Recently, Anindita Ghose, who was previously editor of Mint Lounge and features director at Vogue, launched her debut novel The Illuminated to much fanfare and love. A quick look at the blurb tells us this is about a mother and daughter, separately coming to terms with themselves and their lives after the sudden death of the husband and father.
To drive home the point that this narrative is about women reclaiming their space within themselves and in society, the book mines the age-old link between women and the lunar calendar.
This begins with the beautiful black hardback, designed by Bonita Vaz Shimray, slit silver and showing various phases of the moon. The chapters too are named after these lunar stages. The two women protagonists are Shashi and Tara, along with their house-help Poornima, named after the moon and stars; Shashi’s husband and Tara’s father is named Robi, after the sun. In keeping with the title, the secondary characters have names denoting ‘wisdom’ and ‘light’ — the women’s trusted confidantes are Bibek and Noor, respectively; the man that Tara falls for is Amitabh, ‘limitless light’.
The meticulousness with which the storyline was crafted is apparent. The narrative deliciously dips into different times in the characters’ lives, never disrupting the flow. Overall, there is no doubt The Illuminated is the sort of book that could be tagged as lyrical and beautiful. Individual bits, like “it was beautiful prose, the kind that emerges from the minds and mouths of people who do not speak much,” attest to this.
But — and this review wished there wasn’t a ‘but’ to elaborate on — The Illuminated tries too hard to be ‘The Novel of its Times’. The book is crowded with touch-points. It’s almost as if a list of current preoccupations was being checked off as it was being written: a privileged, ‘liberal’ girl chooses to study Sanskrit over say, English Literature; a ‘right wing’ militia group’s members regularly knock on people’s doors, taking gulps out of “Goumutra” sachets; a #MeToo situation; a character who ‘runs away’ to an alternate-living commune; and later, an utopian feminist state that’s formed in India.
In stuffing in all of these, the book is unable to give each one their duly deserved space for real depth or nuance. Especially the feminist icon and her utopia on the one hand, and the right wingers on the other are terribly unsubstantiated caricatures — disappointing in an otherwise intellectual exercise quoting poets and thinkers from Bhartrhari to Barthes.
Another problem is the lack of clarity in the book’s narratorial tone. This is dangerous because it is unclear if the narrator says (many) problematic things suo motu, or if it is her exploration of a particular character’s flaws that calls for this treatment.
For instance, early on, the book rightly, but not very overtly, calls out the right wingers for saying women living alone will “develop lesbian attitudes”; but a little later, the narrator, telling the story of Tara, an academic and apparently woke character says, “Even a gay man she had once kissed drunkenly…told her he wished they could do it right there on the dance floor….” Did successive drafts overlook the problematic use of a nameless and faceless LGBT character as a prop to establish the sexual desirability of a cisgender, straight woman?
Another huge paragraph on Tara thinking about her previous sexual companions has the line “she had a dream where all the boys…were naked, lined up against a wall…[t]heir faces obscured but she knew them by their bodies.”
Perhaps the idea is to replace the male gaze, but the same critiques against fetishisation and commodification could apply to this brand of feminism too....