Saturday, August 29, 2009

23. "Fasting, Feasting" by Anita Desai

Year of first publication: 1999
Genre: novel
Country: India

In italiano: “Digiunare, divorare” di Anita Desai, edito da Einaudi (2005), € 9,80 (un applauso alla grandissima Anna Nadotti che ha tradotto così bene questo titolo!)

About the author: see this post

Plot: Uma is a spinster who lives with her overbearing parents. They confine her at home, smothering her and everything that she would like to do with her life. Her sister Aruna is very different and manages to bring off a good marriage, whereas her younger brother Arun is sent to study in the USA, where he experiences the American lifestyle.

Some thoughts: Those who know me are aware that I am a big fan of Anita Desai and I can’t be objective when I write about her novels. I’m attempting to read all of her works (the next one will be Baumgartner’s Bombay). I am happy to say that Fasting, Feasting is my favourite one so far, after Clear Light of Day. I really can’t cope with the fact that I like Anita Desai’s novels so much even though they are so sad (there are a few funny moments in this novel, though).
By the way, the title is absolute genius! This proves how authors whose first language is not English (Desai grew up speaking German with her mother and Bengali with her father, relegating English to the compositions she had to write for school) can play with the language in such a poetic way.
The book recounts human relationships and emotions using every kind of relations to food, from sparse meals to bulimia and craving. Set in two different countries, India and the United States, the book deals mostly with two siblings, Uma and Arun, and their extended family.
One of the main themes of the book is gender discrimination in traditional Indian families: Uma is not allowed to go to school after a certain grade and her parents only think about finding a good husband for her. She is unlucky because all the potential husbands try to dupe the family for financial reasons (one husband already has a wife and only wants a second dowry, whereas another one asks for some money to build a new house and then disappears). One of Uma’s tasks, as she is a spinster, is to be a sort of servant for her parents who take her for granted. She’s not allowed to go out or have a job, or even a hobby. From the first passage of the book we understand Mama and Papa’s attitude: they are sitting on a sofa swing and giving orders to Uma and the cook, while they don’t do anything in the house. They live their life sipping tea and eating fritters, paying visits to their friends and going to the club. Daughters are seen like a nuisance: the best food is given to the only son, Arun. A lot of pressure is put on the only male son: he is forced to study all the time and doesn’t have a real childhood. He is overwhelmed by the expectations of his parents and grows up as a shy, mediocre boy who spends his time reading comic books in his bedroom.
Uma’s cousin Anamika is not luckier than Uma, despite the fact that she’s beautiful and clever, something that Uma is not. Anamika is married off but she suffers in her new home: she becomes a slave to her husband’s family and doesn’t receive any affection or gratifications. Anamika’s sad story symbolizes the role of women in traditional Indian families: whether they are virtuous and independent or meek and fragile, they are destined to suffer physical and psychological humiliations. The only happy wedding seems to be Aruna’s: she marries a rich man, who takes her to Bombay. Could it mean that in the big cities of India women are spared these horrible sufferings and can actually lead happy lives?
Uma is a sort of incarcerated servant to her parents, but sometimes she finds temporary way outs, for example with the help of Mira-masi, her widowed aunt, or club-footed Ramu, her cousin. Ramu brings her to eat in a restaurant for the first time, sometimes that she considers rather exciting if compared to her uneventful everyday life. Her aunt, instead, is a wandering ascetic who often goes to pilgrimage and hardly eats but can cook delicious ladoos when she visits them. Despite eating almost nothing during her time in the ashram where Mira-Masi has taken her, Uma is happy because she’s away from her despotic parents.
The second part of the book is set in the States, where Arun is sent to study. Somehow I feel that having alternating parts set in India and the States would have worked better, but it’s only a minor flaw to the book. I must admit that this is the part that I liked less, because sometimes the American characters seemed created just to set a contrast or a comparison with the Indian ones (Sylvia Brownrigg also perceives that they speak an ‘oddly anachronistic American’, but I didn’t have this impression). During the summer holidays, Arun is a lodger in an all-American family, the Pattons. He doesn’t understand American lifestyle, especially in relation to food. He is a vegetarian, much to the disgust of his parents, and is shocked by the amount of meat that American people are used to eat. Mrs Patton is incarcerated in her house in a way that is similar to Uma’s: she also lives an uneventful life and her family doesn’t appreciate her. Her daughter Melanie is bulimic and eats nothing but candy, even though nobody seems to notice apart from Arun, whereas her husband and son are addicted to meat and barbecues and are not interested in having conversations with her. Mrs Patton is only happy when she is among the shelves of the supermarket buying incredible quantities of food (as opposed to what happened in Arun’s house back in India, where having samosas and bafti for tea was something exceptional).
At the end of the book you have the sad perception that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. People, and especially women, are unhappy and oppressed in all patriarchal, chauvinist societies around the world.
When the novel came out, in 1999, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but didn’t win. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (read my review here, but I must tell you in advance that I didn’t like it that much, or maybe I didn’t understand it) won instead. In her introduction to the book, Rana Dasgupta writes that a few judges wanted Fasting Feasting to win the prize and that in the end they named the book as “runner-up”.

Links to my other reviews of books by Anita Desai:
The Zigzag Way (in Italian) and In Custody (in English)


  1. ciao Stefania, forse ti scandalizzerò ma ad Anita Desai preferisco la figlia, Kiran. Più vivace, più tipo di letteratura che piace a me. Hai letto il suo divertente "La mia nuova vita sugli alberi?” Senza contare che il successivo “Eredi della sconfitta” ha vinto il booker prize.
    A proposito di letterature indiane di lingua inglese: hai letto un gioiello come “Sacred Games” di Vikram Chandra?
    Ti segnalo anche il bel blog di Silvia Merialdo: “Indian words”, credo che ti piacerà!
    Ah, naturalmente ho inserito Books of Gold nella lista dei “Blog e siti amici di MilleOrienti”!
    A risentirci presto, ciao

  2. Sì, ho letto entrambi i libri di Kiran Desai e non mi scandalizzo per niente! Mi sono piaciuti entrambi, però di più il secondo. Ora aspetto paziente un terzo romanzo che ne affini lo stile ("The Inheritance of Loss" l'ho trovato in alcuni punti dispersivo, seppur notevole nel complesso).
    Sono due scrittrici sicuramente diverse, che vengono anche da diverse generazioni: non saprei fare paragoni. Ad Anita Desai ci sono affezionata perché è stata la prima scrittrice indiana che ho letto, ancora prima di Rushdie.

    Dei due Vikram (Chandra e Seth) non ho letto niente anche perché sono letteralmente affranta dalla stazza dei libri che scrivono. Il "Sacred Games" che mi nomini ha esattamente 960 pagine (grazie! Ora mi accingo alla lettura di "Il Palazzo degli Specchi" di Amitav Ghosh (anche quello lunghetto ma leggermente più umano).

    Sì, conosco il blog di Silvia, è da un suo link che sono arrivata al tuo blog! Grazie per avermi inserita tra gli amici nel tuo blog, chissà che qualche indianista non passi di qui... :-)