Fasting, Feasting- An overview

Fasting, Feasting is a novel by Indian writer Anita Desai, first published in 1999 in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for fiction in 1999 and was declared the runner up.

Anita Desai’s novel of intricate family relations plays out in two countries, India and the United States. The core characters comprise a family living in a small town in India, where provincial customs and attitudes dictate the future of all children: girls are to be married off and boys are to become as educated as much as possible. The story contrasts the life of the unmarried main character, Uma, a spinster, the family’s older daughter, with Arun, the boy and baby of the family. Uma spends her life in subservience to her older demanding parents, while massive effort and energy is expended to ensure Arun’s education and placement in a university in Massachusetts. We can see a contrast between the Indian and the American cultures.

Anita Desai’s main concern was not the socio-cultural aspects of life. She wanted to focus on the psychological complexities. She dealt with the slice of life. She wrote about the psychological oscillation of women. She projected the psyche of women as it were. Writing to her is “a process of discovering truth. The truth that is only 9/10th of the iceberg is submerged. The 1/10th visible portion is what we call reality. Writing to her is plunging into the depth and exploring the underlying truth.”

All protagonists in Desai’s novels are lonely and isolated even while living in a family. There is an individual struggle as well as a struggle of the soul. Desai’s protagonists are mostly women who are portrayed as powerful, liberated and independent. Women in her novels may be suppressed and silent but their silence is resounding. They protest and question and go against the discrimination and statusquo in the society. Women are marginalized and subjugated but their struggles and protests burst off the patriarchal system. She deals with the snap of relationships. Her novels generally end with the protagonist attaining epiphanic revelation. The revelation is transcendent and cannot be just seen with eyes. There is a spiritual enlightenment led by the struggle, silence, oscillation and protest.

Fasting, Feasting starts with the reference to the “Swinging Sofa” which represents the luxurious life of the parents. Uma, the protagonist of the first part, is the most neglected among all the children of the family. Yet not a day in the house can run without Uma being around. The words and phrases are so beautifully placed that n the very first paragraph we get a clear picture of the story which is to follow. The novel presents a sharp contrast in the title itself. There are people like Uma and Melanie who long for parental affection and attention. And on the other hand there are characters like Arun and Rod who get the affection but feel suffocated because of too much attention. Yet no one is contented. Everyone is hungry for more. This keeps them away from the attainment of spiritual growth.

The novel is an intense narrative. There is switch in time and perspective as and when needed. The author uses the back and forth technique in the novel. There is a shift from the present to the past and then back to the present again. The transitions are not abrupt and flashback is used to create a mesmerizing effect.

The novel also presents to the reader some of the taboos that were prevalent during Desai’s time in the novel. Women working outside their home were considered as immoral. It can be seen when Dr. Dutt talks to Papa abput employing Uma in her Institute. The very thoughts MamaPapa have about Dr. Dutt also points to this misconception.

All through the novel, there is a reference to MamaPapa. It could also have been Mama and Papa or Mama, Papa or Mama – Papa. It may have been done deliberately to show that Mama and Papa are inseparable. They are a single entity. They have the same thoughts. They can never contradict each other. It may point to the dependency of women on men. Or that woman is nothing without her male counterpart.

We can see that the end of both the parts of the end of both the parts of the novel is unexpected. On one hand, Uma is perturbed due to the death of her cousin Anamika and on the other hand Arun is distressed because he has to go back to the dormitory and is going to be allotted a new room. Uma and Arun both are distressed. Uma had a strange bond with Anamika which is broken forever now. Arun has also developed a bond with Mrs. Patton and now he has to take her leave. It is painful for both of them. It is a struggle for both Uma and Arun. This is the path of self realization which both of them need to tread on.

The use of imagery and symbolism is very much eminent in the novel.

  •  The Image of Dust and Dirt

The images of dust and dirt have been used recurrently in the novel. Dust and dirt are references to the limited lifestyle of Uma and her apprehensions. It is a disgusting and repelling image. Dust and dirt signify the dull, dismal, dry, disgruntled and disillusioned lives of Uma and Arun. It also signifies the novelist’s bleak vision of reality. Uma is constantly oscillating and vacillating between her reality and her dreams. Arun also experiences this oscillation in America. It shows the alienation of the characters. Dust creates a symbolism of discontented, disconnected and hazy life of Uma and Arun.

  • The Image of Cacophonous Sounds

There are also references to ‘cacophony’ and ‘cacophonous sounds’ in the novel. Cacophony might have been used to give a deeper insight of the inner souls of the characters. The characters are so perplexed with all sorts of feelings that they can hardly hear what their conscious directs them to do. It also signifies the dull, arid and demented life of Uma in her so called “home” and Arun in the USA.

  •  The Image of Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage may be a symbolism of freedom and elevation. In context of Uma, the reference to pilgrimage maybe considered as a perennial source of independence. “Uma was perfectly happy not to be noticed. She was never more unsupervised or happier in her life.” Thus, pilgrimage is also a source of happiness for her. For the very first time she does not need to follow orders of MamaPapa. It seems as if all the shackles and chains that had bound Uma have been broken abruptly and she is in a world where she can think of herself. Pilgrimage is a path of self exploration and self realization for Uma.

  •  The Image of Grey

The colour grey itself is a dull and lifeless colour. It is used as a symbol of the dull, morbid and dismal lives of the characters, particularly Arun and Uma. Arun’s life is confined to his books and studies. This makes his life so bleak that when he goes to America, he can hardly manage to make friends. He even hesitates to talk to people. On the other hand, Uma is bound to the household chores she has to do. She has no time to even look into her bangle collection or her Saris. Grey also symbolizes the snapping relationships, the broken marriages of Uma, the death of Anamika and the colourless and pale life of Mrs. Patton.

Anita Desai has touched upon various themes in the novel.

  • Suffering

Human suffering is portrayed in both parts of the novel. Uma bears the brunt of MamaPapa and even her younger sister Aruna. She is made to do all that she hardly wishes to and is withdrawn from school. She also suffers because of the issues of her marriage. Anamika lives a terrible life and suffers brutal abuse from her mother- in-law. Arun also suffers because he is away from his home at a distant and alien land where he has no one to look up to. Suffering is also evident in Melanie. She suffers because of a severe psychological illness.

  •  Loneliness

Loneliness is a recurring theme in Desai’s novels. Uma is so busy in her life, who has to take care of the household and look after her parents and their needs but she is lonely. There comes a point in the novel where she wants to write a letter to someone, someone who can be trusted, someone who can be told about all the repressed feelings she has, someone who could comfort her, but when she recalls the names there is not a single person who comes to her mind. Arun has always been lonely. Either he is busy studying for his examinations or reading comic strips of Superman and Captain Marvel. When he goes to States, he has adjustments problems. He has a deep dilemma. He misses his family and wants to run away. Melanie is also a lonely and neglected child with hardly any friends.

  •  Familial Bonds

Desai’s novels have this persistent theme of snapping relationships. According to Desai, even in case of husband and wife, the relationship is superficial. A family is like a car which runs on the wheels which are the family members. If even a single wheel falters, the vehicle will lose its efficiency. Similarly, if even a single family member lacks communication with the others, the family will not be able to sustain itself in this cruel world. In Fasting, Feasting we observe that the kind of bond that a child should have with her/his parents is not present. In the case of both Uma, Aruna and Arun and Rod and Melanie we see that the parental affection is negligibly present if not totally absent. There is also a snap in the relationship of Uma and Aruna when during Aruna’s marriage celebration Uma gets a “fit” and is accused by the to-be-bride as the spoiler of her marriage celebration. However, MamaPapa share a cordial bond all through the narrative. Mr. and Mrs. Patton however have no bond at all between them.

  • Discrimination

Discrimination is a major theme of Fasting, Feasting. Boys and girls have always been thought of being different with boys being superior. In this novel as well, we see when Papa gets the news that his third child is a baby boy the exhilaration with which he shouts it out loud shows that having a boy is what he always wanted. When the boy is named Arun, it is revealed that the name was already decided before Aruna’s birth but sadly had to be changed to Aruna when a girl was born. Uma is withdrawn from school because she has to look after her younger brother who is almost a generation younger to him but Arun, even when he is reluctant to go, is sent to away to America for his higher studies.

There is also discrimination between the way Aruna and Uma are treated by their parents. Aruna is prettier and knows how to dress herself for every occasion while Uma is shabby and clumsy. Aruna was permitted to go out with her friends but Uma had to stay at home all the time and look after Arun and the household. She was not allowed to go out anywhere. There was also a huge difference in the arrangements of the weddings of Uma and Aruna. Uma’s wedding was a plain and simple but Aruna’s was luxurious and modern wedding which cost Papa a lot but nevertheless he got accolades from everybody who attended the wedding. Uma was a disgrace for their family. She always brought disappointment. She could never succeed in anything she did. Aruna was the pride of the family. She was the one to make them smile after all that had befallen Uma.

  • Trap and Imprisonment

Every single person in this novel is trapped in a way or the other. There is a kind of imprisonment in everybody’s life. Somebody is trapped by their family while somebody by their loneliness. We find that Uma is imprisoned in her own house and is not allowed to go out anywhere. Not only literally, she is also mentally trapped. She has an identity crisis and she can take no decision on her own even when she is in her 40’s. Her thoughts are controlled by MamaPapa. She has no refuge, no one to look up to, no friends. Her only escape is when MamaPapa are out for a party. That is the only time she gets for herself. Arun is trapped by his books and studies. He loses his childhood in his father’s frantic efforts to make him do what he could not. He is trapped in the gloom, dreariness and loneliness of his life. He assumes to find a refuge in Mrs. Patton but when he meets her he finds out that she is no less trapped than him. She is a prisoner in her home like Uma. But the only difference is that she has a way to escape. She has the supermarket.


Just like the character of Deven in In Custody attains enlightenment at the end, so does the character of Uma. The character of Uma can also be compared to that of Sarla. Sarla is frustrated and angry. She has broken dreams and aspirations about her marriage. Uma too has broken dreams of studying and getting married. This makes her frustrated. She tries to excel in the little space she has but cannot. Both Sarla and Uma are trying to discover their personal space. Both of the women characters are strong and can bear so much distress without expressing it to anyone. They have no one to share their pains, no friends, no well wishers; they are confined to their homes. Both of them have no way to escape. Mrs. Patton is a similar character to Sarla as well as Uma. Imtiaz Begum can be compared to Melanie who is rebellious. Both of them try to go against the conventional societal norms of patriarchy and try to create a world of their own with only themselves in it.