Anita Desai has long proved herself one of the most accomplished and admired chroniclers of middle-class India. Her 1999 novel, Fasting, Feasting, is the tale of plain and lumpish Uma and the cherished, late-born Arun, daughter and son of strict and conventional parents. So united are her parents in Uma's mind that she conflates their names. "MamaPapa themselves rarely spoke of a time when they were not one. The few anecdotes they related separately acquired great significance because of their rarity, their singularity." Throughout, Desai perfectly matches form and content: details are few, the focus narrow, emotions and needs given no place. Uma, as daughter and female, expects nothing; Arun, as son and male, is lost under the weight of expectation. Now in her 40s, Uma is at home. Attempts at arranged marriages having ended in humiliation and disaster, and she is at MamaPapa's beck and call, with only her collection of bracelets and old Christmas cards for consolation.
Uma flounces off, her grey hair frazzled, her myopic eyes glaring behind her spectacles, muttering under her breath. The parents, momentarily agitated upon their swing by the sudden invasion of ideas--sweets, parcel, letter, sweets--settle back to their slow, rhythmic swinging. They look out upon the shimmering heat of the afternoon as if the tray with tea, with sweets, with fritters, will materialise and come swimming out of it--to their rescue. With increasing impatience, they swing and swing. Arun, in college in Massachusetts, is none too happily spending the summer with the Pattons in the suburbs: their refrigerator and freezer is packed with meat that no one eats, and Mrs. Patton is desperate to be a vegetarian, like Arun. But what he most wants is to be ignored, invisible. "Her words make Arun wince. Will she never learn to leave well alone? She does not seem to have his mother's well-developed instincts for survival through evasion. After a bit of pushing about slices of tomatoes and leaves of lettuce--in his time in America he has developed a hearty abhorrence for the raw foods everyone here thinks the natural diet of a vegetarian--he dares to glance at Mr. Patton."
Desai's counterpointing of India and America is a little forced, but her focus on the daily round, whether in the Ganges or in New England, finely delineates the unspoken dramas in both cultures. And her characters, capable of their own small rebellions, give Fasting, Feasting its sharp bite. --Ruth Petrie