'The Illuminated' book review: Many shades of grief
It is about loneliness in marriage, liberation in widowhood, sexual exploitation in academia, women in politics, and the confusing nature of desire, & heartbreak of families spread out over continents
Debut novels are exciting to read because they promise a new voice, a fresh cast of characters, and an adventurous ride into hitherto unknown fictional worlds. These qualities are prominently on display in journalist-turned-novelist Anindita Ghose’s book The Illuminated.
While it has been widely described as a novel about the changing contours of a mother-daughter relationship, there is a lot more going on. This book is also about loneliness in marriage, liberation in widowhood, sexual exploitation in academia, women in politics, and the confusing nature of desire, and the heartbreak of families spread out over continents.
Tara is a scholar of Sanskrit poetics, enraptured by the words of Bilhana, a 11th century Kashmiri poet and Bhartrihari, a reverred Sanskrit writer. But life isn’t easy for her. Tara was raised by a father who made it his mission in life to make her happy. His death leaves her with a void that is difficult to fill, especially because of the rocky relationship with her mother and the rare opportunity to meet her brother who lives in New Jersey.
Shashi, her mother, is a philosophy graduate married to Robi, a man who is respected in the community and is financially well-off. However, he is hardly present emotionally. She suspects a romantic liaison outside their marriage but is too afraid to enquire. Her husband’s death gives her a chance to think of herself as an independent person with dreams and plans of her own.
Saying that Tara and Shashi are as different as chalk and cheese would be an understatement. Tara thrives on being desired, and struggles to handle rejection from men that she is sexually interested in. Shashi is presented mainly as a maternal figure, not only for her children but also for younger women who know her as a teacher. Her desires are rarely discussed.
Ghose explores the complicated nature of their equation with care. The generosity that Shashi demonstrates in trying to understand her daughter, and making peace with her, is laudable. After her husband’s death, she is able to see Tara as a woman in the world and not only as a daughter. She also seeks inspiration from Tara’s feisty spirit as she comes into her own.
There’s an important sub-plot, a crucial one, especially in the light of the MeToo movement but it seems hastily dealt with. Two other characters in this book, Noor and KC Meenakshi, are wonderfully etched but their stories seem to end as soon as they begin. One is left hungry for more. The former is an activist that Tara meets in Dharamsala, and the latter is a politician who is the founder of a new state with an all-woman cabinet calling the shots. On the whole, a book worth reading to engage with the questions it raises and the alternatives it offers.
By: Anindita Ghose
Price: Rs 599