In Fasting, Feasting Desai focuses on the children of a conservative, upper-middle-class Indian family living in a provincial town southwest of Bombay. Desai is as much interested in the family dynamics as in the effects of strict patriarchy on the next generation.
As the novel opens, husband and wife, who have become so much like one person that Uma refers to them as MamaPapa, sit on their favorite veranda swing. The place is symbolic for the static nature of their lives now that Papa has retired as a lawyer and his children are adults. Uma is there to serve them, even though she is forty-three, but unmarried. Here, such rituals of patriarchy are performed, as when Uma fetches an orange that Mama carefully peels, slices, and skins before handing each sliver to Papa.
In keeping with Desai’s desire to tell the truth in her fiction, even if it is painful, Uma is denied much possibility to develop. Through her flashbacks it is revealed that she was denied the opportunity to go to her beloved convent school when she was fifteen, and she was forced to return to her parents when she ran away to attend the school. Mama decided to arrange a marriage for her at age sixteen, but the prospective groom scandalized the family when he fell in love with her younger sister Aruna. Uma then joined her widowed aunt Mira-masi on a pilgrimage to a temple, where she longed to stay but was taken home again. In Mira-masi, the reader meets one of Desai’s wizened old women who have taken to spirituality as an act of defiance.
The next attempts to...
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