The Illuminated is a perfectly timed book. It comes at a time when we, readers everywhere, have lived through a uniquely distressing year, agonising over forced isolation, dealing with unexpected, unprecedented loss. The terrible tragedies of the pandemic have intersected with the surprising validation of an extreme right-wing ideology in India, with its insistence on silencing any and all minorities, and the curbing of all voices of dissent.
Anindita Ghose’s debut novel traverses the difficult territory of grief and grieving; how loss is experienced differently by those connected to each other by kinship and emotive ties. It is also quietly, non-performatively political, exploring the possibilities of a world sliding into increasing iniquitousness.
The book tells a story, or multiple stories, and tells them well, but what draws the reader in is not a plotline but the intimate immersion into the lives of its protagonists – mother and daughter, Shashi and Tara. Canonical literature has frequently celebrated the mother-son relationship, layering it with sacrifice and eulogising self-abnegating motherhood, setting up motherhood as a cult and the mother as its resident deity.
“There were so many sayings about a mother’s love for her son, a son’s love for his mother. So little about mothers and daughters”, Shashi wonders, and answers with a question of her own: “Was it because it was men who chronicled proverbs?” Shashi has an easy relationship with her son, but her daughter remains distant and difficult to understand.
The fraught relationship between mothers and daughters has been at the core of several contemporary novels written by women. Writers like Polly Rosenwaike (Look How Happy I’m Making You), Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and Avni Doshi (Burnt Sugar), have recently turned the light on the jagged dimensions of the mother-daughter relationship. Ghose walks a fine balance, allowing Shashi and Tara to chafe against each other, to be annoyed with, to resent the other, while also needing the unwieldy comfort that only the other can provide.
Shashi, married into a liberal, upper caste, upper class Bengali family in 1970s Calcutta, is taught to think of herself as “lucky”. She is lucky because she is allowed to continue her education, she is lucky because her husband (and his best friend) see her as “not like other girls”. She is lucky because her husband cooks when they have company, once Shashi or their cook has measured and laid out ingredients and vessels and cutlery, of course.
Like so many other women of her generation, Shashi, chooses caregiving and mothering over a possible career, realising only after the death of her husband the loss of parts of herself. In a rather telling passage early in the book, Shashi speaks of the difference between the hobbies of men and those of women – what men do for leisure has value; what women do is necessarily trivial.
Shashi is an insightful study of the limitations imposed on women’s lives in privileged households. Her domain, much like that of her counterparts from earlier eras, is the home. She might study Hegel and Aurobindo inside the classroom, but once home, her identity is defined by the man she belongs to.
When Ghose writes of how women of the Mallick house need never go out because the world came to their doorstep, we seem to have moved barely a few inches from the feudal world of Bimal Mitra’s Shaheb Bibi Golam, where the wife, married into a rich family, must learn to re-define her expectations of marriage, desire, and fulfilment.
Tara, keen to avoid turning into her mother, shares, unwittingly, Shashi’s mistrust of the backhanded compliment of being “not like other girls”. Part of a generation more aware and unforgiving of gender inequalities, Tara calls it out, rejecting the baggage of gender normatives, refusing to suffer silently like her mother.
She is a Sanskrit scholar, and in a massive upset to traditional expectations, is invested in the sensual poetry of Bilhana and Bhartrihari that subverts the codes of behaviour espoused by that beloved text of fundamentalist Hinduism, the Manusmriti. Tara is particularly invested in the figure of the abhisarika, the heroine who expresses and pursues desire, refusing to be fettered by expectations of coyness and cloying femininity, demystifying, and liberating a whole literary tradition from its Hindutva confines.
For Tara, the abhisarika is the heroine of her own story, reduced by poets like Kalidasa into a submissive ingénue, too overcome by emotion to stand up for herself. Tara sees, in heroines like Shakuntala, an erasure of feminist possibilities. Ghose allows Tara herself to skirt close to this erasure, laying open the option to choose agency over silence and compliance.
That women’s agency is under threat in present day India is brought home to the reader in the space the book gives to the MSS – the Mahalaxmi Seva Sangh, an organisation of volunteers / sevaks, styling themselves as the custodians of Indian culture and dedicating their energies to preventing the corruption of Indian women by westerns influences.
The similarities with a real-life organisation with similar concerns and political goals are thinly, if at all, veiled. They distribute pamphlets on college campuses, insisting on modesty in clothing and a clear distancing between genders. No skinny jeans, no tattoos, no colour in hair, no perfume, no red. No sitting on benches with male friends. No white t-shirts. No running in gym clothes.
The rules are as arbitrary as those that have been pronounced by right-wing political leaders in various Indian states over the past few years. There are multiple other rules, all for women. Women must not live alone. If they do, they risk murder, rape, OCD, and the loss of maternal feeling. Children born out of inter-religious or inter-caste marriages are “impure”.
In a pronouncement uncannily similar to the misogynistic Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, all unmarried / widowed women are to be assigned male guardians who will hold their property, their finances, their bodies, their freedom, their autonomy, in custody.
Writers are often prescient, or, at the least, they seem to be aware of the circularity of history and how socio-political patterns repeat themselves. Ghose posits the idea of a breakaway, feminist state to counter the MSS, its growing political power, and its Gomutra economy (the sevaks carry sachets of gomutra as an instant – and pure – pick-me-up; gomutra is exported to Korea as an ayurvedic beauty treatment – it has spawned a whole sanskari economy).
One of her characters, a charismatic leader battling challenges of gender and class, refers to this new state as an “intentional community” and a “thought experiment”. One might be tempted to conclude that with this radical solution, the novel moves out of its hitherto realistic structure and into the genre of fantasy / speculative fiction, but Ghose cleverly plots it as an alternate political ideology, one that finds adherents from within the oppressed, the marginalised, the silenced. It is an act of creating hope where none exists.
Ghose also writes of grief. The visceral, gut-wrenching grief that Chimamanda Adichie, mourning the death of her father, shares with her readers in Notes on Grief and Siddharth Shanghvi confronts in Loss, grief that many of us have learnt to live with over the past year, finds expression in the manner in which Shashi goes from one day to the next, performing the rituals of mourning for her husband, and in the disbelief that makes Tara deny the truth of her father’s death and distance herself from her remaining family.
The cultural insistence on rituals often insulates the mourner from the fact of the loss and delays the process of grieving. Grief sets in slowly and transforms relationships. “Memory comes in jagged shapes”, the writer tells us. Memory makes mourners of us, making us re-shape, re-assess those we have lost.
Shashi wonders about the need to cry, to make visible a hurt she would rather keep private. Tara folds in on herself, taking solace in poetry and the love of a friend. Grief, much as it separates, also brings people together and keeping this tenuous balance is something Ghose does exceptionally well.
I want to repeat that The Illuminated is a perfectly timed book. It forces the reader to put away privilege-tinted glasses and take a good, hard look at the social-cultural-political chaos we inhabit. It draws our attention to patterns we might not want to see – issues like sexual harassment and abuse within educational institutions, the easy sexism and casual misogyny that pervade our public spaces. It subverts prejudices. It is particularly invested in the stories and quotidian experiences of women, locating the personal within the political.
The quotidian is worth telling. Generations of male writers telling stories of men have validated exactly that. Anindita Ghose, in this self-assured debut, has carved the space for women to tell stories of women, while refusing to be silenced or controlled or reduced by family or political structures or social strictures. The abhisarika has become the unapologetic heroine of her own story and she illuminates her own way.
The Illuminated, Anindita Ghose, HarperCollins India.