A fierce study of a dysfunctional family, laced with beauty and empathy
By Nawaid Anjum
In his revolutionary book, Ways of Seeing (1972), which taught us to see past the appearance of things and continues to have an impact on the discipline of art history, British essayist and cultural thinker John Berger reflects on the cultural representation of men and women, analysing how these representations subsequently impinge on their conduct and self, and shapes their mutual perception. He writes how a woman is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Since childhood, she is taught and persuaded to survey herself. “And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life,” writes Berger, implying that there are different ways of seeing man and woman.
This different way of seeing is central to Anindita Ghose’s audacious and assured debut The Illuminated (HarperCollins), a novel about love— both romantic and filial —and revolution, which looks at the relationship between men and women, and also between women and women, in a world where personal is political. It opens with the death of Robi Mallick, a celebrated architect, who is in New Jersey along with his wife Shashi Mallick to visit their son Surjo and his wife Laura. Their daughter Tara, who is pursuing a PhD in Sanskrit from Mysore’s Indian Institutes of Language and Literature and has taken a semester break, is in Dharamsala, grappling with the sense of her self, her place in the world, and the chaos of her feelings. Since the family is unable to reach her, it goes ahead with Robi’s final rites in the US. Amid the snow-capped Dhauladhar trees, Tara, who has closed herself to her family, endeavours to ‘empty herself’, a task that becomes easy through the ‘methodical syntax’ of Prakrit. She has been working on 11th century Kashmiri poet Bilhana’s Chaurapanchasika, a 50-stanza love poem, which she studies not for form or metre, but for its words as she was afraid that her own would “slip away”. She has been excited by the prospect of translating the telegraphic poems of Bhaartihari and Amaru, besides Bilhana, to take the “sensuality and rich imagery” of their work to a larger audience. But a single incident changes everything.
“When a loved one dies, the best memories stand as beacons, casting shadows on the ordinary one, wholly obscuring the less favourable ones,” states the omniscient narrator of the novel, which is told through the pound and pulse of the everyday. The ebbs and flows, crests and troughs, of Shashi and Tara’s lives after the tragedy are glimpsed through moments, located both in past and present, and their recollections in chapters that are ingeniously named after the various stages of the moon, its waxing and waning. For Tara, “memory comes in jagged shapes. There is no train of thought, no tracks to follow”. In her pursuit of independence and agency, Tara has always had an uneasy relationship with her family. When her brother was getting married, she had boycotted it, arguing that “weddings are an instrument of perpetuating regressive patriarchy” meant for “old people and for unaspiring fools”. She thinks it’s not for her because she wants to study, travel and live her life as she wishes. “She doesn’t want to become her mother.”
Much of the hurt that Tara swallows and the anger that gnaws at her soul have to do with the fact that people don’t see her victories as “her own”. Everyone assumes she had it easy because of her celebrated architect father. “There is something curious about a woman’s anger. A spark can set alight a whole forest, once wet and green. And it burns and burns, fuelled by the memory of past injustices borne not just by them but by the women before them— their mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, friends and maids, the women in stories, witches, princesses, queens and goddesses.”
Before the death of “the man who bound them” begins to divide them, Shashi, who returns to Delhi, where she has been teaching at the Yuva Vikas Juvenile Home, must work on ending the rupture that marks her relationship with her daughter, and the possibility of truce between them. Navigating grief and absence, she reflects: “I mourn him. But I also mourn me.” She had lived in three homes — her father’s home, her father-in-law’s home, and her husband’s home. “I want to live in a house with my name Shashi… I want to live in one that is my own.” Interspersed in the mother-daughter narrative is the story of the rising influence of Mahalaxmi Seva Sangh (MSS), a volunteer organisation set up to serve the “interests of women”, whose members work insidiously to tighten their claws on every individual, dictating what they should eat or how they should dress. In many ways, it is like the new virus that is spreading around the world slowly, only it’s more deadly: “It comes as a speck in the eye that makes us see the world differently.” Throughout the novel, which has echoes of the times we live in, the sevaks open Gomutra pouches and empty them in their mouths. Their Lakshman Rekha campaign, which is later legislated, necessitates a male family member to live with single women.
We are also told of an activist KC Meenakshi, who gives a fresh lease of life to the flailing fishing industry and goes on to become the chief minister of the new state of Meenakshi in south Mumbai, where women and transpersons are invited to hold chief administrative roles. The fishing lobby she had been a part of had become powerful, making her a finance magnate and leading to the formation of a political movement. The state of Meenakshi and the commune near Kanyakumari, where Bibek Burman, a close friend of Robi and Shashi, seeks solace, present the radical vision of an alternative way of living, and, indeed, an alternative world order.
Sometimes, a single incident can make us see everything, maybe our whole lives, differently, Shashi tells Tara towards the end of the novel, as they are on the cusp of creating a new world, and making a new home for themselves. “The new way of seeing needs courage. You can’t blame yourself for what you didn’t see earlier, the important thing is that you see it now; …very rarely are we given this gift, this new way of seeing. The quality of light that we see things in matters. When the light shifts, we see the world differently.”
The opening line— “Shashi Mallick knew she had to do the cleaning herself” —finds resonance at several places in the novel. “Men and women eat, drink, spill, shit. But the task of cleaning has always fallen on women. It is women who keep the world clean.” Elsewhere, we are told how the males in the animal kingdom make elaborate shows of beauty and elegance, colour and sound, and most importantly, their housekeeping skills. “All so their likeness may live forever. The human male gets away with so little.” A son is his mother’s from the day he is born. “She sends him out into the world as her emissary…What is it about a daughter that makes a mother terrified to send her out of the door? Why does she cease to be hers.”
The Illuminated rages against these different ways of seeing men and women. A fierce study of a dysfunctional family, laced with beauty and empathy, it touches on some raw nerves and close-to-the-bone truths. Told with intelligence, candour and courage, it is a novel invested in the radical possibilities of pleasure and politics, and the ideas of community (for without community, there can be no liberation, as Audre Lorde said), of learning and finding one’s way around the world through the rigid, cloistered environs of academia and the regressive rules of social conduct set by the rightwing fringe. It is a gauntlet thrown down to the status-quo, the degraded politics and the deeply-entrenched patriarchy, and shows us that another world is possible.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based independent culture journalist
The Illuminated: A Novel
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