With stunning and poetic clarity, Anita Desai brings to life the sad story of four siblings reared in the midst of a dysfunctional family in post-colonial India. Their story frames the historic partition of the county into the two separate entities of India and Pakistan, the assassination of Gandhi and the slow modernization of an ancient culture.
In a tale that reads like a Southern gothic novel, three of the four siblings struggle to escape the grayness that marks their existence. The pall is cast by their distant and neglectful parents as well as by the grit of the sandstorms that periodically pummel the landscape and infiltrate the house with dust. Only the youngest brother, who doesn’t speak and is mentally hampered, floats through the miasma of life seemingly content with his lot.
The book begins with the foursome as children and then follows them into adolescence before it leaps ahead some twenty years to a rare reunion. This is a story of unfulfilled dreams and old grudges, of warped memories and bitter recollections.
Desai evokes the languid pace of life from this nearly forgotten era, the privileges enjoyed by men, and the limits and burdens imposed on women. At one extreme, Bim, the eldest of the four siblings, successfully pursues a college degree and an independent life, and yet finds herself trapped by tradition and family responsibilities. At the other is Aunt Mira. Widowed as a young bride and marked as a pariah, she lives a nonlife in the shadows of others where she slowly descends into alcoholism and madness.
Desai teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. She considers Clear Light of Day her most autobiographical novel since it is set in the time period and the neighborhood in which she grew up.