After a long hiatus I thought the best way to get back into the swing of things was to reread a favorite. And because I’ve run out of books.. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai was a more enjoyable experience the second time around, probably because I savored the words and paused , pondered and questioned. The writing is pure, magical, magnificent. It turns the monotony of custom/culture/familial relationships into something tragically humorous and poetic.
The story follows Uma, an endearing, vulnerable and utterly human character who struggles to escape the quicksand that is her life. That quicksand is her traditional and strict Indian parents who’s modus operandi is to maintain an irrefutable reputation for propriety, success, classy frugality, and restraint. I normally side-eye tales of ‘oppressed brown girls in poor brown countries’ trying to escape misogynistic traditions for many reasons: 1) it creates generalizations (not all women want to be or need to be ‘freed’) 2) this narrative is used by covertly racist people to bolster their ideological agendas 3) it gives tradition and culture a bad rap and poses an equally problematic world view as the only solution or alternative, ie: western modernity, and secularism.
But Desai’s story doesn’t lend itself to these problems. She presents a diverse cast of female Indian characters: some who have attained the individuality that Uma craves, some who quietly accept their fate, some who rebel, some who vehemently defend the status quo. Desai also subtly critiques what might be considered the better life. Uma’s sister gets married to a rich, ambitious husband and moves to the city but is miserable. She might have escaped the spiderweb of her parents home and her dusty town, but materialism becomes her new prison.
Another way that Desai defies the typical exploration of the condition of brown women is by cleverly juxtaposing it with that of American women. The second half of the novel follows Uma’s brother, Arun, as he navigates the bizarre world of America (how refreshing that America is the strange, faraway place for once!) for his university studies. Arun is an emotionally and physically stunted young man who has also been damaged by rigid gender roles. Obviously this is on a different scale and depth than his sisters, but the impact on males is often overlooked. As the only boy, he has been relentlessly groomed to excel academically and go to the best western schools. This is by far the most fascinating microscope into American consumerism and its vacuity of excess that I have come across in some time. The immigrant experience in America is another genre I often avoid because of the cliches, but Desai does it justice (notwithstanding some caricature-like descriptions). The mother and sister in the family that Arun stays with are also trying to escape their traditional gender norms particularly one of perfect homemaker and dangerous beauty standards.
This story is about fasting and feasting after all. Everyone in the story has a soul and spirit that is hampered, fasting without nourishment and feasting without satiety. And what about us?