The Illuminated is the debut novel of Mumbai-based lifestyle journalist Anindita Ghose. Published in July 2021, the book had a lot of fanfare and I wanted to read it for a long time. Finally, got my hands on the book a couple of months ago, and I have read it cover to cover. Did I like it? Not really. Did I hate it? Not at all. Somewhere in between the two extremes, the book failed to leave a mark. But there’s more to it. Here’s our review of The Illuminated.
Summary of The Illuminated
At the very core, The Illuminated is the story of the Mallick family. Robbi – the father, Shashi – the mother, Surjoy – the son, and Tara – the daughter. Well, not so much about Surjoy, the son who married an American woman, and chose to spend his entire life in the United States. What he says, does, or thinks has no impact on the story or the primary characters.
Robbi and Shashi are on a visit to their son when Robbi has a severe heart attack and passes away. Shashi, away from the comfort of her home and close relatives, starts contemplating life without her beloved husband. Robbi was a superstar architect, winning awards and hearts all over the world. We are reminded throughout the novel of how dashing and cool he was, more so in his all-black attire.
Tara is somewhere in the northern mountains of India, unaware of her father’s death. She’s locked herself after some incident in her Sanskrit college in Mysore, Karnataka. So, she’s contemplating life too. However, the mother’s journey and the daughter’s journey are different and the story follows the two journeys entirely. In the process, we come across micro-stories of other important characters, like Tara’s lesbian friend, the North-eastern cafe owner, and the odd relatives.
The story itself is quite predictable, and not unheard of. Tara falls for a professor, ends up sleeping with him, and gets ignored later on. Shashi, who had a dream husband, feels that her life was not as fulfilling as it could be and tries to find redemption by helping underprivileged women. Between Tara’s affair with the professor and Shashi’s quest for finding self-worth, there’s a lot of social commentary, direct and indirect.
The most interesting twist is the creation of a separate state for women. The new state is for women and by women, where men would have special reservation rights, and live to play reverse traditional gender roles. It’s like a utopia of sorts for women, and the initiator of the movement to create it was a fisherwoman from Colaba. All in all, The Illuminated is falls short of what it promises to be.
My Take on The Illuminated
Of the Rich, For the Rich
To be blunt, The Illuminated is not a book showing the struggles of women. At best, it shows the struggles of rich women, from families with generational wealth. Especially the daughter. Tara has had everything in life that an average girl from anywhere in India would want – a loving father, an enviable house, freedom to study whatever, and the option of not working if she didn’t want to. She’s also got the academic opportunities to study the subjects of her choice at the most elite institute in the country.
Yet, she ruins it because she finds her exotic middle-aged professor weirdly attractive and decides to sleep with him. That’s not how life works for 99% of the women in India. There are sadder stories in front of which Tara’s problems look childish, to say the least. In other words, the story has little substance to resonate with others. The same goes with Shashi.
In fact, the only person that I think many boys would relate to was Tara’s colleague, Ajay. The young lad is a typical one – lower-middle-class upbringing, a beautiful classmate for group projects, the inability to ask her out ever because she’s attracted to a senior or a professor, and the sheer surprise and guilt for achieving feats he thinks he doesn’t deserve. Surjoy is another one. The son of a rich man moves to the US for studies and settles down with a beautiful, preferably white, woman.
Never Becomes Interesting Enough
That’s my biggest disappointment with The Illuminated. It just doesn’t get interesting enough. I had several moments throughout the book where I thought things would get more intense. Sadly, it never happened. Never, not once. The story is all good and jolly, and except for Robbi’s death, and the tragic story of Dolly, nothing really bad happens to make it more attractive.
The helplessness and hesitation of Surjoy to become a worthy son never materialise. The exotic professor never becomes too evil to be labelled a villain. Ajay winning the scholarship for Chicago is not his fault. Every great story needs a villain, an antagonist, who makes the protagonist(s) look worthy and appreciable. The lack of a great antagonist makes Tara look like a spoilt child baby, and Shashi a rich woman consumed in too much philosophy.
The most interesting story is of Poornima, the maid. The poor woman got messed up at an early age and had to elope to save her life and dignity. Unfortunately, her story was wrapped up in a couple of pages and felt it could do with more depth and weight. But then, The Illuminated is more of the rich, for the rich.
More Social Commentary than Actual Story
Anindita Ghose is a brave woman, I’ll give her that. There’s a certain right-wing organization, the MSS, with the second S denoting ‘Sangh.’ Shashi and Tara, leading women, face the MSS and its orthodox doctrines in some form throughout their lives. As expected, they defy them all the time, so much so that they decide to leave their normal lives to escape an MSS-backed bill from the parliament.
It’s all right and brave to criticise the fascist organisations, it should come from a natural space. But it looks very doctored and purposeful in The Illuminated. In the process, there are a lot of things that don’t happen in real life. Maybe the author wanted to portray what MSS could do if it got too much influence in the government, which I totally agree with. However, the method of delivering the message seems too fabricated and unrealistic.
One particular thing that I did not like about this social commentary is its view of men. I’ve seen the dark side of women while growing up, darker than most would ever see. I have seen the dark sides of men too. Dwelling in the slums of Mumbai, especially in the heart of the organised drug cartels, brought the worst out of human beings. But not for once did I have the feeling of women being evil folk.
A rich girl sleeps with the professor on her own, which is all hot and sexy until the professor ditches her. If Tara was a real person, I would laugh at her and ask her to grow up. This might sound cruel, but believe me, the world is not a garden of roses.
Rich Only in Language, But it’s Sufficient
I am a literature student and find reading linguistically rich texts quite pleasurable. The Illuminated, in that regard, is enjoyable. Ghose’s finesse in writing, polished by her career in journalism and education at Columbia University, is at full display. The choice of words, the description of scenes, and the narration, all sound like melting caramel. The novel is like one big poem, and if had been the only merit, it would have been a blockbuster for me.
Sadly, the same richness does not translate to the characters. The ones that appeared to have some meat were left unexplored. The excessive focus on Tara and Shashi has diluted the presence and impact of others, which I felt watered down the plot. But where the novel shines its portrayal of Calcutta and the life of an average upper-class Bengali family. The patriarchal family invokes a lot of nostalgia and emotion, and the rule of the headwoman in the kitchen feels like a warm summer evening. It’s beautiful. Thus, I admire Anindita Ghose. India has yet another female author with literary prowess. I am pretty sure that as she grows in experience, her flair will meet substance and create great stories. Until then, you should read The Illuminated to get a glimpse of what the future holds.
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.