Title: The Illuminated
Author: Anindita Ghose
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Genre: Literary Fiction
Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of The Illuminated when I first started reading it. I read a couple of pages and for some reason didn’t get back to it. It didn’t call out to me then. I had received an ARC and thought I would read it eventually before the finished copy was out in the market. However, when the finished copy was sent to me, I thought let’s do this. Let us read The Illuminated and so I did. Dear reader, I was in for a roller-coaster ride, a ride that was calm, in its own manner quite tumultuous, deceptively simple, with no twists and turns, and the kind you have to surrender to completely.
Relationships are messy, but that’s how they are. I guess because humans who are in those relationships are complex themselves. Each carrying their own burden, trying very hard to make sense of the world. Shashi and Tara, the mother and daughter at the center of this novel are quite the same. Each trying to make their way in the world, after the death of the center of their lives – the husband and the father. Anindita throws her characters in unfamiliar waters, and it is up to them to sink or swim. Being who they are, they swim. Sometimes in the opposite direction, so as not to cross each other – but what comes of it ultimately is what you will know after reading the book.
The Illuminated is about women – women from different spheres, class, sensibilities, and more than anything women who lead such complicated inner lives – that are brought to fore. From affairs of the heart to desires of the body to how one feels in a marriage, to living in a country where an organisation decides how you should be in the world, Ghose gives us a view (albeit a minor one) into a world unknown to those who live outside of it.
I was mostly reminded of Anita Desai’s writing as I made my way through the book. Initially I thought I could hear Jhumpa Lahiri’s voice, but I was mistaken. It is just Ghose’s own tone that finally makes the book what it is. The themes of loneliness, liberty, of always overlooking one’s shoulder as a woman in modern India, and more than anything longing is constant throughout the book.
The title The Illuminated is self-explanatory. It is of the illumination, of the precise moment of epiphany that Shashi and Tara come to feel is the crux of the book. Of seeing the light that maybe was always there but just got hidden for a long time by the sun. The metaphors do not get in the way of the reading at all. They are subtle, and you get it if you get it.
Anindita’s writing is detailed. I particularly loved Shashi’s parts – the slowness, the sudden change in the tapestry of her life, the choices she then makes, and the determination with which she propels ahead is told skilfully and with most empathy by the writer. It took me a while to get used to Tara. Somehow, I just couldn’t relate to her. There were times I wished I would read more of Shashi and less of Tara, but I also understand that we need Tara’s perspective as readers because that’s where the balancing act happens. At the same time, the parallel but most significant part of the story is also the organisation MSS – that seems to have taken over the responsibility of showing women their place in the society – and how Shashi and Tara navigate their lives around it.
The writing took me some time to get used to, but like I said Anindita’s voice is unique and lures you in after a point. The Illuminated is a nuanced, sometimes faltering, sometimes finding its way and getting there, and sometimes just knowing what it wants to say debut book that stands on its own. I am looking forward to what comes next from Ms. Ghose.