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Analysis of Fasting Feasting Anita Desai

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 Kirin
Desai (Inheritance of Loss), only to discover I was mistaken.
Nonetheless, I soon discovered the two Desais were mother and
daughter.
I didnt 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 wasnt 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
womans lack of place outside the confines of marriage. A perspective I
will explore further in this review.
Like Caged Birds
A Neighborhood in India
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. MamaPapas 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 whos
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 faade was a complex set of emotions, and it
is this complexity that makes the reader empathized for Uma.
A trip to the sea, beautifully and succinctly conveys the darker depths of
Umas 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 exultationsit 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 wasnt 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 Umas 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
Aruns 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
oilArun this, Arun, that[ 17, 175].
He too was a caged bird no matter the distance.
The Women
This book is filled with all sort 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 in conjoint with Papa. Her freedoms are fewa
game of cards with a neighborand often enjoyed in secret. Annamika,
Umas cousin, despite her acceptance of an Ivy League, as tradition
dictates pursue a life of marriage to a man she barely knows. As
wonderful as the mans credential were, Annamikas fate wasnt. The
widow Miramasi tried her best to stand against the dictates of tradition
and to her Uma gravitated towards. She was not perfect, but she lived
her life following her path, for some widows of India are often
orphanedkicked out and left to fend on their own like beggars in the
street. 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 recognizeThen 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, as we learn of these women, that cultures may differ
and the details of an experience may differ, but the pain and suffering
inflicts all.

Fasting, Feasting
The title can easily be associated with food and the events in the book
are often in the midst of foodthe 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 o f
joy and happinessfleeting, 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 selfa sense of fasting, a hunger as Arun observes, that is within the
soul prevails. In the same fashion that the lack of everythingof family,
connection, and of food, can mean the souls 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 Desais 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, Indias culture
wasnt 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, Indias National
Academy of Letters.

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