"Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit. "
~ Jawaharlal Nehru

Fasting, Feasting ~ Anita Desai

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta reviews Anita Desai's well-crafted novel that tells a simple tale.
Price: Rs. 195/- pp 228.

The first thing that one notices about Anita Desai's novel Fasting, Feasting is that it's so well-crafted, almost to a fault. Desai has always taken care with her craft, writing a spare and austere prose as she tells of the dilemmas and disappointments of her middle-class protagonists. But in Fasting, Feasting with its careful counterpointing, beginning with the dichotomies of the title itself and the preoccupations within the story, Desai seems to have taken this technique further than it can be stretched.

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The story is simple: parents, first daughter still unmarried, caring for them, wilting in her unhappiness; other daughter married and away; a son, abroad, sensitive and unhappy, trying to find his way in the midst of all the expectations under which he is weighted down. Fasting and deprivation of the spirit and the heart are the daughter Uma's destiny; feasting, to an extreme, is the fate of opulent America, where another daughter, Melanie, in another family, the Pattons with whom Arun goes to stay, is crawling into the shell of her own unhappiness. The book itself is in two separate parts, the first describing Uma's life in India, the second describing her brother Arun's days in America.

The story opens with the parents sitting together on the swing and discussing whether fritters will be enough for tea. Fritters? Here's where my difficulty with Desai begins. More than this unease with Indian words for Indian things, Desai's tone in this novel is not merely unhappy but bitter. We sense the bitterness in Uma's condition as she goes about her destiny of serving her querulous, self-obsessed parents; we sense her mother's quiet, rarely-displayed unhappiness; her father's own unfulfilled dreams, never spoken of; Anamika's absurdly sad end in a claustrophobic marriage; and Arun's unhappy fumblings in a strange land.

The most immediate sense I had when I read this book was that is was written so very correctly, so carefully, the contrasts worked out and described with such precision, that I was left wondering where was the spontaneity; and where was the way out, to find joy and liberation and redemption. Desai leaves no way out for her characters, and this is what makes the novel so cold in spite of its craft. Parents, family, siblings, country - these are all ties, often oppressive, that come to us with our births, not by choice, but there is surely always some way out of unhappiness and darkness into a cheering, sunlit world. Parents and children cannot communicate, but where's the compassion, the generosity on both sides? Even Arun's gentle, confused gesture at the end, thrusting the shawl and the box of tea into Mrs Pattons' hands before leaving - even this remains merely a gesture.

A bleak book, then, but well-written, as always; and Anita Desai's prose is as stylish and lucid as ever.

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