55 pages • 1 hour read
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Fasting, Feasting is divided into two parts: Part I, set in a strict and authoritarian household in India and Part II, set in a cold and isolating home in the Massachusetts suburbs. Both sections of the novel are told in third-person-limited-omniscient point of view, chronicling two members of the same Indian family.
In Part I, the narrator, through flashback, explores Uma’s quest to find independence and identity within the repressive and regimented household atmosphere of Mama and Papa. Obsessed with maintaining a traditional authority in the home, Mama and Papa are often described as one conflated unit, MamandPapa. Uma’s journey is littered with personal setback and failure. Simple minded and limited intellectually, she is pulled from her beloved convent school after repeatedly failing exams. Her failures in school are followed by failures in marriage. Her parents, desperate to marry her off, are swindled out of two dowries by another family’s eager to capitalize off of their desperation. Because success is defined so narrowly for men and particularly women in Uma’s society—they either are accomplished in school or make good marriages—Uma’s failures at both leave her with virtually no choice or agency. While her younger brother Arun goes to America to attend college and her younger sister Aruna is married off to a dazzling and rich husband in Bombay, Uma remains confined to her parents’ home, where she lives as a virtual servant, accommodating her parents’ ceaseless whims and commands. Longing for greater freedom and independence, she finds short-term escape through poetry, through a journey to an ashram, through a decadent outing with her black sheep cousin Ramu and through a stint volunteering at a church bazaar, but all of these escapes prove to be short lived. Even when an opportunity to escape her parents’ household presents itself with Dr. Dutt’s job offer, Uma’s parents contrive to keep her in the home and thwart her attempts at establishing a separate identity.
Part II explores Arun’s own difficult quest to find independence and freedom from familial obligation in America. While his time at college is marked by unparalleled freedom—the first time he has ever experienced a life free from the endless obligations of his family. When the school year ends, he is forced, by circumstances and his parents’ arrangements, to rent a room in the Patton family home during the summer break. Arun, thrust into yet another family web of conflict and obligation, is forced to confront a uniquely American brand of familial alienation and dysfunction.
The narration and description of the American landscape illustrates sterile suburban streets, endless shopping malls and strip malls, and cars advertising their drivers’ dreams and pride with hollow bumper sticker slogans. Lost in this patterned daily ritual of mindless consumerism and spiritual alienation, each member of the Patton family has their own problematic method to cope with the void of meaning and connection in their lives.
Stuck in yet another familial web, Arun struggles to find privacy and independence within the family. Central to this challenge is a struggle for clear and open communication. Squelched by the undisputable authority of Papa and raised to be a dutiful and obliging son, Arun never developed the social and communication skills necessary to carve out independence and shared understanding. His relationship with Mrs. Patton, the matriarch of the Patton household, is an ongoing ordeal of miscommunication and misunderstanding. While well intentioned, her attempts to connect with Arun through food, shopping, diet and forced outings become yet another affront to Arun’s search for self-determination. Likewise, Mr. and Mrs. Patton’s own hollow pursuits for meaning have had a devastating impact on their children. Melanie, the daughter, oscillates between two modes—sullen silence or bitter contempt—and routinely devours junk food, which she purges in bulimic vomiting. Rod, the son, chooses physical perfection and health, exercising endlessly to distance himself from his parents. Ironically, while the family freezers and cupboards are overflowing with food, the household is starved of nourishing warmth, love, and genuine community.
By Anita Desai