Review: The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose - Hindustan Times

Review: The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose

BySimar Bhasin
Sep 03, 2021 06:29 PM IST

Anindita Ghose’s debut novel asks pertinent questions and attempts to bring up alternative modes of being through a fictional representation of possibilities

312pp, ₹599; HarperCollins
312pp, ₹599; HarperCollins

“We’ve all grown up consuming the minutiae of the lives of middle-aged men as literature,” Anindita Ghose told me in an interview for her book earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Ghose’s debut novel reads like an attempt at reclaiming narratives of women. Revolving around the lives of mother and daughter, Shashi and Tara, The Illuminated begins with the patriarch’s death. After the death of her husband Robi Mallick, Shashi ruminates on what this loss means to her personally and also on the many losses she has incurred during the course of her marriage. The different stages of Shashi’s married life are mapped out spatially within the text. From the sprawling north Kolkata Mallick family house to the posh South Delhi home built by her architect husband to her son’s apartment in New Jersey, the physical spaces Shashi is shown to occupy become important in the overall politics of representation in the novel. Shashi herself is a philosophy scholar who left academia. She talks about Hegelian ideas and the constant “state of subtraction” that characterizes a woman’s life. For someone who is used to always “giving room”, she ponders over how on the contrary men “gain and acquire by habit”. “They mark their territories by spilling on what is not theirs to make it their own. It is in the nature of men to spill, out of their bodies, their homes, their countries”.

Her daughter Tara, the other female protagonist, is a Sanskrit scholar at a university in Mysuru who later on relocates to Dharamsala for research. Her relationship with an older visiting faculty member at her university, Amitabh Dhar, is said to be the reason behind her move. Dhar, a famous scholar, is again described as a man who “was spilling out of himself”, “As if it was impossible to contain him”. Ghose constantly and in very nuanced ways juxtaposes the ease with which her male characters seem to occupy spaces with the relentless surveillance that the female body in flux is always under, even in the most privileged of situations. Through Tara and Amitabh’s relationship, Ghose confronts issues such as consent and throws light on a toxic and often misogynistic academic culture that hails the male creative genius at the cost of everything else.

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Author Anindita Ghose (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Anindita Ghose (Courtesy the publisher)

The reclaiming that characterises this fictional work inevitably points to the various points of erasure that a woman’s life in a deeply patriarchal society has historically been replete with. This erasure is both tangible and intangible, where a woman is contained by her environs while the man is free to and often encouraged to “spill over”. Ghose manages to navigate the personal interior landscapes of her character’s lives as well as give shape to a larger political scenario wherein a fundamentalist organisation, the cleverly abbreviated MSS (Mahalaxmi Seva Sangh), is gaining a strong foothold. The propagandist literature by the MSS is peppered throughout the novel with the rise of the organisation itself becoming increasingly concerning in the course of the narrative. A woman Chief Minister KC Meenakshi is shown to present the only real opposition to this threat.The book therefore ends with the reunion of mother and daughter and the simultaneous creation of an eco-feminist utopia by Meenakshi, showing how the personal is in fact political.

With lunar references sprinkled throughout, from titles of the different sections to characters’ names such as Poornima and Shashi (“like the moon”), Ghose plays on the idea of illumination, or a coming to light. The easily erased and the intentionally obfuscated become central concerns, something that the epilogue particularly imbibes. In her debut work, through controlled prose and an acute awareness with which the text is constructed, Ghose creates a story of hope. Though it doesn’t provide all the answers, it asks pertinent questions. The Illuminated is an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and praxis, to bring up alternative modes of being through a fictional representation of possibilities.

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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