Fasting, Feasting

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In her novel, Fasting, Feasting, Anita Desai eventually accomplishes what many writers attempt and then fail to achieve. She uses light touch, simple language, uncomplicated structure, but at the same time addresses some very big issues and makes a point. Uma and Arun are children of Mamapapa, the apparently indivisible common identity that parents present. These parents, however, are not at all alike. Mama is protective, perhaps selfish, and not a little indolent. Papa is a parsimonious control freak who locks away the telephone because someone might use it. But they are at least together. Their relationship has survived, despite the long wait for a son, and their disappointment at his disability. Uma and Arun also have a sister, Aruna. She is bright and pretty, but in her own way she is also disabled, because she is a woman. Arun's disability is visible, but Aruna's exists because of the her society's preconceptions about women. Uma is not pretty, nor is she academic. She wears thick glasses and has fits. And so in the middle class society the family inhabits, Uma can pursue only two possible roles. Either she can be married off, or she can become a labourer, a near slave for the family. The former, of course, is the same as the latter. Only the location is different. For Uma marriage doesn't happen. It does, but it fails before it starts, since the groom was already married and merely wanted to collect another dowry. The arranged marriages of both Uma's sister and her cousin also fail. Initially well starred, both end tragically. The first part of Fasting, Feasting suggests a domestic drama, a faintly comic family trying to cope with their own cultural minority status within India's vastness. It takes awhile for the tragic elements of the story to surface. But when they do, they also disappoint, because only the two disabled characters, Uma and Arun, eventually display any honesty or compassion, everyone else being merely selfish, even those who kill...
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