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Messages & Silence

Fasting, Feasting

by Anita Desai
Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books, 228 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Diamond Dust

by Anita Desai
Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books, 207 pp., $12.00 (paper)

In a town in Bihar State in India, on the veranda overlooking their garden, a husband and wife sit side by side, rocking in a sofa-swing, chatting quietly about yesterday evening’s bridge game at the club, about tonight’s dinner menu, about events at the office (the husband is a prosperous lawyer). To their two young daughters they present a face of such unanimity that they might as well be a single being. MamandPapa, their daughters call them: MamaPapa, PapaMama.

Though the family is not Christian, the daughters go to a Catholic school. But their mother, uneducated herself, is not convinced of the value of education for girls, and when in her middle years she somewhat surprisingly gives birth to a third child, the elder daughter, Uma, is brought home to act as child-minder. The recall devastates Uma: though she is no great shakes as a student she loves the order and discipline of school, and is obscurely drawn to the life of devotion she sees the nuns leading. In a rare act of rebelliousness against MamandPapa, she seeks out the principal of the school and pleads to stay on:

Uma hurled herself at Mother Agnes, threw her arms around her waist, hid her face in the starched white cotton skirts, and howled aloud. She was a messy weeper: her face was wet, her hair distraught. Her mouth was twisted and her eyes and nose ran. She knotted her hands in Mother’s skirts and girdle. All the time she howled. “Mother, oh Mother,” she wailed, and when Mother Agnes tried to pluck her off her skirts and hold her aside, she flung herself down at the nun’s sandalled feet and lay on the floor, abjectly wailing.

When Mother Agnes fends off this distasteful exhibition of passion (Mother Agnes is sensitive to charges that the sisters are trying to make converts among the children), Uma has no recourse but to fall to the floor and writhe and froth at the mouth in a fit of what may be epilepsy but may also be the sign of a spirit moving within her.

Uma has another exemplar of the religious life besides the nuns. Her widowed aunt Mira stays with them annually on a circuit of family visits. During her stay she does not share their meals: regarding their kitchen as polluted, she has a rudimentary stove built for her in the backyard and cooks her own vegetarian meals.

Mira’s main occupation in life is temple-visiting. On one such visit she takes the young Uma along. Although Uma’s parents are nominally Hindu, they practice only the barest observances. Like the nuns’ prayers, the rituals Uma sees performed at the temple disturb her, touching her deepest being.

Mira also takes the child for a ritual bath in the Ganges. With a confidence born of holy innocence or perhaps just ignorance, assuming without question that the waters will sustain her, Uma wades into the river beyond her depth and is pulled out unconscious, drowning.

Aunt Mira grows old and her health begins to fail. Uma is allowed to accompany her to an ashram in the hill country. A new world opens itself to Uma’s gaze, the world of India’s countless pilgrims. At the ashram, in the grip of fever, Mira announces to her: “You are the Lord’s [i.e., Shiva’s] child. The Lord has chosen you. You bear His mark.” Shaken by these words, Uma falls into another of her fits. Among the people of the ashram there is new respect for her: Has this dull-looking young woman indeed been called? As for Uma, she lies in the dark listening to the dogs bark:

…Other dogs—in distant villages, out along the river bed and over in the pampas grass, or the wayside shacks and hovels by the highway—barked back. They howled long messages to each other. Their messages travelled back and forth through the night darkness which was total, absolute. Gradually the barks sank into it and drowned. Then it was silent. That was what Uma felt her own life to have been—full of barks, howls, messages, and now—silence.

A turning point seems to have arrived, when the confusion, humiliation, and resentment that have characterized Uma’s life hitherto can subside, and she can take up whatever role of obscure service the ashram offers. Instead, a cousin arrives at the gate, charged by MamandPapa with saving the erring daughter and bringing her home. Meekly Uma follows him.

Time passes. The second daughter, pretty, gay, ambitious Aruna, marries a fashionable lawyer and moves to Bombay, putting her provincial origins behind her. MamandPapa do their best to find a husband for plain, myopic Uma. Twice her father pays large dowries to have her taken off their hands. Twice the promised marriage turns out to be a confidence trick: each time he loses his money, and the second time suffers the ignominy of having to fetch his daughter back from servitude in the kitchen of her bigamous husband’s mother. After these expensive adventures there is nothing else to do but to keep her at home.

Her fits cease, and with their cessation she knows she is finally defeated. She has failed to become what her parents want her to be, a wife and mother; they will not allow her to become what she herself would like to be, an independent woman with a job of her own; and she will not become what she was perhaps meant to be, a woman following a religious vocation in one of the many forms that India offers. Instead she will go on serving MamandPapa until they die, a source of disappointment and even of shame to them, living in the household as little more than a servant, poring in the evenings over her collection of old Christmas cards, forbidden to go out, forbidden even to use the telephone. And when they die she will be left alone in the old house in the suburbs to fend for herself.

Fasting, Feasting is, in the main part, the story of this obscure woman. Secondarily it is the story of her younger brother, Arun, who though still a student bears every sign of becoming another loser in the race of life.

By the time Arun is born his parents are already middle-aged. At first the two daughters cannot understand why such a song and dance is made—particularly by the father—about a puny baby. Yet they cannot resist a cultural heritage that sees in the firstborn son the bearer of the fortunes of the family. Grudgingly they take pride in the baby’s maleness, begin to pamper him and make sacrifices for his sake.

Arun does not turn out to be quite the son his father had hoped for. He has no fondness for manly sports, preferring to hide away in his room reading comic books. Nevertheless, no expense is spared in his education, and in due course he rewards his father by winning a scholarship to study in the United States. In the last third of Fasting, Feasting we follow Arun to Boston, where he is marking time at the end of his first year of study. His dormitory has closed down for the summer vacation; waiting for school to reopen, he has found off-campus lodgings in the home of the Pattons, a family with tenuous links to the Christian mission in his home town.

It is the custom of Mr. Patton, on coming home from the office, to barbecue steaks on the patio and set them before his family: in this way he fulfills his self-image as hunter and provider. Mealtimes turn into an embarrassment for Arun, who is vegetarian, and an opportunity for Mrs. Patton to snipe at her husband. As for their teenaged daughter, Melanie, she retires to her room to gorge herself on candy which she then vomits up.

Too passive to move out, Arun is drawn willy-nilly into the Patton’s food-feud. Mrs. Patton decides that she and her boarder will be vegetarians together. She takes him on shopping expeditions from which they return with carloads of salads and pulses and dairy produce, and sets before him her version of a meatless diet: lettuce and tomato sandwiches, cereal and milk. Enveloped in woe, he eats:

How was he to tell [her]…that his digestive system did not know how to turn [this food] into nourishment? For the first time in his existence, he found he craved what he had taken for granted before and even at times thought an unbearable nuisance—those meals cooked and placed before him whether he wanted them or not (and how often he had not), that duty to consume what others thought he must consume.

Mrs. Patton encourages Arun to cook. With pretended enjoyment she swallows down the unappetizing messes that the morose boy—who in India never saw the inside of a kitchen, having been waited on by servants and sisters—dishes up. Mr. Patton and his son, Rod, retreat in bafflement to the barbecue; the summer wheels on; Melanie grows pimply on a diet of chocolate bars, loathing herself. In the bulimic girl Arun sees an uncanny resemblance to his sister, who, unable to put into words her outrage “against neglect, against misunderstanding, against inattention to her unique and singular being and its hungers,” resorts to spitting and frothing in ineffectual protest. “How strange to encounter it here,” Arun thinks, “where so much is given, where there is both licence and plenty. But what is plenty? What is not? Can one tell the difference?”

Arriving in the United States, Arun had exulted in his newfound anonymity: “no past, no family,…no country.” But he has not escaped family after all, just stumbled into “a plastic representation” of it. What he had left behind was “plain, unbeautiful, misshapen, fraught and compromised.” What has replaced it is “clean, bright, gleaming, without taste, savour or nourishment,” and equally loveless.

The gross excess of food that Arun encounters in America, and the complicated, dysfunctional dietary pattern of the Patton household, clearly bear an ironic relation to the feasting of Desai’s title. What of the fasting?

Rather pathetically, Arun tries to emulate the roadrunning exploits of Rod Patton. But he soon realizes that “a small, underdeveloped and asthmatic boy from the Gangetic plains, nourished on curried vegetables and stewed lentils,” can never compete with this specimen of well-nourished American manhood. Why then does he not change his diet, and become a feaster too?

Young Arun is a vegetarian for reasons that are neither religious nor ethical. Despite his father’s attempts to feed him on beef, he is by temperament or perhaps just by physiological makeup not a carnivore. Flesh and (when Mrs. Patton puts on her swimsuit and takes him for a swim) fleshiness repel him, not because he is a moral puritan or because his dietary taboos have been insulted but because in his being he is an ascetic, just as in her being his sister Uma is a religious devotee. The pathos of brother and sister—it is hard to call it tragedy, since Anita Desai works with so determinedly muted a palette—is that neither is able to put a finger on the reason for their misery (namely that they have missed their vocation), much less to articulate its wider significance (namely that the modern world, including India in its modern aspect, offers less and less of a home to the fasting temperament).

Even within his own family, Arun’s vegetarianism is a source of strife. His father wants him to be a success, by which he means that he should be less fatalistic and more enterprising, less passive and more active, less feminine and more masculine, less of an Indian and more of a Westerner. The father interprets the boy’s distaste for meat as a reprehensible atavism, a turning back to “the ways of the forefathers, meek and puny men who had got nowhere in life.”

Consciously or not, Arun and his father thus embody the two sides, traditional and progressive, of a debate on national character that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, a debate set going by the Hindu reformers Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Both Saraswati and Vi-vekananda saw the Hindus of their day as having lost touch with the masculine, martial values of ancient times; both advocated a return to “Aryan” values, a return that might have to be accomplished by incorporating those features of the culture of their colonial overlords that most evidently gave the British their power. In the sphere of religion, Hinduism would have to be organized like a Christian church, with clear lines of internal governance. At a philosophical level, it might have to be accepted that history is linear rather than cyclical, that progress is not an illusion. At a more mundane level, dietary taboos might have to be relaxed: in a moment of what the historian Ashis Nandy brands as “terrible defeatism,” Vivekananda advocated that Hindus turn to the three B’s for salvation: Bhagavad-Gita, biceps, and beef.1

The conflict between Arun and his father over the Brahmanic taboo on beef is thus more than a simple family quarrel. The two stand for opposed views on what price the Hindu—and the Indian—should be prepared to pay for a place in the modern world. In his confused and utterly unheroic refusal of the beef that Mr. Patton slaps down on his plate, and, more generally, in his failure to find in the New World feast the kind of food that will nourish him, Arun thus not only preserves a minimal personal integrity but stands for resistance at a precultural level, the level of the body itself: this “underdeveloped” Indian body is not and will not become an American body.

Some of the ground that Desai goes over in Fasting, Feasting she had already covered in an earlier novel, Clear Light of Day (1980). Both novels take up the lot of the unmarried, middle-class woman in India and, at a deeper level, the nature of the middle-class family itself, which in Desai’s work is more often than not a hotbed of introverted jealousy, oppression, and resentment. The role given to Uma in the new novel is, in Clear Light of Day, distributed over two characters: an unmarried elder daughter, Bimla Das, left alone in the family house as the parents die and her siblings follow their own destinies; and an ugly, penniless, unmarried aunt who is taken into the household as a drudge and who, after years of service to the family, commits suicide in horrifying fashion. As against Fasting, Feasting, which is almost ahistorical in its lack of reference to events in the wider world, Clear Light of Day calls up a Delhi flooded with refugees in the aftermath of the intercommunal riots of 1947:

They swarmed and crawled with a kind of crippled, subterranean life that made [Bimla] feel the city would never recover from this horror, that it would be changed irremediably, that it was already changed, no longer the city she had been born in.

The social world of the family, with servants’ quarters in a hedged-off area on the grounds where the children are forbidden to trespass, is also more fully realized in the earlier novel. What is new in Fasting, Feasting is Desai’s determination to make the forgotten woman’s cry for freedom more absolute by making her stupid, inarticulate (Bimla, by contrast, is a teacher at a college for girls), and—by worldly standards—unequipped to lead a life of her own.

Desai is not a feminist writer in any programmatic sense. Two of her best novels, In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989), are about men, who are treated with the same mixture of sympathy, amusement, and ironic distance as her women. But one should not therefore be led to underestimate Desai’s strength of feeling against the oppression of women. Fire on the Mountain (1977), for instance, seems at first sight to celebrate the proud self-sufficiency of an old woman living alone in the country. But she lives alone, it turns out, only because it suits her children not to take care of her. And the rape and murder of a friend of hers, a spinster teacher, makes it clear what risks a solitary woman runs. The rape scene, only two sentences long, comes across with disturbing violence in so decorous a writer as Desai. The teacher’s attacker

tore [her clothes] off her, in long, screeching rips, till he came to her, to the dry, shrivelled, starved stick inside the wrappings, and raped her, pinned her down into the dust and the goat droppings, and raped her. Crushed back, crushed down into the earth, she lay raped, broken, still and finished.

The story ends with the old woman’s granddaughter, a loner and a kindred spirit, setting fire to the forest in what is surely a vicarious venting of the old woman’s own rage against her lot in life.

Desai’s sympathies are with the defeated, even the hopelessly defeated, with those on the margins of society whose marginality has nothing glamorous or appealingly extreme about it: a hack college teacher with a bad marriage who loses all his money to a grasping poet (In Custody); a German Jewish refugee living out his days in a rented room in Bombay in the company of dozens of smelly cats, doomed because of his skin color to remain a firanghi (foreigner) despite his Indian citizenship (Baumgartner’s Bombay); and now the miserable, no-hope brother and sister Arun and Uma.

Among Desai’s mature works, only Journey to Ithaca (1995) is an exception to this generalization; and Journey to Ithaca strikes one as a mistake on Desai’s part, a failed project. Half of the novel is a mordant chronicle of the vicissitudes of a pair of well-to-do, spoiled European hippies who, on the basis of a reading of Hermann Hesse, travel through India in search of the Supreme Light; the other half is the life story of the charismatic old woman, known only as “The Mother,” in whose ashram the couple end up. Desai’s scrupulous prose, and with it her power to represent a physical and emotional environment from within, fails her: long sections of the novel could have been written by anyone.

Desai’s strength as a writer has always been her eye for detail and her ear for the exact word (“The pigeons…settled down with small, complaining sounds, guttural and comfortable”), her gift for telling metaphor, and above all her feel for sun and sky, heat and dust, for the elemental reality of central India. The American sequences of Fasting, Feasting, by contrast, like the Italian sequences in Journey to Ithaca, have a sketchy feel to them. Neither Desai’s Boston suburbs nor her Patton family—even the tormented Melanie—truly come to life. Too much of Desai’s America, in fact, feels as if it comes out of books.

Introducing a collection of Indian writing of the past fifty years, Salman Rushdie makes the claim that, at least in prose fiction, the achievements of India’s English-language writers—the “Indo-Anglians,” as he styles them—put them ahead of writers in her sixteen official languages, the so-called vernaculars.2

The claim is controversial, and, for an outsider who reads none of these languages, hard to comment on. Even Rushdie himself is on shaky ground, in view of the paucity of translations between India’s different vernaculars, and from the vernaculars into English. Nevertheless, the Indo-Anglian tradition to which he himself has made such a striking contribution is clearly flourishing. Since Rushdie published his epoch-making Midnight’s Children in 1981, the list of English-language writers who have made names for themselves on the world stage has grown longer and longer: among them Amit Chaudhuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Githa Hariharan, Gita Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Bapsi Sidhwa.

If Rushdie and his cohort represent a second generation of Indo-Anglian writing, taking over from a first generation led by Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, and G.V. Desani, then Anita Desai can be said to belong to an in-between generation that was formed intellectually in an independent, post-1947 India but did not yet have the confidence to assert or advertise itself as a postcolonial school of writing. Her literary models, Chekhov paramount among them, come from a fairly narrow spectrum of European realism. The eclecticism of such a writer as Rushdie—an eclecticism that encompasses both Western (including Latin American) and native Indian models of storytelling and goes in for bravura verbal displays—is foreign to her.

If Fasting, Feasting seems not to belong to today’s postcolonial, postmodernist Indo-Anglian mainstream, that is precisely because Desai occupies herself with ignored and forgotten people, unrepresentative types, people left behind by history. Fasting, Feasting may not be her most ambitious novel, but it is an honorable addition to an important body of work.

It is hard to be as enthusiastic about the nine pieces collected under the title Diamond Dust, just published in the United States. The most engaging of these pieces, “The Rooftop Dwellers,” follows the tribulations of a young college graduate from the provinces as she battles with sexual harassment, with disapproving landladies and thieving servants, to make a life for herself as an independent woman in Delhi. “Winterscape” explores at a delicate remove the pain of a pair of women who have made sacrifices to launch a beloved son and nephew upon a successful career in Canada, but must now learn that they have outlived their usefulness: they are too foreign, too odd in their ways, to be welcome in his new home with his new wife. An amusing vignette (“Five Hours to Simla”) reports on road rage in its Indian variant, with histrionic posturings and surprising accommodations. But the rest of the collection, including a lackluster venture into the eerie in the mode of J.L. Borges and a long piece that reads like a chapter from an abandoned novel, is not up to Desai’s best.

  1. 1

    Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 47.

  2. 2

    Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, editors, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 (Holt, 1997), p. viii.

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