The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

I was bought this book as a present a while ago, and I knew very little about it or the author. The cover picture is very inviting and reminded me of my own time in India, those warm, earthy tones and splashes of colour.
We are transported into the life of a family in India, where 2 sisters, Uma and Aruna, live with MamaPapa, a fusion of 2 people who, although individuals, present a force of tradition that dictates the family's way of life. Into this situation is born a son, Arun, a boy who unwittingly changes the course of the family's dynamic with his potential and his value.
The novel begins with emphasis on Uma, the bespectacled, clumsy, childlike older sister. Forever a disappointment to her controlling parents , she is expected to help bring up Arun, and is emotionally neglected by her parents in favour of the other siblings. Uma also has fits and her family finds this embarressing and unnecessary, as if she deliberately courting attention. Two unsuccessful marriage attempts after many rejections before she is even met, lead to 2 stolen dowries, and a stigma that is neither of her making, nor one she can ever hope to escape.
Uma's only allies are 2 outer family members who are disapproved of, her aunt who pays random visits on religious pilgrimages, and her cousin who hides his physical afflictions by being brash and loud, but eventually turns his back on his family and becomes a hermit. Uma's aunt believes her fits are a mark of the lord. 'You are the lords child' she says, and Uma is given some respite from her family when she accompanies her aunt to an ashram. It seems Uma's only real happinesses come in brief and desperate bursts, while viewing her Christmas card collection when her parents are out, or more sadly, when she nearly drowns after stepping off a boat and is disappointed to be pulled from the peaceful waters. It is not a suicide attempt, merely somewhere quiet, non-judgemental.
Interspersed with Uma's story we learn of Aruna's marriage to a successful business man and her move to fashionable Bombay and 2 children. However, despite her deliberate flaunting in front of her parents, and Uma in particular, she is also unhappy at heart, as her obsessions with having the best overtake her life and render it sterile. There is also their beautiful cousin's marriage which ends in cruelty and then tragedy. Are their any women who triumph in this novel? Any women who are allowed to be themseves? It seems only the next door neighbour is content, and only after a long battle with her mother-in-law.
Two-thirds the way through the book we have a sudden shift in direction. We are taken to USA where Arun is at university and staying with a family during the holidays. Arun is now a timid and reclusive individual, weighed down by his fathers aspirations and relentless education, and thrown into an alien environment he finds baffling. Surprisingly this forms the most humourous part of the book, and I laughed out loud at some parts. The American family are drowning in their own problems of Western psychological neuroses, of obsession, delusion and dysfunction. Arun is horrified, but also recognises similarities with his sisters situation, and instead of embracing his freedom, he retreats further inwards, missing his own dysfunctional family.
The title of the book clearly comes from the comparison of those who have little and those who have too much. A lot of the imagery and episodes and comparisons take place around food but this is only used as a metaphor to illustrate constraints or abundance of freedom and its subsequent problems.
This book is not for those who enjoy plot driven novels full of action or even conclusions. It is a beautifully written study of characters, a skillful set of observations, but it offers no answers, only presentations of comparisons. Although I enjoyed the last part in America, it was the weakest part of the book because of its abruptness, and its stereotypes. I just did not believe in the family being so unredemptive and hopeless. I longed to get back to see if Uma had hauled herself away from her prison with her family. We never find out. And for all of their faults I never viewed her family as hopeless.
There are many beautiful and colourful descriptions in both parts of the novel and I was attatched to Uma, willing her to find a way out and knowing she probably would not. I enjoyed this novel because of these things and its subtle comedy. My favourite quote comes after a painful evening with the Pattons at a compulsory barbecue (Arun is vegetarian), the episode is wryly wrapped up by the author...
"The blue oblong of electric light that hangs from a branch of the spruce tree over the barbecue is being bombarded by the insects that evening summons up from the surrounding green. They hurl themselves at it like heathens in the frenzy of their false religion, and die with small piercing detonations. The evening is punctuated by their unredeemed deaths."
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Jeane said...

It sounds like a thoughtful book. I like the quote you shared- if that's a good example of the writing, it appears one I would enjoy.

Sue said...

Leah, I am sorry I haven't answered your question about seeing Precious Bane on the TV. I couldn't find it on the listing anywhere, so I didn't see it. I am still hopeful that I will run into it someday. My life has been hectic lately, with the new grandson and I had some surgery last week. But all went well. Do you have a list of books you are going to read/review in the near future? I would be interested in reading some of them. Right now, I am struggling through "Mere Christianity" by C.S.Lewis. I have heard about it for years, but had never read it until my bookclub wanted to read it. I missed the bookclub review, but am determined to finish it. My bookclub just finished reading "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by LIsa See. It gave me a new understanding of the Chinese custom of footbinding and the way Chinese women saw themselves and each other in the 1900's. I will look around on the your blogsite to see if you list the books you are going to review. Best wishes, Sue

Anonymous said...

I have this on my shelf, mooched after I read her daughter's novel (Kiran Desai is her daughter)The Inheritance of Loss. Someone told me at the time that Anita was even better and I got a hold of a copy but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. I think I will bump it a bit higher on the list!

Leah said...

jeane and Verbivore-it is definately worth a read and I would be interested in reading your thoughts.

sue-no worries, I can see you have had your hands full (in the best way with your grandson). My 'currently reading' is on my sidebar near the bottom.

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