* An assured debut, the novel is an intricate portrayal of two women, a generation apart, grieving the same man
* The author cleverly employs the lunar motif as a literary device to establish an alternative perspective and a way of being
* Ghose’s women are nuanced, complex creatures. They are not particularly likeable, but are real
Poornima is a minor character in Anindita Ghose’s debut novel The Illuminated . Her name invokes the incandescent full moon, and fits the character — whole, all by herself. Underprivileged, uneducated, fiercely autonomous, unencumbered by surnames and men, Poornima is the antithesis of Ghose’s central women characters — Shashi and Tara Mallick. “Everything important comes to us in the moonlight: dreams, babies, shiuli blooms,” she observes in the epilogue — Poornima Full Moon . The Mallick women move towards this perspective in the course of the novel, when the ‘sun’ of their lives, the overachieving Robi Mallick, husband and father, falls dead at the kitchen counter of his son’s home in New Jersey.
“When the light shifts, you see the world differently” — The Illuminated is a visceral examination of that shift in process. In Shashi, a sense of being unmoored continues till she emerges out of the fierce, all-usurping radiance of Robi to find a gentler, life-affirming glow within. For her headstrong, ambitious daughter Tara, a Sanskrit researcher, it is through a scarring relationship with professor-lover Amitabh Dhar.
An assured debut, Ghose’s novel is an intricate portrayal of two women, a generation apart, grieving the same man. His absence forces them to recalibrate the norms of their lives. Ghose, journalist and writer, situates them in a politically and socially volatile context where religious fundamentalists are working overtime to keep women within a prescribed ‘Lakshman Rekha’. The Mahalaxmi Seva Sangh or the MSS, the trademarked Goumutra gulping vigilantes, swarm campuses and hostels keeping tabs on what is taught and learned, and take upon themselves the task of ‘protecting’ women.
Ghose cleverly employs the lunar motif as a literary device to establish an alternative perspective and a way of being. To the conscious reader, the trope is the clue to a puzzle that eventually falls into place. Chapters are named after moon’s phases, and mirror the journeys of the protagonists. Bonita Vaz-Shimray’s striking cover design, arrays of half-moons — white, grey, ashen, silver — accentuates the concept. Even when her men and women are not in conflict, Ghose effectively uses the motif to set them apart. The men, Robi, Amitabh and Surjo, rendered almost always through the women characters, evoke the sun and its synonyms. Shashi, Tara, Poornima, Kumudini — the women take after the moon and stars.
The trope is effective, but to Ghose’s credit, the novel, pitched on a compelling storyline and rooted in psychological realism, works just as well without them. An anatomy of grief, it begins where fiction often ends. Mother Shashi and daughter Tara share a difficult relationship — nail and flesh, distanced by years of discontent, real and imagined. They are a study in contrast as well, Shashi internalises strife, Tara’s actions manifest hers. Set in two countries, it opens with Shashi resolving to clean the house, particularly the kitchen counter where her husband had collapsed. The national award-winning architect had died — just like that. “He hadn’t fallen straight and flat, like they did in Hindi movies. Something in his spine had lost its bearings and he had coiled down like kathputhli at the end of the show. They had all thought he was choking on a fish bone.” Days after his death, the first time she is alone at her son’s home, all Shashi wants is to make herself a cup of tea, an act of reclamation, of normalcy and routine. Even as the young bride married into the labyrinthine Mallick household in Kolkata, making her tea was a little act of assertion.
Shashi approaches her husband’s death with a certain detachment, an observer of motions rather than an affected party. It raises questions about the nature of their 35 year long marriage.
“So there are things I don’t know?”
Shashi asks Bibek, a long time family friend.
“There was never anyone else, if that’s what you are asking,” said Bibek. “Robi Mallick was too much of a narcissist to shatter his own image as a good husband, an ideal father, the perfect man…”
“It was easier for me to think there were others to blame for why we didn’t have what you’re supposed to have” — Shashi observes.
On the other hand, the loss of her father destabilises Tara. “Who would love her like her father?” Her pain is almost physical as she slips into ennui. A child of privilege, she had rebelled by denouncing it. Her choice to study Sanskrit, to pursue research at Mysore’s Indian Institute of Languages and Literature, her retreat into Dharamshala are read as her taciturn attempts at discontent by family. Her relationship with visiting professor Dhar, “an authority of Sanskrit in North America, and hence the world”, a man she was deeply infatuated with, doesn’t merely blur the mentor-student boundaries, but narrows down on the complexity of consent. Ghose invests in an inside view of academia and academic research. Her training in linguistics and semiotics might have come handy as she places her characters in a Sanksrit linguistic laboratory.
Ghose’s women are nuanced, complex creatures. They are not particularly likeable, but are real. The Illuminated , for the large part, sticks to psychological realism. However, Ghose opts for a larger political closure to what began as intensely personal journeys for the two women. Shashi’s measured shift takes on a life-altering force. A social and political Utopia grows as a counter to the toxic patriarchy of the MSS. A new way of seeing, after all, entails seismic shifts.