Review: Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

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Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

The most recent novel of Indian born author Anita Desai, Fasting, Feasting (1999) tells the story of two middle-class families and the allegorical struggles of the individual members to find individual identity and happiness. This meticulously constructed prose gravitates towards the position of women in the family unit and explores socially ordered gender imbalance in domestic life. Featuring a traditional Indian family in provincial town India and a typical American family in suburban Massachusetts, Desai utilizes comparison and contrast as an effective writing mechanism. Unique in her approach and successful in execution, Desai's illustration of dichotomies within the two families range as obviously as the novel's title and as subtlety as a meal choice.

The potency of Desai's novel stems from her poigent exploration of social, political, and economic themes. The otherwise mundane families are made vivid with the novel's use of contrast. Desai boldly explores family conflict and the roles and factors which contribute to the family structure. Two distinct and adverse cultures are illustrated through the collectivist India and individualist United States, as Desai portrays the evocative internal struggle of the protagonists Uma and Arun to achieve balance between involvement and detachment, illusion and reality, instinct and reason, education and ignorance. The themes by which these contrast are achieve range profusely from the culture, tradition, gender roles, beauty, health, religion, marriage and family as gendered institutions, and poor treatment of women.

The most valuable insight Desai presents in her text is her evaluation of the intricacy of domesticity and the complex and delicate web of the family network. Desai dissects the flawed complexity of gender within the family structure. In Uma's traditional Indian family, Arun, as the only son, is the primary recipient of the family's resources. "MamaPapa", as the parents are collectively referred to as, strive to nourish their son for intellectual and physical success, whereas the two older female daughters are indentured by their expected arranged marriages. Desai criticizes Indian cultural preference and privilege of sons through this display; As Papa remarks of his wife's unexpected pregnancy," Would any man give up the chance of a son?" (pg. 16). After the birth of the son, the narrative reveals: "‘A boy!' he screamed, ‘a bo-oy! Arun, Arun at last!" It turned out that when a second daughter had been born, the name Arun had already been chosen in anticipation of a son. It had had to be changed, in disappointment, to Aruna" (pg. 17).

The distinct hierarchy of the family is clearly demonstrated very early in the book, pargoned through the ritualistic peeling of an orange: the largest orange collected by Uma, carefully peeled by Mama, and fed to Papa section by section. The father, as the patriarch, has highest position in family and accordingly, his pleasure and preference is given priority. He portrayed as unemotional, strict, cold, and with these, a strong and exemplary man. Mama, as his wife, acts an instrument of the father's power, an extension of him and part of the patriarchal structure but still inferior. Uma, as an unmarried woman, is forced into subservient compliance with her unappreciative parents. Desai hyperbolizes the unwavering nature of roles within the family as she emphasizes, "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' (pg. 9).

The inability and lack of motivation of Uma to find a husband devaluates her as woman, and as a valuable component of the family. Where Aruna is validated by her beauty, Uma is marginalized due to her lacking desire to find a man and moreover, inability to...
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