure, and this is shown through the characters in Clear Light of Day. Both for herself, for the readers, and for her characters, structure is needed in order to create balance between the organized and unorganized. It is easier to see the meaning of life, and to see things in a clear perspective, through the structure.

Desai uses imagery and symbolism as a way of creating order in her novels. She often links her characters to something in nature or in history to give an indication to where the novel is heading. She is also careful to choose names that can give the readers a clue as to what will happen. This can be seen for instance in Fire on the Mountain (1977). The greatgranddaughter of Nanda Kaul is named Raka, which means the moon . More specifically, the name means moon at full glory. The full moon often symbolizes that something dangerous or frightening will happen. In one episode the moon looks like it is on fire so much so that Raka thinks she is seeing a real fire, no coincidence since the novel ends with a huge fire in the mountains, started by Raka. This way of using names in order to structure and order her novels can also be seen in Clear Light of Day. The meaning of some of the characters’ names immediately gives a clue to what will happen in the novel, and helps link their lives together. The name of the Muslim neighbour of the Das family, Hyder Ali, is also the name of a Muslim ruler and commander who lived in the 18th century. Hyder Ali lived from 1722-1782, and was the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India. The use of his name brings memories of a time when the Moghul Empire ruled India, and when Islamic culture flourished. The fictional character of Hyder Ali is presented as a great man on a white horse, who is culturally superior to his Hindu neighbours. Before he flees Delhi for Hyderabad he symbolises the days when India still managed to preserve some of the magic from the Islamic cultural heritage.

Raja is Bim and Tara’s brother. Within Islam Raja means king. Raja has always admired Hyder Ali, and the two manage to become friends despite all their differences. It is no surprise to the reader that Raja married Hyder Ali’s daughter. In a way it had to happen; the leader needed an heir, and the future king needed an ‘empire’: ‘there was something gently loving in his gesture of placing his arm across the boy’s shoulders as he came up, somehow making Raja think that Hyder Ali had no son, only a daughter – a curious thought, never spoken of, yet clearly felt’ . His name is also representative of how Raja wants to be perceived by those around him. Raja says that when he grows up he wants to be a hero. One way of achieving this is by destroying his parents’ bridge cards; ‘Raja used to swear that one day he would leap up onto the table in a lion-mask, brandishing a torch, and set fire to this paper world of theirs’. It is interesting that he wants to wear a lion’s mask since the lion is often considered to be the ‘king of the jungle’. This might be an indication of how Raja wants his sisters to see him. As he later on takes on a new role in the family as a landlord he has in one way become their king. He has the power in his hands to control the destiny of Bim and Baba as they are materially dependent on him to be able to keep their house.

The name of Bim can also be said to give us an idea of what will happen. Bimla means ‘untouched’, and is a good description of how Bim ends up living her life. She will let no man decide how she is to lead her life, and ends up not marrying at all. Baba is the youngest son in the Das family, and the meaning of his name is ‘father’ or ‘elder’, and can be a fairly neutral term. But just like the father of the children was never there mentally, only physically, Baba, because of his mental handicap, is always there physically but not mentally. Though his name ironically means father Baba will always be the baby of the family, and he will always need mothering from Bim. Tara means ‘star’. As the wife of a diplomat she struggles to always shine in front of him, and to be a good wife and mother. She struggles to be perfect, like a shining star.

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