A finalist for the Booker Prize in 1999, Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting is divided into two parts. Part 1 takes place in India with a family of five: a father, mother, two daughters, and one son. Part 2 takes place in America with a family of four: a father, mother, son, and daughter. The connecting thread is Arun, the long-awaited for son of the Indian family who goes to Massachusetts to study and spends a summer with the American family. Although worlds apart, the two families have in common a patriarchal family structure with an inflexible hierarchy that goes unchallenged, one that forces its members into rigidly defined roles. In both cultures, women are the primary victims whether they are married or single, young or old.
Part 1 is seen through the eyes of Uma, the eldest daughter of the Indian family. She suffers from epilepsy and myopia—both of which are trivialized by her family and treated as inconveniences. She remains unmarried and lives with her parents who run her ragged with their constant demands. Uma complains but is ultimately complicit in her subordination. She has little choice. Uneducated, single, unemployed, she is totally reliant on her parents for survival.
Desai takes us to America in Part 2 where we meet the Patton family. We see them through the eyes of Arun who is shocked to recognize some of the same patterns he witnessed in his own family. In Mrs. Patton he sees similarities with his own mother. Both constantly defer to their husbands and are reluctant to assert themselves. On those rare occasions when either woman expresses her views, her husband ignores her. Melanie, the Patton daughter, is bulimic. In her angry, contorted face, Arun recognizes the same expression worn by his sister Uma whose needs have been similarly misunderstood, ignored, and neglected.
Desai uses food as metaphor (the fasting and feasting of the title) to compare and contrast the two families. In one culture, food is used as a vehicle to express communion; in the other, it is used to express isolation. In India the sharing of meals assumes almost ritualistic importance. The family is drawn together for their meals even though communication falters and all are there to cater to the father. Food is a frequent topic of discussion: when to cook, what to cook, what food to offer guests, and who should or should not be invited to share a meal. By contrast, the Patton family has a problematic attitude toward food. The mother stuffs the freezer and refrigerator with food even though what is already there hasn’t been eaten. The father grills steaks that no one else wants to eat. The daughter gorges on peanuts and candy only to vomit everything out a few minutes later. The son forages for leftover meat on the implements used for grilling. And the family never sits together for a meal. They eat in isolation.
Desai is a keen observer of human behavior. Her characters come to life within the first few pages. They are revealed through intricate details—gestures, facial expressions, words said, and words left unsaid. Desai shows rather than tells. In Part 1, for example, there is a wonderful scene where the Indian family sits at the dinner table. Having finished the main meal, the father waits with a “sphinx like” expression. The mother takes it as her cue to peel him an orange. She meticulously removes the pips and places slice by slice carefully on the father’s plate. The father then lifts each slice, placing it ceremoniously in his mouth. Everyone watches in deafening silence at this amazing feat. When he finishes, mother sits back, flushed with pride at her achievement while father maintains his stony-faced silence without so much as a nod of appreciation. This scene speaks volumes.
Unfortunately, the novel ends abruptly, lacking in closure. We are told Arun leaves the Patton household to return to the dorms at the start of a new semester. We hear no more about his family. In spite of an ending that falls short, however, Desai’s skill at characterization through telling description is impressive and makes the novel well worth reading.