Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting

fasting_feastingIphigene here.

My first foray into Indian Literature began with a mistake. I had picked up Anita Desai from a pile of second hand books thinking she was Kiran Desai (Inheritance of Loss), only to discover I was mistaken. Nonetheless, I soon discovered the two Desais were mother and daughter.

I didn’t know what to expect of Indian literature. My only knowledge of India is limited to a few Indian-based movies and travel pictures. I soon discovered it wasn’t so hard to get caught up and enamored by Fasting, Feasting.

The novel is a feast of characters and stories. It opens with the introduction MamaPapa, as if the author is teasing its readers with the dichotomy theme. The author playfully creates one word with Mama and Papa to emphasize the inseparability of the two, where one is the extension of the other. While it has, what may seem, a romantic notion, to me it felt like a co-dependency brought about by a habit or by a woman’s lack of place outside the confines of marriage. A perspective I will explore further in this review.

Like Caged Birds

The first part of the story focuses on Uma, the eldest daughter of three. Uma has been described as useless and worthless, and her lack of beauty makes it harder for her to marry. MamaPapa’s co-dependency extend to her as they scream her name for every little thing. The first chapter gives the reader an impression that Uma was an obedient daughter whose single life has left her servicing her parents. But Desai surprises the reader with how she built child-like wonder, mystery and misery in one character.  Beyond her desire to get an education (despite failing) or making friends with a Baptist missionary, Uma was in the depths of misery. Beyond the simple façade was a complex set of emotions, and it is this complexity that makes the reader empathize for Uma.

A trip to the sea, beautifully and succinctly conveys the darker depths of Uma’s character:

(Uma plunges into the water without hesitation; she goes down like a stone and was soon saved from drowning) What it was was that when she plunged into the dark water and let it close quickly and tightly over her, the flow of the river, the current drew her along, clasping her and dragging her with it. It was not fear she felt, or danger. Or rather, these were only what edged something much darker, wilder, more thrilling, a kind of exultations—it was exactly what she had always wanted, she realised. Then they had saved her. The saving what made her shudder and cry…[chapter 9, p 111].

Reading this rocked me to the core in its power. It filled me with a sense of shock and understanding for after all, knowing what I knew of the character, this seemed like an inevitability. Uma wasn’t a martyr. She was a caged bird.

Uma envied her brother, Arun, the youngest, the male and the one with the opportunity to fly to the US for education. Arun exist in the fringes of Uma’s story and only takes center stage in the second part of the novel. Arun acts and feels like a stranger against the American background. However, Desai does not waste time in putting across Arun’s fixation with anonymity. But like Uma, Arun fails to escape the clutches of his family despite the distance:

(Arun needed a place to stay during summer break as student dormitories needed to be vacated during this period. He gets a telegram from his parents telling him they found a place for him): Immediately Arun was overcome by the sensation of his family laying its hands upon him, pushing him down into a chair at his desk, shoving a textbook under his nose, catching that nose and making him swallow cod liver oil…Arun this, Arun, that…[ 17, 175].

He too was a caged bird no matter the distance.

The Women

This book is filled with all sorts of women. There was MamaPapa, Uma, Aunt Miramasi, Annamika, Melanie and Mrs. Paton. Amongst the women of India, the reader discovers the life of an aging married woman, a single woman, a widow and a newly married woman. In their varying shapes and sizes their stories are never truly happy. Women were not expected to be educated, they were expected to marry. It begins and ends with marriage. The luckiest of characters in this pursuit is Mama whose existence is conjoint with Papa. Her freedoms are few—a game of cards with a neighbor—and often enjoyed in secret. Annamika, Uma’s cousin, despite her acceptance from an Ivy League school pursued a life of marriage to a man she barely knows, as tradition dictates. The widow Miramasi tried her best to stand against the dictates of tradition and it was to her that Uma gravitated towards. She was not perfect, but she lived her life following her path, for some widows of India are often orphaned—kicked out and left to fend on their own like beggars in the street (see here). However, we soon discover that the women of India are not so different from the Women in the US. Through the eyes of Arun we discover that Melanie and Mrs. Paton suffer like the Women he knew in India. The manifestations were different, but the dynamics similar:

He (Arun) stares at her to see if her (Melanie) feelings reflect his, but he cannot decipher her expression. It is certainly  not the sullen mask he usually sees, but it is not one he can recognize…Then Arun does see a resemblance to something he knows: a resemblance to the contorted face of an enraged sister who, failing to express her outrage against neglect, against misunderstanding, against inattention to her unique and singular being and its hungers, merely spits and froths in ineffectual protest.

And so we learn from these women’s stories that cultures may differ and the details of an experience may differ, but the pain and suffering are universal.

Fasting, Feasting

The title can easily be associated with food and the events in the book are often in the midst of food—the abundance of it or the lack of it. Coming from a country quite similar to India, I know how food can take the center stage of everything. It marks a communal activity, a sense of joy and happiness—fleeting, but nonetheless present. However, after putting much thought to the title this was all I can think of:

Fasting and feasting are in opposite ends of the same spectrum. They are extremes and while they are seemingly different they both reflect the extremes of life. In the midst of physical feasting, a sense of limitation of self—a sense of fasting, a hunger as Arun observes, that is within the soul prevails. In the same fashion that the lack of everything—of family, connection, and of food, can mean the soul’s freedom.  I, of course, am merely speculating.

There is more to the novel that I can write in this review; however some parts I will leave for your own discovery. Anita Desai’s novel opened a new world of literature to me. Her work was not as difficult to read as I thought it would. I discovered that as a Filipino reader, India’s culture wasn’t too much of a stranger to my own culture. From the moment I read the first chapter to the last page, I found myself relating to her characters in one way or another.

Anita Desai was born in India in June 24, 1937 to a German mom and a Bengali father. She is married to Ashiviri Desai and has four children, one of which is the writer Kiran Desai.  Anita Desai has been shortlisted for a Booker Prize three times, Fasting and Feasting is one of those.  In 1975 she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award, India’s National Academy of Letters.

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2 Comments on Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting

  1. myragarcesbacsal // March 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm //

    Finally! An entry to the South Asian Challenge. Very incisive, Mary. And just right with the lack of details – very teasing, tempting and all that. We should do a book exchange when I come visit. Oh yes we need to plan a meeting. =)

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    • A part of me wanted to go all the way in the review, but I realized I won’t be able to do that without giving away most of the story. Surely, we would need to meet when you visit. Hopefully our schedules will permit us. 🙂

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