For more than half of Anita Desai‘s Fasting, Feasting, we live with an Indian family and principally with the not very bright or beautiful daughter, Uma. We see how she is dominated and repressed by her demanding parents, withdrawn from her convent school when a baby brother is born, to care for him, and ultimately denied a career or life of her own.
Uma’s younger sister marries and escapes to Bombay but PapaMama’s attempts to marry off Uma are twice doomed to fail with dowries shamefully stolen by cunning men. PapaMama exploit Uma’s naive good will and the first part of the novel concludes with the spreading of the ashes of the one successful, beautiful member of the extended family, who has clearly been burnt as the victim of the ambitious family she married into.
This is Desai’s realistic and unsavoury portrayal of India. However, Part Two of the novel takes us to Massachusetts where the baby of the family, Arun, has been sent to study. For me, this was where the novel really took off. We have seen Arun pampered and adored, and forced to fulfil his father’s ambitions by a rigid programme of studies and examinations. Now we accompany him into the family of Mrs Patton which has agreed to host him during his first summer vacation.
We are in yet another dysfunctional family. The American way of life is portrayed satirically as Mrs Patton forces Arun to concur with what she perceives to be a vegetarian diet and he miserably almost starves on her vegetables and salads, and accompanies her on soul-destroying trips through the American plenty of supermarkets. The chapter describing Mr Patton’s barbecue is one of the funniest I have read for a while.
However, the novel is clearly not intending to be comic and the inevitable conclusion is frightening. This is Desai at her best.