More often than not, storytelling that treads the “personal is political” line strays into thinly disguised polemic. There’s one more risk: when caricaturing is used as a literary device, the writer may forgo accuracy in portraying a complex time and space for the deceptive appeal of lampooning. Anindita Ghose’s debut novel The Illuminated falls into this trap while weaving the stories of its two women protagonists.
That perhaps explains why the book ends abruptly, as if it got tired of its own imagined milieu. It scurriedly swings from the contrived extremities of a social and cultural group called the Mahalaxmi Seva Sangh to the quixotic radicalism of an all-women cabinet in the newly carved state of Meenakshi. The novel’s attempt at drawing fictional parallels with the widening reach of the right-of-centre power politics in contemporary India is far from serving as an authentic literary register of various facets of the processes at work. In its rush to conjure up a response, the narrative offers no space for the portrayal of the other set of ideas and their premises, far less to an interplay of ideas.
Through a series of instructional and promotional posters tucked into the story, Ghose projects MSS as a socio-cultural group aligned to political projects only a third into the book. However, the parodied organisation, the largest and arguably most important in the country’s current political scene, is not hard to guess.
That is not because Ghose offers a range of tools to understand or decode it but because her references are replete with clichés, and social media jibes popular with its critics – cow urine, lakshman rekha, Ayurveda floor cleaner, a parodied list of social conduct rules, even a proposed law to ban single woman living alone.
Even in a caricatured form, a more broad-based narrative would have benefitted from seeing what MSS people, including women working for them in the hostel, thought and what motivated them. None of the characters leave a note about that. It would have been even more ambitious to have a narrative slice about how the parodied organisation actually works with various sections of the population within a society-culture-politics interface. Bereft of the multiple prisms, the novel’s political subtext loses steam.
But the novel’s central failure lies in how its leading characters, recently widowed Shashi and her daughter Tara, are unable to strike a connection with their abstractions. By the end of the story, it’s difficult to place the characters in rationalising the book’s running theme, “When the lights shift, we see the world differently.” A large section of the readership would be left wondering what exactly was Tara’s crisis in the foothills of the Himalayas, what got resolved, and how a few words were the dissolving balm. Similarly, beneath its fluid prose, the novel lacks clarity about the nature of Shashi’s predicaments as well.
Ghose populates her novel with marginal characters like Tashi who either meander without any space or Thulasi and Noor who have only utilitarian presence, used to voice some shades of political opinion. They don’t grow organically with the narrative, they could have driven the same political subtext in other frames too.
If some quibbles are permitted, more facets of juvenile crime shelter homes could have found place in Shashi’s association as a teacher in one such home. Notable by its absence is the growing number of reported cases where juveniles have been held for heinous crimes too. That is missing in the depiction of issues related to their rehabilitation. Similarly, Shashi asking Sunita to ask her husband, a police officer, if the police force can absorb the juveniles once they are released is a naïve moment in the narrative. Police officers can’t decide employment conditions and the processes for recruitment are far more formal and open to public scrutiny.
Ghose’s training in linguistics is evident in how she portrays Tara’s scholarly engagements and the activities at the fictional Indian Institute of Languages and Literature. The list of references for Sanskrit translations of poetic passages cited in the book is useful. Even if the literary detours sometimes get esoteric, the revisiting of some classics of Indian literature in Tara-AD dialogues remain a highlight of the book. The other being the lean prose that Ghose employs to depict university and middle class life of the Calcutta of the 1970s.
In its eagerness to speak its political mind in caricatured ways, The Illuminated wastes its considerable material as literary polemic. Ghose disappoints with an inadequate register of individual reflection and limited social notes. In a way, the novel fails a test that would have been favoured by one of the philosophical figures Shashi studied: the Hegelian test of considering both sides, the dialectics of ideas.