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.

1. IMAGERY AND SYMBOLS
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.

2. THEMES OF THE NOVEL
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.

COMPARISON BETWEEN THE CHARACTERS OF IN CUSTODY AND FASTING, FEASTING

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.

FYUP or no FYUP ?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”-Nelson Mandela

The pioneers of various new education policies and innovators who have brought about changes in the system with their “knowledge” and “hard work” would say that I am a novice and have no authority to say anything. Well, that is indeed very true. I am a novice and do not have any authority. But at the same time I am a citizen of the world’s biggest democracy which imparts the freedom of expression to all it’s citizens, without any discrimination whatsoever.

The education system in India is highly jumbled up. No one knows which policies would benefit the system and which ones are useless. For example, the implementation and now the scraping off of the Four Year Undergraduate Programme of Delhi University. I was never a supporter of the FYUP not only because I am one of the students of the first batch of the programme, but also because I found it principally wrong. The wrong was not the extra year that we have to spend doing our graduation. What I find extremely inappropriate is the way the courses were designed, the time span in which the syllabus was decided for each course, and the lack of debate, discussions and consent from all the stakeholders. The decision was taken too quickly. The teachers were not equipped to handle courses like IMBH. When we joined college, 80% of our classes were dedicated to the “Foundation Courses” whose books had the syllabus of class 8th and 9th. Moreover, the final paper was of 20 marks and had very general questions which had nothing to do with the “books” ! And rest of the marks were in the hands of the teachers. How well you score in a particular Foundation Course depended on your relation with the teacher and your degree of chamchagiri ! We practically got no time for our Discipline Course and were scorned and nagged by everyone as “the unlucky batch”, “the ones who came without CATE and have no background for literature”, “the ones who scored enough marks to get into English honours but with no knowledge about it” and the list of such wonderful sayings that we are used to listening can go on and on. I want to ask those very honourable people is it our fault that this FYUP system was implemented in our batch ? Presumably, no. Then why do we get cursed ?

Inspite of all this accusations and allegations, we somehow completed our “First year” . Now the admission procedure for the second batch of FYUP is about to start. A few days before the cut off lists were to be released, the esteemed Director of UGC writes a letter to Delhi University which says that the admissions are to be done under Three Year Undergraduate Programme and not FYUP ! The letter also says that the students who have already completed one year under FYUP will also complete their degree in 3 years and that the course has to be restructured in such a way that everything can be accommodated accordingly, otherwise Delhi University will not get any UGC grants ! 

I find it wrong not because I am one of them but because it is ethically wrong. One year has already gone. Students who took admissions in B.Tech courses last year might have to do with a B.Sc. degree. Moreover, this decision comes at such a point of time when it is not  possible for those students to take admissions anywhere else and if they wish to go anywhere else then they have to waste another year which practically is not feasible. Also, the time wasted for the Foundation Courses could have been utilized to give the students a better knowledge of their Discipline Course.

I just hope a lot of thinking and brain-straining is done before any decision is implemented because it is going to effect the lives of thousands of young people who are the future of India. For India to enter the league of developed nations, it is necessary that it’s youth gets a good education. Benjamin Franklin has rightly said in this context-“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Thoughts – The Essence of Life

 

Sitting on the bed, my mind ponders over a lot of things. What I think about now bears no link to what I was thinking a moment ago. Thoughts are like the food for mind, extremely necessary for me to feel alive. When people ask me what am I thinking, I don’t have an answer for them. But my mind is never at rest.

There is so much to think about not just in one’s personal life but in the public domain as well. The more you think, the more active your brain gets. The more active your brain is, the more you are capable of grasping things going on around you. The more aware you are, the more you get a realistic picture of the world around you. The more you see things realistically, the more you think. Thoughts are a vicious cycle. There are no beginnings or ends to thoughts. Thoughts can be triggered by the mundane things that one sees in life. Or they may be a result of something very extraordinarily special. What causes the thought is not so important. What is important is the changes that the thought can bring about in an individual, in a group, in a community, in the society, or so to say in the world. Thinking is the solution to most of the problems. Using the “little grey cells” that we humans have can make a great impact in the world.

Thoughts differentiate persons of mettle from the meek. It is because of the thoughts of the select few that the world is what it is today – a better place to live, technologically advanced and scientifically marvellous to sustain such a huge and diverse population. Have you ever thought where would Homo Sapiens be without the likes of Aristotle, Homer, Socrates, Graham Bell, Martin Luther, Edison, Shakespeare, Einstein, Da Vinci, Galileo, Mother Teresa, Jyotiba Phule, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela ? These are just a few to name among the hundreds of thousands of people who dared to think, question and go against the dominant conventions.

If I ever happen to visit a psychologist, he would say that I suffer from anxiety. And the Psychiatrist would not be wrong. I am obsessively anxious – anxious about the way I look, anxious about my career, anxious about my friends, anxious about my relationships. But my thoughts are not just restricted to myself. I am anxious about the environmental degradation. Assaults on women make me anxious about womenfolk’s security. When I see a blind person, I think about the kind of difficulties he has to face in life. I think about ways to save money. I think about the books I read. Tasty food makes me think about the recipe. Thoughts flow into my mind one after the other. They seem perennial and eternal. I try to link all these thoughts but they are too random. I am bound to be anxious because I think. And I think a lot because I am a teenager in the true sense of the word. Minute things are trivial for me and trivial things minute. This is my world full of thoughts and anxieties. It is these thoughts that bring brightness to my dull life, that enlighten me and that make me feel connected to my real self, my conscience.