Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai [A Review]

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999, Fasting, Feasting is a novel about the younger members of an Indian family, struggling against the traditions of the older generation, their confusion and isolation as an immigrant and, taking what little else of themselves remains, trying to find their own place in the world.

Cover image of Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

Fasting, Feasting, like the name suggests, is a novel of two halves. The first is the history of a small middle-class family in India. The father of the family was, before he retired, a successful private practice lawyer. The mother a traditional housewife from a merchant family. The couple are inseparable. Not only do they spend all of their free time together but they are one in all of their opinions and values, presenting such a formidable united front that their children call them by the collective name ‘Mamapapa’. The only thing they might disagree on is what to have for dinner.

The couple had two daughters; Uma, the eldest and Aruna the younger. But when Aruna was entering puberty and Uma practically a grown woman, an unexpected pregnancy delivered the much-desired son who they named Arun. Uma, a sweet, enthusiastic young woman, though clumsy and a poor student is pulled out of high school to help in the house and with the baby. Her protests are no use against her traditionalist parents who don’t see the point in continuing education for a girl who is failing, especially when there is a son to put their efforts towards.

Mamapapa have little desire for socialising and their children’s experience with friends and family outside of their house is meagre. Visitors arouse contempt and scorn in Mamapapa while Uma hardly desires anything more than the diversions they bring. There is Mira-Masi, a distant relative who has turned to religion since the death of her husband. Constantly travelling and on pilgrimage, her visits bring news and gossip about family and fill Uma with dreams of escape. Ramu, a cousin of Uma, Aruna and Arun, is considered a wastrel. His vices are not known but are suspected to include alcohol and drugs. His visits promise outrageous fun but usually deliver indulgency spoiled with his unreliability.

Then there is Anamika, Ramu’s very different sister. Anamika is beautiful, with lady-like manners and is a high-achieving student. If she knows how others vie for her attention, how mothers hate that their daughters can’t compete with her, she shows no sign of it but remains cool, graceful, accepting. Anamika wins a scholarship to Oxford but her parents, also very traditional, give no thought to her actually attending. Instead, her scholarship is just another qualification towards finding her the most eligible husband.

As they grow up, the contrast of Uma, Aruna and Anamika’s experiences with suitors and marriage become a focus of the story. But Uma, thirsting for freedom and fulfillment against the very unfair hand she has been dealt is the centre.

A career. Leaving home. Living alone. These troubling, secret possibilities now entered Uma’s mind – as Mama would have pointed out had she known – whenever Uma was idle. They were like seeds dropped on the stony arid land that Uma inhabited. Sometimes, miraculously, they sprouted forth the idea, run away, escape. But Uma could not visualise escape in the form of a career. What was a career? She had no idea.

The second half of Fasting, Feasting occurs years later when Arun is a university student in America. The ‘privileges’ Arun has been showered with at the expense of his sisters have not delivered happiness. As a boy he was made to focus on his studies at his private school. After school, he spends hours with private tutors. Though his father occasionally encourages him to have some fun as well, something he never did with his daughters, Arun is exhausted by the end of the day and prefers to go to his room and read comics alone.

Travelling to America as a student bursts Arun’s bubble of isolation and exposes his crippling shyness and awkwardness. Having to live with a roommate, being approached for comradery by other Indian students, is too much for Arun to handle. Just when he feels he has found the minimum solutions to survive by, he realises he has nowhere to live over the summer break. To his horror, a letter from his father arrives telling him he has arranged, by very loose connections, for Arun to stay with an American family, the Pattons.

To say the young man has been thrown into the culture clash deep-end would be an understatement. His vegetarianism is incomprehensible to the Pattons and, though Mrs Patton tries to be understanding and accommodating, her idea of vegetarianism is to eat raw lettuce, tomatoes and carrots. But even if Arun could overcome his paralysing shyness he has no knowledge of cooking Indian food to improve his situation or the Patton’s ignorance. A part of him experiences a need for inclusion for the first time, especially when he sees father and son watching sport together on TV. But as he learns more of this microcosm of American family life, it only increases his confusion.

Anita Desai is a writer whose novels have achieved a lot of recognition, especially from awards. Fasting, Feasting was longlisted for the 2000 Women’s Prize and shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. In fact, Booker Prize Chairman Gerald Kaufman said if they could have chosen a runner up (the eventual winner that year was JM Coetzee’s Disgrace), they would have chosen Fasting, Feasting.

The title suggests a novel of two halves, with food being a key difference. It was not really like that. The first half, the story of the family in India, is over two-thirds of the novel and food does not seem to feature heavily. The second half, of the immigrant Arun in America, is much smaller and his observances of food is a strong part. As well as his difficulty in finding suitable food for himself, both on campus and within the Patton home, Arun witnesses how access to an abundance of food changes the family and hence society.

Arun gets out of the way, quickly: one can’t tell what is more dangerous in this country, the pursuit of health or sickness.

The shopping for food becomes a trivial exercise when food is cheap and plentiful enough to indulge and waste. Self-denial becomes a respectable discipline, and fitness and attractiveness become obsessions, when the threat of temptation to gluttony is ever present. And the kitchen and the meal disappear as the centre of family life when food is manufactured for convenience and prepared without effort or skill.

A little later she is jiggling the car keys. ‘Ahroon,’ she calls up the stairs. ‘It’s shopping time!’

He comes out on the landing and holds onto the banister, looking down at her gravely. ‘Mrs Patton,’ he says, ‘I think we should finish the food in the freezer first.’

She stares at him in astonishment. ‘Finish the food in the freezer?’ she repeats. ‘What an idea! Whyever should we do that?’

In fact, the two halves were difficult to reconcile and left me with the sense that maybe I did not understand the novel. One connection is Arun’s observance of the Patton’s daughter, from whom he gets a sense of abandonment and neglect, not unlike what he saw in his sister Uma, though under very different circumstances.

Fasting, Feasting is the second Anita Desai novel I have read after The Village by the Sea. In my review of that novel, I said I would hold off my thoughts about her style until reading this novel. Now that I have, I am not sure they are sufficiently similar for me to have an inclusive opinion. In both novels her writing is very easy; an enthusiastic reader could easily read both novels very quickly. Her skill is in how much substance she includes in few words and simple sentences. What feels like light reading is loaded with tone, giving the reader a strong sense of the emotions of the characters, the mood of the environment they are submerged in.

Both novels have a dark side. While mostly being light, and even fun, stories of characters you feel you know, the threat of a dark turn looms and is delivered devastatingly. The sad mistreatment of a happy cheerful, simple girl; the heartbreaking fate of a girl who never did any wrong. It contrasts an otherwise cheery novel and shows the harm done in small steps by practices we know are harmful but rarely question because they are traditional.

Her novels are quite short. The Village by the Sea is one of the longer ones at a bit over 300 pages. Given how well she writes, especially of family settings and characters, I wish she would write a long novel. To extend what she does so well on a small scale to the length of a work by Dickens, Eliot or Tolstoy. In addition, the fact that, at the end of the novel, Uma and Arun’s lives, and therefore their stories, still have much left to run, left me wanting more. This was less out of disappointment when I came to the end, and more out of enjoyment.

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