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Bibliophile reviews Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

Year published: 1999
Genre: Literary fiction (if that can be called a genre)
Setting & time: India and the USA; 20th century (semi-timeless)
Some themes: Tradition, family, unhappiness, gender roles

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.

Warning: contains what some may consider to be SPOILERS

The Story: The story, such as it is (I will explain later) revolves around an Indian family that is so steeped in tradition that it has tragic consequences for the children, none of whom are happy with their lot. The first half of the book deals with Uma, the eldest girl who is plain and has not been able to get a husband. She lives at home with her parents and is more like an upper servant than one of the family and yearns for a life outside the family home, but she can never realise those dreams because it would be unseemly and disgraceful for the family if she did. In between we see glimpses of family history, the siblings growing up and the younger sister's arranged marriage in which she imagines herself to be happy, a cousin's tragic arranged marriage, and two not so respectable relatives who nevertheless have to be allowed to stay in the house when they so whish because they are family. Both have an effect on Uma and give her a glimpse of life outside the family home.

The second half is about the youngest child, the long wished-for son of the house, who is a disappointment to his parents even if they never say so. He is perhaps the most bound up of them all, because although he has been sent to university in the USA where he should be able to do as he likes without his parents looking over his shoulder, he still feels obliged to follow his father's orders and work like a slave at getting the education his father chose for him. But all Aroun wants is to be left alone. He is staying for the summer with an American family and watches in numb disbelief and concern as the family seem to be disintegrating around him.

Technique and plot: If you are looking for a clear cut story with a beginning, middle and end, this is not a book for you. If you are after good storytelling, beautiful writing and characters that come alive before your eyes and situations that seem so real that you feel you are there, watching them unfold, this is definitely a book for you.

The book is really two novellas. The first, Uma's half, reads like the beginning and middle of a story, but has no end, which to me is an indication that there never will be any relief for Uma. The second, Arun's story, is much more story-like, in that is has plot, a beginning, a middle, a resolution and ending of sorts.

The writing is beautiful and flowing and Desai brings to life her characters and their situations so well that a reader with an active imagination and some knowledge of India and Indians can easily visualise the unfolding narrative. In Uma's part of the story you feel her desperation and longing, and in Arun's part you sense the emptiness in him, the pointlessness of his life as he tries his best to live up to the expectations of his father. My biggest disappointment was that there was no resolution, good or bad, for Uma. She seemed doomed to continue leading a life of thankless servitude and devotion to her unloving parents for the rest of her life. The two disreputable relatives do offer some hope for the reader that she may follow their example and break out of her appointed role, but there is no indication that she will.

Rating: A beautiful and tragic true-to-life narrative about people so bound up in tradition that it is slowly smothering them. 4 stars.


Deepali said…
I too just finished reading Fasting Feasting a couple of weeks ago and totally loved it. Been in urban India all my life, after reading the book I felt such a strong desire to live in a small town, that even I am baffled by the feeling. Of course I am sure I wouldn't enjoy it one bit but the fact that a book can make me feel I should experience another lifestyle isn't something that is common for me.

>>My biggest disappointment was that there was no resolution, good or bad, for Uma. She seemed doomed to continue leading a life of thankless servitude and devotion to her unloving parents for the rest of her life.

Well I think Anita Desai has stuck to reality too much here. Lots of women don't have the option to do what they want here. They have to live their lives according to the whims and fancies of others. I do think Uma's character was a little extreme (seeing as she is not only a big disappointment but have no intelligence, skills, and also is ill) and that most women are slightly better off when it comes to their abilities. The most tragic character in my mind though is Anamika...

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