What it is:
The protagonist for the first part (Fasting) of the story is Uma, the eldest daughter of three, sister Aruna and Brother Arun. Uma has been described as useless and worthless, and her lack of beauty makes it harder for her to marry, so all she does at home was to help out with house chores and take care of her baby brother; smothered by her overbearing parents and their traditions, unlike her ambitious younger sister Aruna, who brings off a ‘good’ marriage.
The second part of the story (Feasting) is about brother Arun studying abroad in America. Across the world in Massachusetts life with the Patton Family is bewildering for Arun in the alien culture of freedom, freezers and paradoxically self-denying self-indulgence.
Why I read it: I saw this on a second hand book store and bought it. I wasn’t sure if Anita Desai is connected to Kiran Desai but today I know that they are both mother and daughter. Since this is the Fasting month for Muslims, I thought I’ll read this book to commemorate the occasion.
What I thought:
I am squeamish reading about women in captivity or a life dictated by others. It reminds me a lot of about how I was brought up and I’d never go back there in memory or in life. Nothing has prepared me for this book because it doesn’t come across to be about this subject matter (I don’t know what to expect really), in fact the book is rather sanguine, until it hits you…. And it hits you hard.
I feel so sorry for Uma. Uma goes to convent school. Unfortunately not only Uma is unattractive, she is slow in mind as well. Uma was made to believe that women were not expected to be educated, they were expected to be married off. Papa is a busy soon-to-be retired executive. Mama is one body with Papa, whatever Papa said, Mama will agree. To read that Uma is asked to stop going to school breaks my heart; to hear that she is overlooked for the chance to find a suitable man, breaks my heart; to know that Uma will never know what a career means, saddens me.
Uma’s short moments of respite are the precious little moment when she visited Aunt Mira-masi, an Lord Krishna faithful devotee who devote her life to hunt down her Lord Krishna. When she helped out at the charity stalls at the Convent.
We are also given a glimpse of Uma’s cousin, Anamika, who gave up an admission to Oxford instead to marry an abusive husband.
Things are not looking up either for Arun. He stayed with the Paton during summer in Massachusett, with the help of Uma’s convent matron. The hostess Mrs Paton and daughter, Melanie, all have their own issues to deal with. Arun, disinterests with everything American around him, seems to float in life aimlessly. Without instructions and commands of his parents, can he steer his own direction? Can one ever know what is freedom after being caged and locked away for so long? Makes me wonder..
The novel did not start out to depress its reader. The character Uma is not miserable. She is naïve, curious, happy for others and at times miserable. We readers are not privy to Uma’s depth of misery until one day she took a desperate action:
(Uma plunges into the water without hesitation; she goes down like a stone and was soon saved from drowning) What it was was that when she plunged into the dark water and let it close quickly and tightly over her, the flow of the river, the current drew her along, clasping her and dragging her with it. It was not fear she felt, or danger. Or rather, these were only what edged something much darker, wilder, more thrilling, a kind of exultations—it was exactly what she had always wanted, she realised. Then they had saved her. The saving what made her shudder and cry…[chapter 9, p 111].
I didn’t see this coming, as Uma did not display any sort of extreme despondent about her situation, but that made it more shocking. Deep down I know Uma suffered. Suffer silently, suffer so much that there is no hope but only death would relieve her from her hopelessness.
If MamaPapa had once had qualms about her marrying into a family she could not keep up with they need not have worried – every trace of her provincial roots was obliterated and overlaid by the bright sheen of the metropolis. It was they who could not keep up. – chapter 9, pg 109
A career. Leaving home. Living alone. These troubling, secret possibilities not entered Uma’s mind – as Mama would have pointed out had she known – whenever Uma was idle. They were like seeds dropped on the stony, arid land that Uma inhabited. Sometimes, miraculously, they sprouted forth the idea: run away, escape. But Uma could not visualise escape in the form of a career. What was a career? She had no idea. – Chapter 11, pg 131
Getting the final word in:
I wasn’t aware there were two parts of the story and I kept hoping that the two stories will converge into one to provide a satisfying conclusion to the fate of Uma (or Arun which I am less interested). Alas, there isn’t one and I was left feeling hanging at the cliff and unsatisfied with the ending. This novella has a feeling of short stories in it and I wonder if this is the reason that it was not chosen as the 1999 Man Booker Prize winner (another of my favourite, Disgrace by JM Coetzee won instead).
Despite this flaw, the novel is a heart breaking rendition of life of a woman whose life is dictated by parents and culture; and to a lesser extent Arun, whose life is cut out and planned like a cookie cutter by his parents. Chairman of the Booker Prize 1999, Gerald Kaufman said “If we could have chosen a runner-up, we would undoubtedly have given the runner-up award to Anita Desai; a most beautiful novel, very funny, terribly illustrative of what happens to women in different parts of the world.”
A story of caged human beings that are screaming for help and seeking your attention. I will be reading Anita Desai a lot more in the future. She is brilliant.
In conjunction with the book title, Fasting, Feasting, I would like to wish all Muslims and Muslimahs a blessed Ramadhan and a wonderful Eid.
My first book for the South Asia Challenge
Other review from: Gathering books
About the writer:
Anita Mazumdar Desai (born 24 June 1937) is an Indian novelist and Emeritus John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 1978 for her novel, Fire on the Mountain, by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters. Ironically, it is her daughter Kiran Desai who won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 with The Inheritance of Loss.
Born as Anita Mazumdar to a German mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar in Mussoorie, India. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English outside the house. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result it became her “literary language”. Despite German being her first language she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. She began to write in English at the age of seven, and published her first story at the age of nine.
She is married to Ashvin Desai and have four children, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai.
Desai published her first novel, Cry The Peacock, in 1963. She considers Clear Light Of Day (1980) her most autobiographical work as it is set during her coming of age and also in the same neighbourhood in which she grew up. In 1984 she published In Custody – about an Urdu poet in his declining days – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1993 she became a creative writing teacher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her novel, The Zigzag Way (2004), is set in 20th-century Mexico and her latest novel The Artist of Disappearance came in 2011.