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Fasting, Feasting: a novel

by Anita Desai

Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99, 224pp

A career. Leaving home. Living alone." In a small Indian town, Uma - dowdy, single, subject to the whims of ageing parents - reads the syrupy poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, dreams of a refuge under a banyan tree by a river, waits for crumbs of voluntary work from the tables of nuns and missionaries. A bad student, taken from school to look after a coddled younger brother, abandoned by her husband after an unconsummated marriage, unloved and ultimately unloving, she yearns for the pleasures of beauty. But she learns that beauty is an escape only for some: Uma's sister Aruna makes the best of a superficially chic Bombay existence, but for their cousin Anamika, abused by spouse and mother-in-law, marriage is another prison.

Uma's dreams are limited to crossing the threshold of her home in search of freedom, while for Arun, her pampered brother, departure is a mere question of birthright and privilege. He is sent to study in Massachusetts, where his middle-class Indian austerity collides, in repulsion, with the excess and profusion of suburban kitchens and supermarkets. But, as he finds, hunger still haunts the women of the new world who alternately stuff and starve themselves while their men pursue the cult of the ideal body.

Anita Desai has interwoven several perceptions before to great effect, notably in her subtle, complex masterpiece, Clear Light of Day, in which the viewpoints of very different siblings alternate. In Fasting, Feasting - most recent in a series of outstanding fictions from a career that spans more than three decades - she returns, after a cosmopolitan detour, to a world which is already disappearing and a milieu of which she remains the peerless chronicler. But there are differences. Here, too, she flashes between past and present, but intricate patterning of perspective is replaced by the juxtaposition of two self-contained narratives - brother and sister, India and America - connected by oblique metaphors of deprivation and need, abundance and surfeit.

She has also discarded the delicate tapestries of historical events that form the backdrop of previous fictions. Subtext and context are reduced to a minimum, prose stripped to essentials but all the more luminous for its bareness; the effect is intense and compelling, a combination of savagery and compassion.

Voluptuous landscapes - the sultry, sleepy beauty of Indian plants and rivers and the white heat of New England summer - highlight the loneliness of lives. Desai's concern with the marginal, the repressed is thrown into starker than ever relief. This is a compelling, mature work by India's finest writer in English, whose often unacknowledged influence on other writers keeps alive a tradition of precision, inwardness and lyricism which still holds its own against the extroverted productions of the post- Rushdie generation.

We see pompous Arun and hapless Uma up close, are forced into a relentless intimacy with them. Arun, in America, as the holiday guest of a local family, discovers that here, too, sisters suffer while brothers claim the best. Rooted in his insularity and his scholastic pursuits, he observes human pain but fails to engage with the solitary sufferings around him. He realises he has not escaped: "He had travelled and he had stumbled into what was like a plastic representation of what he had known at home; not the real thing - which was plain, unbeautiful, misshapen, fraught and compromised - but the unreal thing - clean, bright, gleaming, without taste or savour."

Arun will return, perhaps unchanged, to the real thing; but for Uma, reality is the burden. Desai refuses to polemicise about the relative merits of east and west, giving us parallel perspectives. Arun sees a daughter of America vomit up her despair, destined for an institution that specialises in eating disorders. Uma travels to the Ganges with the ashes of a beloved cousin (typically, tragedy takes place offstage) who dies under suspicious circumstances. In America, the smell of burning beef on summer lawns; by India's sacred rivers, the smoke of funeral fires; everywhere, the ashes of aborted hopes. We are left choking on the pervasive odour of waste.