In her debut novel The Illuminated, Anindita Ghose weaves together stories of personal grief and struggle with larger socio-political afflictions. The personal stories of the women in the book are timeless and universal; these are stories of self-effacement and self-discovery that feminist writing deals with anyway. But Ghose refreshingly sets the stories in contemporary India and connects them with the impact that the rise of fundamentalism is likely to have on women. Apart from this well-balanced personal-political equation, Ghose offers a hopeful vision that, fortunately, all is not bleak: the women in the novel strive to find a political space that protects their personal space.
Shashi is a widow beginning to live life on her own terms and Tara, her daughter, is coming to terms with the end of an exploitative infatuation with an older man. These personal stories take on a greater significance, however, due to the larger political reality of India that they are set in. On the one hand, there is the rise of the MSS, a fictional right wing organisation that seeks to “protect” women from “deviant” ways by passing a law that requires men to act as their guardians. As the central characters in the novel recognize it, the organisation and its activities are a “virus”, a symptom of “a diseased society”. On the other hand, there is a new (fictional) province named Meenakshi (after its chief minister) established as a living experiment in which women take charge of all affairs. These form the bookends of Shashi, Tara, and their housekeeper Poornima’s lives: one to escape from, the other to escape to. Symbolising women in general, they are “the illuminated” (hinting perhaps at the all-male “Illuminati” secret societies protecting the world or a cause), beings that emerge when one begins to see things differently, “when the light shifts”, when women begin to see that they have always been told that there are several things that they can’t do. They “normally” can’t live alone, they can’t choose whom to fall in love with, or they can’t be around the men they love. The novel keeps women at the centre of the change. When Shashi resolves that to move to Meenakshi, she says:
We have to have the courage to explore extremes. It’s the only way to arrive at the centre… Meenakshi is not a fantasy. There is a long history of communities around the world banding together for a purpose, exploring radical ways of living.
Ghose’s storytelling brings together many discourses and narratives: from mythology to Sanskrit from ancient Indian literature (Tara is a scholar of Sanskrit literature) to Ghose’s fictional misogynist pamphlets circulated by the right wing that speak of the Lakshman Rekha – the boundary that women should not cross at any cost is a reference to the boundary (the “rekha” drawn by her brother-in-law Lakshmana to protect her before leaving her alone) that Sita crossed in the epic Ramayana and was consequently abducted by Ravana. While Indian feminists see the boundary as symbolic of patriarchy, the right wing appreciate it and would like to use it to suppress women’s freedom. There are more references to mythology: some claimed for feminist usage, some claimed by the fundamentalists, and just brought up to think about what they could mean. Here is one that compels women to think about why they participate in a ritual that celebrates the drowning of the goddess:
Mahishasura was a good king, so powerful that the gods couldn’t defeat him. He had a boon: he couldn’t be killed by a man. And so the gods created Durga to do their bidding. On the tenth day, her work done, Durga is immersed in water. There is goat curry and libation. Married women smear vermilion on each other, moving their bodies to the beat of the dhaak. But what is it that they are really doing? Why do they celebrate the drowning of one of their own?
Underlying such passages is Ghose’s intention to explore women’s power:
There is something curious about a woman’s anger. A spark can set alight a whole forest, once wet and green. And it burns and burns, fuelled by the memory of past injustices borne not just by them but the women before them – their mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, friends and maids, the women in stories, witches, princesses, queens and goddesses.
Ghose juxtaposes the rhetoric of the right wing with the musings of a dispassionate scholar. One of the pamphlets by the MSS advertises a workshop that will help women “tackle the evil triumvirate of greed, ambition and desire that is poisoning women’s bodies, leading to hormonal imbalance”. But the many references to Sanskrit erotic poetry in the novel present the side of women’s sexuality that the pamphlets are blind to. Ghose captures both the extremes and a position somewhere in-between: for instance, there are also characters that are liberals who think that Tara’s decision to study Sanskrit is “regressive” and gives wrong signals to the associations such as the MSS. Ghose’s attempts at bringing all these positions together in her novel make for engaging reading.