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Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai (Chatto & Windus, £14.99, 224pp)

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai (Chatto & Windus, £14.99, 224pp)

Independent on Sunday review by Amanda Hopkinson

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

Amanda Hopkinson

04 July 1999

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.