Review: Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

October 1, 2013

Author: Anita Desai
Publisher: Mariner Books
Year: 2000
ISBN: 9780618065820
Rating: ★★★½☆
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This is one of Anita Desai’s most acclaimed books, and was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1999. The characters in Fasting, Feasting exist within the typical set up of an Indian family.  The book is written by an Indian author, which makes the plot very relatable for Indian readers. 

 The book is an extensive study of Indian upper middle-class culture. It compares the lives of people living within India with those of Indians residing outside India. The characters include an Indian family, consisting of the parents, their children Uma, Aruna and Arun, and an American family, the Pattons. The story is mainly told from the perspective of Uma, the eldest daughter, and Arun, the beloved and only son.  The characters and prejudices (especially gender bias) displayed by the parents will stand out within the first few pages. Uma, as an unappreciated, unmarried daughter, is expected to sacrifice her desires, wants and rights for her brother and for her home. As a child, she is forced to discontinue her education, in order to take care of her brother, the apple of her parents' eye.  Uma tries her best to devote her life to her family, but she also secretly dreams of flying away from the shackles of expectations that come with being a girl child. 

Her story is a heart-breaking one. But isn’t it just another story residing in every part of India? The girl child, considered a burden by her parents until the day she marries; what a stereotypical situation! Yet Uma bears the brunt of it; she is the one who shoulders her family's burdens. Anita Desai brings out the reality of many girls' lives, even those born in educated, affluent homes in India, but she does this in a very subtle manner. She never forces the point, or appears to condemn any of her characters too harshly.

Arun, the brother, presents a striking contrast to Uma's life. He represents a section of  young Indian students living abroad, with their memories of the cossetted lives they left behind on Indian soil. Has parental and societal mollycoddling left him handicapped, unable to take responsibility for himself? His life, seemingly carefree and full of promise, is compared to the life of his not-so-lucky sister. But the conclusions one draws from this comparison are not so simplistic or obvious!

Anita Desai writes in an uncompromising manner, not hiding the harsh truths in Indian society. It is true that Indian values and morals shape us; we abide by these rules since childhood. As we grow into adulthood, we learn to question these rules. And yet, the novel also contains an American family which brings up its children with none of the restrictions faced by the Indian ones. Are those children more successful? Are they better at dealing with the trials that they face in their lives?

The novel is character driven. While it focusses on the theme of gender bias and parental expectations, it also touches upon themes like loneliness, betrayal and loyalty. The story can sound depressing to some readers; it won’t leave you with a feeling of having answered all the dilemmas arising out of the treatment meted out by parents, societal ties and country boundaries. But it raises important questions. Definitely worth a read.

Related Links:
In conversation with Anita Desai
Crisp Review of Fasting and Feasting

Charu Sharma

Writer at IndiaBookStore
Books and writing take me to my Neverland. I want to drown into the creations of music-art-literature. I prefer the company of Books than people- That's cynical me!

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  • sunil deepak October 1, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    I remember the descriptions about the meat in the fridge in USA and the shopping trips in the supermarket .. this book was so well written and was my favourites that year

  • January 27, 2014 at 1:02 PM

    in what way does the birth of arun changed the life of the family

    • IndiaBookStore February 5, 2014 at 4:23 AM

      Hi Bethanie,

      The parents in Fasting, Feasting are prejudiced in favour of their son, and give him much more care and attention than they give their daughters. In particular, Uma the elder daughter becomes Arun’s part-nursemaid, at the cost of her own education.

      Hope this helps!

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