Fasting, Feasting. – Review

Fasting, Feasting. – Review – book review

Rex Roberts

In her latest novel, Anita Desai compares life in rural India with suburban America.

Shortlisted for the coveted Booker Prize in England, where the novel originally appeared last year, Fasting, Feasting (Houghton Mifflin, 228 pp, $13, paperback) is Anita Desai’s 11th book (two previous works, Clear Light of Day in 1980 and In Custody in 1984, also were shortlisted for the Booker). Desai has been called India’s finest contemporary writer working in English — she was born on the subcontinent in 1937, but she lives in Cambridge, Mass., where she teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fasting, Feasting reflects her dichotomous worlds, although her characters in India and the United States experience similar dreams and disappointments.

Fasting, Feasting certainly is a dichotomous novel — in style and substance. The first half of the book recounts the experiences of Uma, the oldest daughter of a middle-class family that inhabits “a small provincial town” far removed from the bustle of Bombay. The second half takes place in western Massachusetts, where Uma’s brother, Arun, is attending college and boarding at the suburban home of the Pattons, also decidedly middle class. Inevitably, readers will draw comparisons between the two families, one living with the legacy of colonialism, the other enjoying the largess of a new imperial power.

Uma, a plain girl with a mystical bent, suffocates in a patriarchal system of arranged marriages. She has neither the looks, intelligence or self-confidence to attempt a career, an option her mother and father have vetoed in any case.

Arun, a dutiful but sullen child, must cope with the pressure of being the favored son. Forced to study day and night to qualify for a superior university, he feels trapped by the very education meant to liberate him — even if he is privileged to pursue that education in a country devoted to self-actualization.

Perhaps to disguise this too-pat plot –Desai is a bit predictable in her portraits of angst, whether that angst is east of Bombay or west of Boston — she dresses up each section of the novel in different tones and narrative techniques. Uma’s life, for example, unfolds like a story for young readers, a series of bittersweet failures and regrets punctuated by quasireligious experiences.

First, her parents withdraw her from her beloved convent school so she can help care for baby Arun at home. Then she is auctioned off as a bride to the highest bidder, a perfunctory piece of business required by convention so that her younger and more desirable sister can get on with her own marriage. (Uma is auctioned off twice, but never actually betrothed, for both her suitors turn out to be con men intent on her dowry.) Finally, she is denied an opportunity to become something of a career girl, a decision that seems to seal her destiny as a woman forever unfulfilled. Uma’s only moments of transcendence seem to be her periodic seizures that might have spiritual meaning — fits of ecstasy, perhaps, or simply fits of frustration.

Desai’s decision to relate Uma’s travails in a naive narrative voice is more suggestive still of stories for young readers. “A bicycle rickshaw turns in at the gate and its bell gives an announcing ring; it has a cracked sound — t-rring, t-rring,” she writes in a scene describing Uma’s glee at the unexpected arrival of her black-sheep cousin, Ramu-bhai. “… Mama and Papa squint their little eyes, suspicious and incredulous. Uma goes to the edge of the terrace to explore. Suddenly she shrieks, `Oh, Ramu-bhai! It is Ramubhai!’ and goes hurrying down the steps so fast that her slippers strike at her heels — slap, slap, slap!”

When she turns her interest to Arun in Massachusetts, however, Desai employs the disinterested voice that writers (and readers) have come to associate with the literature of exhaustion and ennui–think of the flat, determinedly neutral tone of early Ann Beattie, one of the many authors who so thoroughly have combed the jaded lawns of suburbia for similar material.

“Mrs. Patton’s eyes gleamed as they approached the vegetables,” writes Desai of Arun’s visit to an American supermarket, “all shining and wet and sprinkled perpetually with a soft mist spread upon them, bringing out colours and presenting shapes impossible in the outside world. To Arun they seemed as unreal in their bright perfection as plastic representations, but she insisted on loading their cart with enough broccoli and bean sprouts, radishes and celery to feed the family for a month.”

The trouble is, the Pattons can’t seem to gather for a family meal, plus their daughter, Melanie, suffers from bulimia — Beattie country, for sure, circa 1980. The moral of the story? While traditional Indian society may drive women to suicide (one of Uma’s cousins chooses immolation over indentured servitude in an arranged marriage, although it’s hinted that her husband and mother-in-law may have set her on fire because she was a less-than-satisfactory wife), American culture stifles and kills, too, with its insistence on perfection (fraudulent, of course), its voracious appetites (selfish and wasteful) … etcetera, etcetera.

Reducing Fasting, Feasting to a tale of two cultures does Desai an injustice. Uma’s unintentional religiosity, an amalgam of Hinduism and Christianity, and Arun’s stoicism suggest ways to carry on no matter their worldly circumstances. Those circumstances, however, seem rather sour on the whole. It’s difficult to think of a character in the novel, Indian or American, who seems genuinely happy, even for a short time. Whether this means Desai is a clear-eyed realist or dour pessimist is hard to say — is the glass half-full or haft-empty? is it time to fast or feast?

Rex Roberts is features editor at Insight.

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