Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

A finalist for the Booker Prize in 1999, Fasting, Feasting tells the story of the two main characters, two siblings Uma and Arun, in two respective parts.

Part 1 is seen through the eyes of Uma, the eldest daughter in the family, is clumsy, myopic, prone to fits, and largely unsuccessful in life (report cards at school, cooking, marriages where her family is duped resulting in lost dowries and humiliation) though not for lack of effort or enthusiasm to succeed on her part. She thinks of her parents as a single entity ‘mama-papa’ and after two failed marriages, ‘mama-papa’ decide to stop making any efforts and start their lifelong duty to ensure she is busy looking after them. Whenever Uma finds an avenue for freedom either a pilgrimage with the forever on the move Mira Masi or a job offered by an empathetic Dr.Dutt, it is rejected or cut short by ‘mama-papa’. Her only solace is in brief moments of blankness or in her collections (glass bangles which she never wears & old Christmas cards whose words cheer her). In spite of this lot in life, she does not seem to  have grudge with others for their joys like her sister Aruna’s charmed marriage & Arun’s college acceptance in the US, but instead she is the only one who notices that with all their joys, they are still unhappy. Aruna strives for a dream and Arun has become so mechanical that nothing brings out emotion in him.Fasting feasting

The book suddenly shifts from Uma to show us what Arun is up to in Massachusetts. As he spends his summer with the Pattons. Arun still strives to remain anonymous but realizes it is impossible to do so fully. He realizes that in his attempt to escape, he has stumbled into a ‘plastic representation’ of his life at home. He sees his family in the Pattons. He does not understand the excesses in the Pattons’ lifestyle – the loaded shopping carts, the fridge drooping with the weight of all the frozen food that no one eats, the bags of candy consumed. As Desai puts it so well ‘For the first time in his existence, he found he craved for what he had taken for granted before’ (the meals that were always there for him).

Between Uma and Arun, between MamaPapa’s family and the Pattons, between Mira-masi’s sparse meals and the Pattons’ fridge full of food, Desai cleverly integrates the title of the book. Also brought to mind for me the part of the first line of Anna Karenina: ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Desai uses food as metaphor (the fasting and feasting of the title) to compare and contrast the two families. In one culture, food is used as a vehicle to express communion; in the other, it is used to express isolation. In India the sharing of meals assumes almost ritualistic importance. The family is drawn together for their meals even though communication falters and all are there to cater to the father. Food is a frequent topic of discussion: when to cook, what to cook, what food to offer guests, and who should or should not be invited to share a meal. By contrast, the Patton family has a problematic attitude toward food. The mother stuffs the freezer and refrigerator with food even though what is already there hasn’t been eaten. The father grills steaks that no one else wants to eat. The daughter gorges on peanuts and candy only to vomit everything out a few minutes later. The son forages for leftover meat on the implements used for grilling. And the family never sits together for a meal. They eat in isolation.

Desai is a keen observer of human behavior. Her characters come to life within the first few pages. They are revealed through intricate details—gestures, facial expressions, words said, and words left unsaid. Desai shows rather than tells. In Part 1, for example, there is a wonderful scene where the Indian family sits at the dinner table. Having finished the main meal, the father waits with a “sphinx like” expression. The mother takes it as her cue to peel him an orange. She meticulously removes the pips and places slice by slice carefully on the father’s plate. The father then lifts each slice, placing it ceremoniously in his mouth. Everyone watches in deafening silence at this amazing feat. When he finishes, mother sits back, flushed with pride at her achievement while father maintains his stony-faced silence without so much as a nod of appreciation. This scene speaks volumes.

Unfortunately, the novel ends abruptly, lacking in closure. We are told Arun leaves the Patton household to return to the dorms at the start of a new semester. We hear no more about his family. In spite of an ending that falls short, however, Desai’s skill at characterization through telling description is impressive and makes the novel well worth reading.

This was the first book by Anita Desai that I read. I enjoyed the wonderful play of words and the way everyday characters and happenings are brought to life here but the book left me oddly dissatisfied too, waiting for some sort of closure for the main characters at least.

My rating : 3/5

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