In Anindita Ghose's debut novel, lunar metaphors, myriad literary references and a depiction of women's inner lives

The premise of The Illuminated betrays a familiarity — as it seemingly revolves around the lives of a mother-daughter duo, Shashi and Tara Mallick, and the all-important men in their lives — only to catch the reader off-guard with its nuanced, sensitive, and often complex mappings of its protagonists' minds.

Arshia Dhar August 03, 2021 15:03:10 IST
In Anindita Ghose's debut novel, lunar metaphors, myriad literary references and a depiction of women's inner lives

The Illuminated is journalist Anindita Ghose's debut novel. Images courtesy: HarperCollins India

When I meet Anindita Ghose, art journalist and now a debut novelist, on a rainy July evening over Zoom, she looks positively radiant and self-assured from across the screen, in a room full of books and art. She has just returned from a quiet retreat — into a remote, internet-free corner of mist and green, as her Instagram stories and publicist suggested — to her home in Mumbai, where the first stack of The Illuminated, her debut novel, awaited her, hot off the press.

"I just received them, and you're the first person I am sharing this with," she tells me excitedly, holding up a copy and unfurling its jacket to reveal several silver moons underneath. The cover is a stunning work of art by designer Bonita Vaz Shimray of HarperCollins India. The jacket sits like a palimpsest over the cover with incomplete moons, playing with the light to create the illusion of many moons in their different, glorious phases, shimmering elusively in and out of sight. Ghose believes she lucked out with a sincere team, even though the pandemic robbed her of the opportunity to host an in-person launch.

The premise of The Illuminated betrays a familiarity — as it seemingly revolves around the lives of a mother-daughter duo, Shashi and Tara Mallick, and the all-important men in their lives — only to catch the reader off-guard with its nuanced, sensitive, and often complex mappings of its protagonists' minds. It thrusts us into the world these women inhabit and negotiate with, as they make sense of their privileges, and situatedness in class, caste, gender, sexuality, and everything in between.

But for Ghose, the novel was never really about the pair — their relationship is merely incidental to the story, which is about the circumstances that make them the women they are. It is, however, an "angry" piece of literature, stemming from a place of unexplored rage. "I think the fact that I am a journalist is quite important, because there are some things I wanted to say, but one can't in journalism," she tells me. "But they are in the book. And while writing it, I also realised that I have never been an angry journalist — maybe because I have always been in the arts and culture space. But even within that, you can be an angry journalist. I have more or less been quite a fan girl of authors and artists I like. In writing the book, I realised I had a lot of introduced me to different parts of myself which I was not familiar with as a journalist, or editor, or even as a person." Parts that she identifies as not just incensed, but also occasionally "vicious". After all, six years is a considerably long period of one's life, especially when spent on a single project that travels from a personal to a professional domain. These five years of writing and one year of editing allowed her to "excavate" certain difficult emotions she wasn't well acquainted with previously.

"When I read parts of my book, I feel like it has been written by someone else, but I know it's by me," she says with a laugh. "You're not the same person you were six years ago, right? So you change, and the book changes too. The book started off as a very mannered one, like a Jhumpa Lahiri, and then ended in a Carmen Maria Machado zone. But I embraced that and realised that's fine," the writer thinks out loud.

The novel moulds the feminine energy of the moon into a central and potent metaphor, thereby rendering it more accessible as an object of irradiance and source of enlightenment to the reader. Rather neatly, Anindita's moon does not succumb to the hackneyed tropes of mysticism — of sorceresses and witches — conventionally associated with it, and she admits this was premeditated. The writer, unsurprisingly, is also a lunar nerd.

A big part of preparing for The Illuminated entailed accidentally stumbling upon and immersing herself in the world of moons, in order to shape her characters who borrow their names from various celestial bodies and their derivatives (Shashi, Tara, Robi, Surjo, Poornima, Noor). Her chapters, too, follow a lunar scheme. "I actually wrote it as a short story; a lot of first-time writers do that, I guess — you just hang on to the first chapter or the first story and you keep working on it. You're kind of obsessed with it. So for two years, I wrote this first chapter," Ghose says. She sent it to various magazines, publications, entered it to competitions, only to receive responses that said it was really nice, but unfinished. "That is when I realised that it wasn't a short story, it was the start of a novel."

However, it was Simran Lal of Good Earth, an acquaintance of Anindita's, who got her hooked to the moon. Once the two got talking, the writer learnt of Lal's interest in the moon, as she enthused over its phases, effects on the seasons, the human body and mind. "Simran really got me thinking about the moon. And since the book was clearly becoming one about and with women, because a mother and daughter were always in it — I started thinking more and more about it. Once I got the lunar scheme, I wove it in, and it started to make a lot of sense to me," she tells me.

And with the moon comes moonlight, a derivative of the sun's brilliance, which seized the writer's imagination, allowing her to extend the metaphor to reflect on how socially, women have continued to be defined in relation to the men in their lives — as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters.

Her chapters follow various phases of the moon, and each phase holds a specific meaning in the lunar lexicon, whose essence is then borrowed by the corresponding section of her book. "The moon's phases weren't just about showing a progression. So for instance, the new moon stands for beginning again or cleansing. If you see the 'New Moon' chapter, which is not the first chapter, things are beginning again, and it is when Shashi is back home. Then there is the first quarter — the half moon, and that is when resistances, obstacles and challenges come forth. So there is a meaning to each of the moon phases, and each chapter reflects that. But all of it was retrofitted. The last quarter, which is the chapter that we start with, is about release and letting go. This is where we find Shashi grieving," she explains.

In a way, the book allowed the writer to pay the moon its due while simultaneously acknowledging the inner workings of women's minds. More often than not, it is relegated to a secondary position to the ubiquitous sun in celestial and religio-cultural contexts. However, she was mindful of not framing the lunar metaphor in a "cheesy" manner, as it often is.

Months before its publication, the novel's working title was The Moons of Their Lives, until the publisher intervened and advised the author to revise it. "Udayan Mitra, my editor, felt that the title might send the wrong message, and it did not sound like what he called "a big book". But that was the title the entire time that I was working on the book," she says.

It is also at this point that she acknowledged the significance of the light metaphor running through her novel — of the various "illuminations" occurring through its length — as she observed its omnipresence in literature. From The Upanishads, to the works of Audre Lorde, Rumi, and even Amanda Gorman — light is an undeniably powerful and universal symbol of hope and enlightenment.

Anindita goes on to mention an astonishing range of literature on the moon and light that she has pored over — from writings in Sanskrit to Carol Ann Duffy's anthology of poems To the Moon, to Nina McLaughlin's The Paris Review column 'The Moon in Full'; the writer-journalist is clearly "seeing moons all around [her]".

Her lunar fixation also lends itself to atmospheric storytelling, where each character occupies spaces that mirror their emotional states. They even inhabit distinct sensorial worlds, especially the principal female characters Shashi, and her daughter Tara. Ghose expounds on the process: "Because I was writing alternate chapters, barring the 'Half Moon' chapter and the final chapter where they all come together, I first thought if I should use different vocabularies for Shashi and Tara. But then I realised it might not make a lot of sense for the reader — it might be too jarring. However, I did want to create different sensorial worlds; so Shashi's world is defined by taste and smell which are more intimate senses, as she's a softer person. For Tara who is vain and narcissistic, her world is defined by visual and audio." In the last chapter, their worlds converge as they come together in the same physical space, which is when the sense of touch is deployed as well.

Ghose also assigns different colour palettes to the mother and daughter in order to make them more well rounded. For Shashi, the gentler of the two, a pale yellow does the job; for the fierce Tara, a mix of purples and mauves await her in the scorching Mysore heat, while shades of blue envelope her in the cooler terrains of Dharamshala, as the redness of the fire exits her soul and her surroundings. The temperatures and weathers of the cities they travel to — from Calcutta to Delhi, to Mysore and the hills — also leave important clues to their prevailing mental states. While Shashi remembers Calcutta in warm hues of sepia, she encounters Delhi in a grey, smoggy haze and drizzle. Ghose adeptly exploits literary tropes to bring her characters to life.

Despite not being professionally trained in fiction writing, Anindita's schooling through reading interviews of writers and interacting with them has equipped her to inch closer to her personal idiom, even though she is far from arriving at it, she says. An author who has significantly informed the litterateur in her is Akhil Sharma, whose novel Family Life took her by awe and surprise. "I loved the book, and I was so confused by why I liked it, because it was not lyrical was not Julian Barnes, it was not even Zadie Smith — but it was a beautiful book which takes you to a different space. And then reading his interview, I realised why I felt that way. He was doing something so clever with his craft — that as writers, we can manipulate the readers' sensorial experience of a book by choosing what sensorial experience to give you," she says, before adding that while reading Shashi's chapters, "you feel like buying flowers or eating something, because that is the world she is in. And while reading Tara's chapters, you might want to apply lipstick and look good because that's the world she is in. So once I realised I could do that, I really tried to build on that."

As a result, her writing is laden with subtext that ranges from allusions to mythical heroines in Sanskrit literature, to architecture that embraces the power dynamics between the people inhabiting it. Her characters populate spaces that comment on the struggles each one of them encounters internally as a result of the equations they share with the people around them. From Shashi's son Surjo's grey sofa cushions to her husband Robi's rigid gardening rules, everything discloses a little something about the human relationships in The Illuminated.

Among other things, Anindita's debut novel — woven largely as a stream of consciousness narrative — is a confluence of myriad literary influences. She read what her characters read — from Simone de Beauvoir, to Hegel and Aurobindo Ghose; from Romila Thapar to Bhartrihari, her home now features a shelf that holds only the books Shashi and Tara would pick up. While the former was a student of comparative philosophy at Jadavpur University, the latter is a formidable Sanskrit scholar from Delhi University, and walking in their shoes was no mean feat for their creator.

But besides these deliberate literary references, a couple of them slipped in without the author noticing. When Tara is made aware of her father Robi's death, the terseness of the message, "Father died. Call Surjo", is reminiscent of the now-iconic opening lines of Albert Camus' The Stranger — "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know." Ghose seemed pleased with the analogy, as it was entirely coincidental. Does this, then, mean she has found her literary style?

"No," she answers. It's just her first book, so it is too soon to tell. However, she does believe, much like the British novelist Howard Jacobson, that literature benefits from being transgressive. "That's an interesting way to put it," she tells me, even though she says she would frame it slightly differently. "I like open-ended art and literature. I am not a fan of art that has a single moral conclusion, and I think good literature is about leading you to a place as a reader. What you do in that place is up to you. No good book or art can tell you how to think, because then, you are not respecting the reader. Also, one of the functions of art is to challenge limitations, whether it is societal or moral," she says. The writer hopes her work will evoke different emotions and interpretations among her readers at different points in time down the years; if it is unable to accomplish this, her effort may be rendered futile, she says.

While Ghose expects the novel to strike a chord with young readers, especially women, she hopes to stir interest among men past their 50s as well — arguably a challenge. On this note, I urge her to name her three favourite fictional women, a question that makes her pause for a moment, before answering — "Since the first line is inspired by her, I think this is a character that I have lived with for really long — Mrs Dalloway. Also because she is a very memorable character, she is not perfect and she is in her head so much...Mrs Dalloway made a deep impact on me. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite writers and I got to spend an entire day with her in Calcutta, for Vogue, when she wrote her first Italian book, and it was the highlight of my journalism career, so I want to pick someone from Jhumpa's books. I love Ashima Ganguli (from The Namesake), and I don't know how much of it is because of how I love Tabu's portrayal of her," she says with a laugh. Ghose believes Ashima resembles Shashi, especially in the instance where she decides to stay back where she is for the love of her job as a small-time librarian, despite her husband's move to a different city for work. "That assertion of her identity was really amazing to me," she says.

The third fictional woman she chooses is Patty Berglund from Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. "Despite the misdirected online hate that Franzen is at the receiving end of these days, he is one of my all-time favourites and one contemporary writer who I think really writes layered and interesting women. Patty Berglund is complex, unlikable, deliciously directionless and most of all she is self-deprecating and hilarious. She is not a character I can forget, which in fiction, makes her a clear favourite," the writer says, almost instantly bringing to mind the rich unpleasantness of her Tara, juxtaposed against a rotating cast of women in all their glorious delightfulness and complexities.

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