Title: Fasting, Feasting
Author: Anita Desai
I enjoyed Fasting, Feasting enough to finish it but can’t really say it is was one of my favourite reads. Anita Desai weaves her story around an Indian family with three children – all three of whom represent the family’s ambitions in some way.
Uma, the eldest is unmarried, clumsy and not particularly bright. The author describes her hunger for knowledge, and her attempts at being scholarly – but it is apparent that her thirst for knowledge is probably that of a spiritual kind. For this her aunt Mira-Masi, a widow and a rather odd character becomes Uma’s guide. She encourages Uma’s search for spiritual knowledge, inviting her for spiritual retreats and ashrams, much to Uma’s parents’ discouragement.
The middle daughter, Aruna is the beautiful sister with higher prospects of marriage, but who cannot get married before her older sister. This is when the parents arranged a marriage for Uma, which unfortunately does not work out – despite her family having already paid the dowry. In a look at Aruna’s life, the author gives a glimpse into the little value placed on daughters, and as a result the potential domestic abuse suffered by these girls, who are married off to families that then abuse them.
The last born child, Arun is a boy, and it on him that the parents’ money is lavished. No cost is spared for his education, with private tutors and endless lessons that will prepare him for an education abroad.
The second part of the story picks up with Arun’s life in the United States, focusing on his summer stay with an American family. Here the author shows the discrepancy between the two countries; India and America in the views of the characters to issues about scarcity and abundance. In India, a country of dire poverty, there seems to be a search for spiritual meaning – as shown through Mira-Masi’s, and equally Uma’s many spiritual quests. The author writes amusingly about the way Uma unwittingly befriends one of the Christian missionaries, unaware that she’s being converted to Christianity.
The author’s take on life in America focuses on the host family’s obsession with food – or their excess consumption of it. Despite their abundance, one sees a dysfunctional family – with an emotionally absent father, a bulimic daughter, and a mother who seems to be the only one searching for a bit more meaning in her life.
Arun’s life in America and his view of his host family is a clever way of juxtaposing the two countries’ differences of the fasting India and feasting America.
I do recommend the book, mainly for the insight it gives into Indian society and the value given to women.