Fasting Feasting

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Fasting, Feasting is a wonderful novel of two parts, running from the heart of a close-knit Indian household, with its restrictions and prejudices, its noisy warmth and sensual appreciation of food, to the cool centre of an American family. Uma, the plain spinster daughter of the Indian family, is trapped at home, smothered by her overbearing parents and their traditions, unlike her ambitious younger sister Aruna, who brings off a good marriage, and brother Arun, the disappointing son and heir who is studying in America. Across the world in Massachusetts, life is bewildering for Arun in the alien culture of freedom, freezers and paradoxically self-denying self-indulgence.

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The story is simple: parents, first daughter still unmarried, caring for them, wilting in her unhappiness; other daughter married and away; a son, abroad, sensitive and unhappy, trying to find his way in the midst of all the expectations under which he is weighted down. Fasting and deprivation of the spirit and the heart are the daughter Uma's destiny; feasting, to an extreme, is the fate of opulent America, where another daughter, Melanie, in another family, the Pattons with whom Arun goes to stay, is crawling into the shell of her own unhappiness. The book itself is in two separate parts, the first describing Uma's life in India, the second describing her brother Arun's days in America. The story opens with the parents sitting together on the swing and discussing whether fritters will be enough for tea. Fritters? Here's where my difficulty with Desai begins. More than this unease with Indian words for Indian things, Desai's tone in this novel is not merely unhappy but bitter. We sense the bitterness in Uma's condition as she goes about her destiny of serving her querulous, self-obsessed parents; we sense her mother's quiet, rarely-displayed unhappiness; her father's own unfulfilled dreams, never spoken of; Anamika's absurdly sad end in a claustrophobic marriage; and...
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