The day after J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, was announced as the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, the consensual smiles of the judges broke, and it became clear that the judging had not been harmonious. In an article for The Guardian, John Sutherland, Professor of English at University College, London, leaked hints of divisions and encampments on the panel so incurring the wrath of the other judges, who wrote furious articles of their own, lambasting him for his indiscretion. From the ensuing war of words it became clear that the book that had divided them was Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting, which the two female judges, writers Shena Mackay and Natasha Walter, were convinced should take the prize. Outnumbered on the panel, their opinion was nevertheless strong enough to demand expression, and the Booker Prize judges took the unprecedented step of naming Fasting, Feasting as runner-up.
It is no surprise that this novel should create conflict. Fasting, Feasting takes as its subject some of society’s most uncomfortable and pathological aspects, and it refuses to redeem them with aesthetic flourish. It is stern, unflinching and tragic.
The novel, as the title suggests, is about practices of the body. It enters households from their refrigerators, dining tables and kitchens, and it recounts human relationships in the language not only of fasting and feasting but also of greed, craving, taboo, denial and disgust. With its two linked novellas, one set in India and the other in the United States, the novel gives an excruciating account of how society can seize control of individuals — especially women — through such practices as eating, and remove them from everything they intended to be.
The problem with writing about things that are so everyday is that it is difficult to find characters who are alert enough to them to see their drama. Anita Desai solves this problem by introducing a naïve observer into both halves of the book: Uma in the first, who is slow and captive, her attention confined where others might race on; and, in the second, her brother Arun, who leaves India for the first time to study in the United States, and finds himself assaulted by the strangeness of the mundane.
The India of Uma’s tale is somewhat without time. Some details seem to belong to the 1950s, others to the contemporary moment. Uma herself ages almost without our realising — and everything contributes to the claustrophobia of the story, where time changes nothing: it brings no refreshing winds but merely settles and clings. Uma is an ordinary girl for whom things go wrong, who does not manage a husband, and who ends up, therefore — for such is the world Desai is describing — a kind of servant to her parents.
Her journey is inexorable, for she has neither the initiative nor the strength to take on the formidable force of family law; but there are people she meets along the way who present alternative ways of eating and being, and for a time she invites her parents’ wrath by emulating them. There is Mira-masi, her widowed aunt: a wandering ascetic who lives the most frugal of lives on her journeys between India’s pilgrimage sites but who also cooks the most luscious ladoos when she comes to stay. And Ramu, Uma’s carnivalesque cousin, with his club foot and quick wit, who whisks her away for dinners with alcohol when he passes through town, and makes her laugh until she falls out of rickshaws.
Fasting, Feasting was written a few years after Desai left behind her native India to teach and write in Massachusetts, and this is where she chose to set its second half. Uma’s brother, Arun,is almost a generation younger than her — the unexpected product of a sexual ‘accident’ whose place at the centre of this book about discipline is deeply ironic. An exile in his own household, Arun grows up invisibly, trying to avoid the family system by reading American comics in his bedroom, and after school he is sent away to other shores.
Born in 1937 to a German mother and an Indian father, Anita Desai has always liked to write about human beings out of place. Her books are full of travellers and exiles, and people who have lived beyond their time; they are preoccupied by the failure of cultures to understand each other, and the impossibility of carrying one place, intact, into another. Arun is a character in this vein, and his displacement throws up truths, both about himself and the new place he has ventured into.
Arun arrives in the United States without any understanding of the place he has come to, and forms a friendship of sorts with Mrs Patton, in whose house he is lodging. But her relationships with her family and with food are so incomprehensible and repugnant to him that the failures of his own background seem, in retrospect, less terrible. He has escaped from a cruel and joyless household where he had no place in order to land in one whose circles of dysfunction are, if anything, larger and more alienating. The sickness he finds here is part of a machine of commerce and media that makes it even more monumental and incontrovertible than what he has experienced in India. Mrs Patton is afraid, defeated, and no less a prisoner in her own home than Uma. Her only refuge is the supermarket, where she becomes suddenly independent and confident, and where the colourful array of produce from all over the world give her a passing sense of expansiveness.
Fasting, Feasting is a novel, ultimately, about the operations of the family, and it is savage in its critique. For Desai, the nuclear family is a mad and petty realm, whose power is maintained only by the exclusion of nearly everything that is alive and interesting. Her Indian and American fathers share an equal paranoia about the intrusion of alien elements into the home, turning them into bleached-out zones. The women who dwell in its small circle suffer from claustrophobic tics, and they sustain themselves with impossible fantasies of transcendence: conviviality, travel and death. It could not be more bleak.
What rises tenderly from such arid ground is the author’s own attentiveness to the fine grain of human life. The letter from Oxford that makes its whispering journey through the first book, and the shawl that travels right to the end. The world is full of crudeness and cruelty, it seems, and there is little prospect that this will change. But in the midst of this, life is still made up of exquisite detail, and one can be consummate, at least, in the way one observes.
Rana Dasgupta is the author of Tokyo Cancelled.
Extracted from the new Random House edition of Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting