Clear Light of Day is perhaps Anita Desai’s most beloved work, notable for its lush prose and compelling, compassionate look at the inner lives of an Indian family. It is also her most autobiographical work, taking place in the same area where she grew up.
Desai was inspired to write the novel by modernist poet T.S. Eliot’s famed Four Quartets. She similarly structured her novel in four parts and ignored chronology, preferring to interweave past and present; she also quoted the poem in the epigraph to the novel. She referred to Clear Light of Day as “a four-dimensional piece on how a family moves backwards and forwards in a period of time.”
The titular illumination refers to the lighting of the way of reconciliation once all the misunderstandings and long-held emotional barriers have been cleared out of the way. Desai achieves this through the implementation of a stream-of-consciousness technique that affords multiple viewpoints capable of shining the light of objective truth on individual events that recur through different subjective memories. The impact of the past upon the present is thematically presented in the structure of the four-part narrative. The present is introduced in the first part and takes place in the late 1970s, while Part Two transports the reader back to the year of Indian independence, 1947. The third section of the book goes back even further in time in order to show how the way children perceive the world around them can have lifelong consequences. Part Four traces the long decades of growth often required before insight is attained; finally, readers return to the novel’s present.
While the novel primarily engages with the relationships between characters, there are also comments on politics, as seen in Raja’s interaction with Hyder Ali and the post-independence troubles of persecution, radicalism, riots, and fires. Critic Bishnupriya Ghosh also notes Desai’s interest in exploring gender: “Desai argues that women must struggle to make a place for themselves in a paternalistic nation, where womanhood is a mere symbolic construct (the ‘mother’ nation). Her analysis of gender and politics thus extends into a critique of Indian nationalism, which excluded gender issues from its political rhetorics of liberation and rejuvenation.”
The novel was nominated for the 1980 Booker Prize.