Books: When food is the focal point of a family's problems

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The Independent Culture
Fasting, Feasting

by Anita Desai

Chatto pounds 14.99

The book opens with Uma, the spinster daughter left in charge of her ageing parents at home in India, supervising the packaging of a box of tea and a brown shawl from the Kashmir Emporium, to be sent to her brother Arun studying in the United States. It ends as he opens the parcel and bestows its contents on Mrs Patton, his landlady, who has recently taken up what she imagines are Arun's native traditions: vegetarianism, syncretic medicine and yoga.

This is a book of two halves. Quite literally, in following first Uma's and then Arun's stories, and then in its Third World/First World divisions, its contrast of domestic and professional lives, the female/male orbits, and the "fasting and feasting" of the title. And, as if to remind us during what often reads like a fly-on-the-wall anthropological study, the cover also tells us that this is "a novel". Food provides both focus and continuity, as it does in every culture, and Uma is trained to supervise its consumption within the extended family who fade in and out of her daily life, often unexpectedly, but always welcome. Over in Massachusetts it is diet rather than food that is the constant obsession. While the mother, Mrs Patton, seeks to join Arun in his "natural vegetarianism" on a diet of burger buns and limp lettuce leaves, her husband insists on charring lumps of bloodied steak on the barbecue, apparently intent on making a man of everyone. Not that many others are around, the son of the family having retreated into his own full-time personalised regime of keeping fit, and the daughter into chronic bulimia, for which she can be treated only at vast expense in a private clinic, to the exclusion of the rest of her family and "natural" environment.

Perhaps the transitional link lies with Uma's and Arun's parents, the undifferentiated MamaPapa, who have attempted to imbue their children with good Hindu customs while breaking the rules in the interests of social progress. For Papa, "a meat diet had been one of the revolutionary changes brought about in his life, and his brothers, by their education. Raised among traditional vegetarians, their eyes had been opened to the benefits of meat along with those of cricket and the English language: the three were inextricably linked in their minds." It is MamaPapa, the reader senses, who could provide a lot of the clues to what is happening in their strange family in which everyone's stories are only half-told as characters are picked up and dropped, or simply sentenced to death, without explanation.

This is the problem with a novel that takes only a slice of life as the whole plot. How did Anamika, the brilliant and beautiful Oxford candidate who failed to escape but succumbed to an arranged marriage, actually meet her horrific end? Why did Ramu go mad and retreat to an hermetic existence? What happened to the equally crazy Mira-masi in her religious mania? The further problem in eliminating all characters marginal to the feasting/fasting theme is that we are left with a cast of essentially unfortunate and/or unlovable ones. Poor myopic Uma, whose chronic eye pains are never explained or ameliorated, loses our sympathy as she rejects her last chance of escape from domestic imprisonment by going to work for the formidable Dr Dutt. Arun is unable to break the cycle of incarceration with his adoptive North American family. He cannot liberate himself, even from his obscure fascination for the truly revolting contortions of the bulimic daughter. Anita Desai's writing is so accomplished that it makes the horrors of arranged marriages and the enforced sexualisation of Western children equally disturbing. But with a cast of victims like these, one's interest keeps reverting to the only characters who seem to have achieved any change in their lives. MamaPapa may be a selfish and hybrid monster, but they're nobody's victim in trading vegetarianism for omnivorousness. Even if that happens to include a Kronos- like tendency to swallow their children.