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Anita Desai

Anita Desai
Fasting, Feasting
Desai and Style
Desai is often praised as a stylist, in particular
for her use of imagery. She has been referred
to by reviewers as an “imagist novelist . . . [Her
use of images] is a remarkable quality of her
 Where are there particularly powerful images
in Fasting, Feasting?
 Desai claims that novels give her the scope to
reshape and reuse images, to make their
meanings flexible and polyvalent. Where do
you find her “recycling” images in the text?
Woman’s Language
In a review of the novel in feminista!, Lakshmi Chandra says that
“Desai uses ‘woman’s language’ not only through her women
protagonists, but also in her narrative style.” Here are the
qualities which she claims create “woman’s language”:
The need to use modifiers in declaratives to make the woman sound
The use of declaratives with an interrogative intonation
Plurality of meaning
Knowledge of domestic details
Open ended conclusion
Do you agree that these are elements of “women’s langage”?
Can you find evidence of them in Desai’s text?
Frederick Luis Aldama, in World Literature Today, says
that “the last thing Uma desires is a man.” Rather, he
says, Uma “hungers for a world without men and
seeks the companionship of other women, like her
widowed aunt, Mira-masi.”
He continues: “Mira-masi seems to be an appropriate
role model for Uma; she too is an outsider. Her grand
holy pilgrimages, Hindu chants, and frequent ashram
sojourns make her the family outcast. However, like
other socially different female role models Uma looks
to, Mira-masi turns out to be so self-centered that she
ultimately fails to give Uma the attention she thirsts for.
What do you think? Who are her other female role
models? Are they self-centered, too?
Fasting, Feasting
Lakshmi Chandra, in a review of the novel for
feminista! observes that all of the chapters in
part I, except for the last one, are divided into
two sections, one written in the present tense
and one in the past. She says, “I think that
Desai feels that living in the present is a kind
of fasting while you can feast on the past.” Do
you agree or disagree with this observation?
Desai says that although “a lot of people
tell me my books are extremely
pessimistic, and extremely dark, . . . I
would prefer to think of them as facing
the truth, not having illusions. But, I do
make an attempt also to show the fact
that India is full of laughter; even in a
family like Uma’s there’s room for humor.
 What do you think?
“The Plain Face of Truth”
If what Fasting, Feasting reveals is “the plain face of
truth” (see dedication) can Desai herself also be said
to connive at women’s entrapment? For one of the
questions we take away with us is: what freedom can
there ever be for women like Uma, since the routes
laid down are undeviatingly marriage, which either
casts one as a victim or a tyrant, or, outside of
marriage, the religious life? What else? Unless it is
“the burning ground,” or the deep river where swept by
the current, Uma feels not fear or danger but
“something darker, wilder, more thrilling, a kind of
Shirley Chew – Review in the Times Literary Supplement
Next Slide before discussion.
Narration and Purpose
Frederic Jameson has said that narrative is a socially
symbolic act that tries to affect the world indirectly. We
try to make sense of the world we live in by telling
stories. This being the case, Lakshmi Chandra wants
to ask Desai this question:
“If we can change the world by changing the stories
we tell, should not we at least try to change the stories
we tell?”
Is Desai’s story disempowering because it only
reports, repeats the actual, instead of attempting to
restructure it, instead of offering possibilities beyond
those Uma and the other woman in her life must deal
Families Everywhere
Desai says that the contrast in families in Fasting,
Feasting is “about the fact that, no matter where you
travel, you come across the same emotional hungers
and needs. What is different is our ways of satisfying
them. In India one imagines religion should satisfy
them. If you have nothing else in the world at least
you have religion. In America people think that a trip
to the shopping mall is best.”
One critic says that the Part II of the novel asks the
question: How close can we get to understanding the
needs and hungers of others? As an outsider and an
observer, Arun sees the likenesses and differences
between his new life and the one he left behind, yet he
doesn’t necessarily understand what he sees.
Do you agree? Or not? Why?
The Pattons . . .
Coatzee, the Pulitzer Prize winner from South
Africa says this about Arun and the Pattons:
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.”
Do the Pattons represent American families? How
does Desai capture and/or stereotype American
families through the Pattons?
The Pattons still
The Pattons, with their excesses, counter the Indian
household, says one critic.
Why does Mrs. Patton’s complaisance towards her husband
recall Arun’s mother’s more evasive tactics? (194)
Why does Rod’s assiduous pursuit of health resemble the
pressure Arun is under to perform a role, to be worth all the
trouble and effort and expense?
Why does Melanie’s anger have “the contorted face of an
enraged sister who spits and froths in ineffectual protest?” (214)
Why does Mr. Patton’s expression when thwarted remind Arun of
his own father? (185-186)
Shirley Chew’s review in Times Literary Supplement
The Pattons some more
Earlier, I quoted Chandra who said that the novel is
about fasting in the present and feasting on the past.
She also claims that this luxury of feasting on the past
“is denied to the Pattons, who are condemned to a life
in the present tense – which for them is a kind of
feasting. Melanie’s bulimia could be a direct result of
too much feasting, perhaps symbolic of American
consumerism as a whole.”
At one point in the novel, Arun is surprised to see the
look of deprivation, neglect and misunderstanding he
saw so often on Uma’s face on Melanie’s. He ponders
the question “What is plenty? What is not? Can one
tell the difference?” (214).
What does Desai say about the difference?
“Arun himself, as he picks his way through a
minefield of puzzling American customs,
becomes a more sympathetic character,
and his final act in the novel suggests both
how far he has come and how much he has
lost,” says a critic for Publisher’s Weekly.
 How far has he come?
 How much has he lost?
Part II
Several critics of the novel have said that Part II of the novel ruins
For example, Gabriele Annan in the London Review of Books,
claims that “Uma would be better off if she had her touching and
fastidiously written novella to herself, and Arun were consigned to
the sacred river.”
And, Frederick Luis Aldama writing for World Literature Today,
asserts that Desai would have written a better novel if she’d have
spent more time fleshing out Uma. He says that “in spite of the
novel’s half-baked denouement, Fasting, Feasting is an
exquisitely told, powerfully tragic story of the Umas, and the
Melanies, of the world who are born gasping for air in a genderimbalanced social order.
What do you think?
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