Fasting, Feasting

Fasting, Feasting

by Anita Desai


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Anita Desai's new book, hailed as "unsparing, yet tender and funny,"* brilliantly confirms her place among today's foremost Indian writers. FASTING, FEASTING takes on Desai's greatest theme: the intricate, delicate web of family conflict. It tells the moving story of Uma, the plain older daughter of an Indian family, tied to the household of her childhood and tending to her parents' every extravagant demand, and of her younger brother, Arun, across the world in Massachusetts, bewildered by his new life in college and the suburbs, where he lives with the Patton family. Published in Britain to rave reviews, FASTING, FEASTING is "rich in the sensuous atmosphere, elegiac pathos, and bleak comedy at which the author excels" (The Spectator). From the overpowering warmth of Indian culture to the cool center of the American family, it captures the physical -- and emotional -- fasting and feasting that define two distinct cultures. *(Times Literary Supplement)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618065820
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/28/2000
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 390,887
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

ANITA DESAI is the author of Fasting, Feasting, Baumgartner’s Bombay, Clear Light of Day, and Diamond Dust, among other works. Three of her books have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Desai was born and educated in India and now lives in the New York City area.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On the veranda overlooking the garden, the drive and the gate, they sit together on the creaking sofa-swing, suspended from its iron frame, dangling their legs so that the slippers on their feet hang loose. Before them, a low round table is covered with a faded cloth, embroidered in the centre with flowers. Behind them, a pedestal fan blows warm air at the backs of their heads and necks.

    The cane mats, which hang from the arches of the veranda to keep out the sun and dust, are rolled up now. Pigeons sit upon the rolls, conversing tenderly, picking at ticks, fluttering. Pigeon droppings splatter the stone tiles below and feathers float torpidly through the air.

    The parents sit, rhythmically swinging, back and forth. They could be asleep, dozing -- their eyes are hooded -- but sometimes they speak.

    'We are having fritters for tea today. Will that be enough? Or do you want sweets as well?'

    'Yes, yes, yes -- there must be sweets -- must be sweets, too. Tell cook. Tell cook at once.'

    'Uma! Umal!'

    'Uma must tell cook --'

    'E, Uma!'

    Uma comes to the door where she stands fretting. 'Why are you shouting?'

    'Go and tell cook --'

    'But you told me to do up the parcel so it's ready when Justice Dutt's son comes to take it. I'm tying it up now.'

    'Yes, yes, yes, make up the parcel -- must be ready, must be ready when Justice Dutt's son comes. What are we sending Arun? What are we sending him?'

    'Tea. Shawl --'

    'Shawl? Shawl?'

    'Yes, the shawl Mama bought --'

    'Mama bought? Mama bought?'

    Uma twists her shoulders in impatience. 'That brown shawl Mama bought in Kashmir Emporium for Arun, Papa.'

    'Brown shawl from Kashmir Emporium?'

    'Yes, Papa, yes. In case Arun is cold in America. Let me go and finish packing it now or it won't be ready when Justice Dutt's son comes for it. Then we'll have to send it by post.'

    'Post? Post? No, no, no. Very costly, too costly. No point in that if Justice Dutt's son is going to America. Get the parcel ready for him to take. Get it ready, Uma.'

    'First go and tell cook, Uma. Tell cook fritters will not be enough. Papa wants sweets.'

    'Sweets also?'

    'Yes, must be sweets. Then come back and take dictation. Take down a letter for Arun. Justice Dutt's son can take it with him. When is he leaving for America?'

    'Now you want me to write a letter? When I am busy packing a parcel for Arun?'

    'Oh, oh, oh, parcel for Arun. Yes, yes, make up the parcel. Must be ready. Ready for Justice Dutt's son.'

    Uma flounces off, her grey hair frazzled, her myopic eyes glaring behind her spectacles, muttering under her breath. The parents, momentarily agitated upon their swing by the sudden invasion of ideas -- sweets, parcel, letter, sweets -- settle back to their slow, rhythmic swinging. They look out upon the shimmering heat of the afternoon as if the tray with tea, with sweets, with fritters, will materialise and come swimming out of it -- to their rescue. With increasing impatience, they swing and swing.

* * *

MamandPapa. MamaPapa. PapaMama. It was hard to believe they had ever had separate existences, that they had been separate entities and not MamaPapa in one breath. Yet Mama had been born to a merchant family in the city of Kanpur and lived in the bosom of her enormous family till at sixteen she married Papa. Papa, in Patna, the son of a tax inspector with one burning ambition, to give his son the best available education, had won prizes at school meanwhile, played tennis as a young man, trained for the bar and eventually built up a solid practice. This much the children learnt chiefly from old photographs, framed certificates, tarnished medals and the conversation of visiting relatives. MamaPapa themselves rarely spoke of a time when they were not one. The few anecdotes they related separately acquired great significance because of their rarity, their singularity.

    Mama said, 'In my day, girls in the family were not given sweets, nuts, good things to eat. If something special had been bought in the market, like sweets or nuts, it was given to the boys in the family. But ours was not such an orthodox home that our mother and aunts did not slip us something on the sly.' She laughed, remembering that -- sweets, sly.

    Papa said, 'We did not have electricity when we were children. If we wanted to study, we were sent out to sit under the streetlight with our books. During the examinations, there would be a circle of students sitting and reciting their lessons aloud. It would be difficult to concentrate on law because others were reciting theorems or Sanskrit slokas or dates from British history. But we did it -- we passed our exams.'

    Papa said, 'The best student in my year studied day and night, day and night. We found out how he could study so much. During the exams, he cut off his eyelashes. Then, whenever his eyes shut, they would prick him and he would wake up so he could study more.'

    Papa's stories tended to be painful. Mama's had to do with food -- mostly sweets -- and family. But the stories were few, and brief. That could have been tantalising -- so much unsaid, left to be imagined -- but the children did not give the past that much thought because MamaPapa seemed sufficient in themselves. Having fused into one, they had gained so much in substance, in stature, in authority, that they loomed large enough as it was; they did not need separate histories and backgrounds to make them even more immense.

    Sometimes one caught a glimpse of what they had been like before they were joined together in their Siamese twin existence on the veranda swing. At times Uma was astonished, even embarrassed by such a glimpse -- for instance, of Mama playing a game of rummy with her friends which she did surreptitiously because Papa had a highminded disapproval of all forms of gambling. When Mama went across to the neighbours' for a morning game, she did not quite lift her sari to her knees and jump over the hedge but somehow gave the impression of doing so. Her manner -- along with the curious patter that went with the game -- became flirtatious, girlish. Her cheeks filled out plumply as she stuffed in the betel nuts and leaves she was offered -- another indulgence frowned upon by Papa -- her eyes gleamed with mischief as she tossed back her head and laughed apparently without any thought of propriety. She clasped the cards to her chest and fluttered her lashes coquettishly. If Uma hung over her shoulders to look or Aruna edged closer to see why she seemed so delighted with her hand of cards, she swatted at her daughters as if they were a pair of troublesome flies. 'Go. Go play with your friends.'

    Then she would come back to lunch, picking her way through a gap in the hedge, her daughters trailing after her, and by the time she arrived at the veranda, her manner had become the familiar one of guarded restraint, censure and a tired decorum.

    When Papa, back from his office, asked what they had done with themselves all morning, she drooped, sighing, and fanned herself, saying, 'It was so-o hot, what can one do? Nothing.'

As for Papa, he never became less like himself, only more so. Calling for the driver to bring the car round in the morning, he got in with an air of urgency that suggested any delay could cause an explosion. If they ever had occasion to go to the office to fetch him, he would be sitting at an immense desk like the satrap of some small provinciality, mopping his neck with a large handkerchief, giving curt orders to his secretary, his typist and his clients, every gesture and grimace adding to the carapace of his authority till it encased him in its dully glinting lead.

    Mama would carefully pack his tennis kit and send it across to him with the office peon who had come for it on his bicycle. Pinning the bag under a metal clamp, he would pedal away. Mama would watch him turn out of the gate, onto the road, deep in thought.

    Uma wondered if she pictured Papa changing into it in his office, behind the green oilcloth screen that stood across one corner. She put her fingers to her mouth to suppress a giggle.

    Then Mama would sit herself down on the veranda swing, alone, to wait for him, keeping a cursory eye on the little girls as they played in the dry patch of grass where they were laying out a garden of pebbles, leaves, twigs and marigold petals. She intervened irritably when they quarrelled too loudly.

    Afternoon dwindled to hazy evening and finally the car drove up. Papa jumped out and came up the steps to the veranda with a bound, swinging his racquet. He was dressed in the white cotton shorts Mama had sent him, their wide legs flapping about his thin shanks. The metal buckles had made rust marks at the waist. She often scolded the washerman for bringing back the shorts with rust marks from the wash. She also scolded him for breaking the large white buttons that she then had to replace, spectacles on her nose, thin-lipped with concentration. Papa also wore a short-sleeved white shirt with a green or blue trim. He gleamed with effort and achievement and perspiration. 'Beat Shankar six-five, six-two,' he reported as he strode past them on his way to his dressing room, his cotton socks collapsing, exhausted, round his ankles. They heard him throw down his racquet with a pleased groan.

    None of them spoke on the veranda. Mama sat as if stunned by his success, his prowess. Then they heard a bucket clanking, water sloshing. A stream of soapy water crept out of a drain in the side of the house and pushed past dry leaves and dust to end in a pool of slime under the basil and jasmine bushes. The girls stared.

    Rousing herself, Mama called, 'Uma! Uma! Tell cook to bring Papa his lemonade!'

    Uma ran.

There were social occasions of course -- Papa's career required a large number of them -- and some were witnessed by his children. At them, Papa was pleased to indulge himself in a little whisky and water. When he had done so, he began to make what they considered rather frightening attempts at jocularity. His jokes were always directed against others, and they were quite ferocious under cover of the geniality that seemed proper to the ambience of a dinner party or a reception at the club. Having made some junior magistrate squirm uncomfortably with his sallies, or reminded a senior judge of an incident best forgotten and drawing only a sour twist of the lips in response, he himself would laugh heartily. The success of his joke was measured according to the amount of discomfort it caused others. It was his way of scoring, and he threw back his head and laughed in triumph, seemed physically to gain in stature (which was on the negligible side). One could be fooled into thinking Papa was in good spirits. But the family was not fooled: they knew he was actually rattled, shaken by what he saw as a possible challenge to his status. They were relieved when he returned to what was normal for him -- taciturnity -- with his authority unchallenged and unshaken.

    One could be forgiven for thinking Papa's chosen role was scowling, Mama's scolding. Since every adult had to have a role, and these were their parents', the children did not question their choice. At least, not during their childhood.

Reading Group Guide

1. Fasting, Feasting, a novel built around the contrasts between Indian and American family life, seems to present a negative view of both modern societies. How do you respond to this critical portrayal?

2. The novel is comprised of two self-contained narratives. What, if anything, does this structure add to the enjoyment of the novel? Do you think it works as a narrative device?

3. Food is a central theme of this novel, why is this and what does the food represent? Discuss how Desai uses food to comment on cultural identity.

4. In both sections of the book, it is ultimately the women who suffer. What is Desai saying about cultural misconceptions of happiness and gender?

5. 'Contemporary Indian fiction writers are among the finest in the world' -- Irish Times. What are the defining characteristics of this school of Indian writing, as purveyed by writers such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth? Does Desai depart from this school of Indian writing?

6. During Arun's stay with the Patton family, their perceptions of each other are consistently proven to be false. Do you think that by the end of the novel either Mrs. Patton or Arun reach a greater/truer understanding of the other's culture?

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Fasting, Feasting 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
tink2 More than 1 year ago
A daughter who never leaves PapaMama in India and a son who is sent to America with PapaMama's highest hopes and expectations: these are the main ingrediens of a delicious tale of contrasts. I found this an absorbing and compelling read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a really boring book. Didn't go into the details of anything, gave only an overview of each person's life. It starts with Uma's life and ends with Arun. It kind of makes the reader think, what's going on.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want a mindless read, then this is the book for you. The reason why I can it 3 stars is that, while it's not a bad book to read, it leaves everything unresolved. You adventure into Uma's life, only to later go into Arun's life. While you feel the unfairness in Uma's life, nothing is resolved. You never learn what happens to her, or you never learn what happens to Arun. To me, it was a mediocre book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Literature often seeks to define the human condition. Anita Desai boldly epitomizes this phrase in her work depicting the effects of tradition on individuals in two totally different cultures. Her stark contrast between two worlds in Fasting, Feasting, invokes a much needed realization of various flaws in society. From the traditional home in a small village in India to the typical American home in Massachusetts, Desai flawlessly paints a picture of difference between an under-privileged Indian girl and her much-loved brother, laden with countless privileges. Uma, timid and considered only capable of household chores is forced to give up her dream of obtaining a much valued education while Arun, burdened with family expectations is sent away for a better education -- an all too familiar story in many parts of India. However, Arun¿s shocking experience in the US is entertaining to readers due to the strong contrast from life in India. Desai¿s meticulous and fluent description of the American and Indian culture are painfully realistic but unfortunately provides a much too stereotypical point of view. Nonetheless, Desai makes the two extremes intriguing which hooks the reader to a disappointing end that fails to make a satisfying connection between the two differently oriented parts of the book but overall, Fasting, Feasting is a good read. On a lighter note, this book is highly recommended as a remedy for those suffering from culture shock since it creates a medium for tolerance¿
mjmbecky on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having recently read The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, I was eager to pick up Anita's novel. Although written by mother and daughter, there really are many similarities in their writing styles, and in their messages about the similarities and differences between the India and Indians of our perception, and those of Empire or America and their lives. In the end, Fasting and Feating demonstrates in two parts: 1) set in India and 2) set in the United States, that both lives are filled with disconnection and human struggles to survive. The first section of the book is set in India, and established around Uma, a homely, nagged at daughter. Her life seems pretty bleak without the option of a husband for whom she can garnish his reputation. Over and over again, we see Uma being rejected and suffering the pains of being an Indian woman who is not chosen as a wife of a man, and yet, Desai also sets this shame amidst the lives of other women who have been married off and are anything but happy. In one case, what was considered an ideal marriage, is later to be seen as a devastatingly horrible one. Section two is much shorter, but centers around the star of the family, Arun, who is in the United States going to college. You get the sense that this young man is terribly troubled, and unhappy with his life, regardless of where he's located. In no way do you see him in control of his own life, but like his sister, is very much being controlled by the wishes and desires of his family, parents, and society.While not the cheeriest of reads, the sad ideas pointed out by Desai's novel show us that all cultures can and do put pressures on us to achieve or be things that we may or may not wish for. In a real sense, the novel is about freedoms wished for, but not seen.
rodrichards on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first part (over half the book) concerning the daughter in India, unmarried, taking care of her demanding parents, was a beautiful and finely drawn character study. The second part, with the son going to the U.S. to school, was less expertly done and tended more toward the cliche (or maybe I just recognized the cliches). Reminded me a little of Jhumpa Lahiri's work, in that regard.
iftyzaidi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The basic story follows a middle class family in India, and is in two parts. The first is from the perspective of the eldest daughter, who being neither very pretty nor very bright, is pulled out of school at a young age to help with the housework, and the second part from that of the youngest sibling, the son, the apple of his father's eye and bearer of the family's expectations, who is sent to America to study. Its well written but I think my initial reaction was skewed by the unresolved nature of both parts of the tale. Which perhaps is part of the point. While I was reading it I was quiet absorbed though, and portions of the story have really stayed with me.
rudik5834 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very illustrative story about simple life in India.A spinster daughter is trapped at home by her overbearing parents and her traditions,unlike her younger sister who gets a 'good' marriage,the brother is studying in America.Life across the world is completely different for him.
MiserableLibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Uma, her sister Aruna, and their brother Arun live with their parents (¿MamaPapa¿) in rural India. They are a somewhat typical Indian family, although the parents hold especially tight control of all three children. The first part of the book relates Uma¿s experience as the unattractive, older, spinster sister, and the oppressive way in which her parents treat her. The second part deals with Arun¿s life as a college student in America, and the difficulties he encounters amid the relief of life away from his family.
jcranium on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Desai's structure and narration are deep, deep things that can hold like a mother, or startle like an earthquake. Though the action is simple, the implications, and the story, are so wide and varied that one must think for oneself to get anything from the text.I loved this book until the end. The final section of the book is almost-- but not quite-- a story separate from the majority of the novel. At first I found the section to be too critical of Americans. And I still think the section was heavy-handed, but I'm starting to wonder if that wasn't the point.The main text of the novel is committed to the perpetual misunderstandings. There is much to be said about the misunderstandings perpetuated by colonialism, but there is much to be said about those perpetuated by adherence to tradition. The final section is about how all of our good intentions can go so far awry if we don't have something to hold on to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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dixit23 More than 1 year ago
Nothing could compare the beautiful portrayal of Uma's life. she is enigmatic, stiff and an exceptional character to live your life with. the writing is poetic. a pen would deeply like to fall in Anita Desai's hands, becasue it knows that it would render masterful sentences. AN elegant and rich in culture book that deserves every praise and gratification. A must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The characters in Anita Desai's latest book one dimensional.  It is difficult for the reader to even care about them.  I was left wondering if the writer had ever met an American, the characters were so shallow and full of easy cliches.   The first book by Desai  I read was Clear Light  of  Day,  but her books seem to be getting worse, hitting bottom with this one. I felt angry ready this book, angry at the falseness of the characters and doubt I will pick up another of her books.   She is creating a series of books with characters who seem to be from nowhere and could be from anywhere.  All we know is that they have no will and drag us on to the end of the books with no sign of growth, change or point.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a Nook\ purchase. it was received. what more can I say