Fasting, Feasting

by Anita Desai

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What are the main themes of Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai?

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Some critical themes in Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai are family and cultural traditions, sexism and the patriarchy, and family. The book focuses on the difference between Indian and Western cultural traditions.

In the first part of the book, the narrator, Uma, is trapped in a dull life taking care of her demanding parents. While her little sister seemingly escaped the patriarchy by marrying young, she is also dissatisfied with their traditional life. Although Uma says the family is "quite capable of putting on a progressive, Westernized front," they are, at heart, entrenched and restricted by tradition and cultural values.

The second half of the book is narrated by Uma's seemingly more privileged brother Arun. Arun lives with an American family during his freshman year of college, where the reader is exposed to an interesting analysis and commentary on traditional American culture through the eyes of a foreign, privileged young man. Specifically, the reader begins to realize that "claustrophobic domesticity" exists in both cultures.

Overall, themes around the lack of elasticity within cultural traditions (especially related to food, as per the title of this novel) prevail throughout the text.

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Perhaps the main theme of Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai is the operation of patriarchy on the lives of Indian women, with emphasis on how it limits their opportunities for happiness and self-development, and traps them in marriages that are almost a form of slavery. 

Anamika's narrative line is perhaps the most chilling condemnation of arranged marriage in the book. Intelligent enough to win a scholarship to Oxford, instead she is married off and maltreated, and perhaps even killed by her husband. The protagonist, Uma, also deeply wishes for education and independence, and also ends up in a bad marriage, but manages to escape that; however, she still ends up in her parents' home as a middle-aged woman, acting as a sort of servant to her father and mother. 

In the section set in the United States, the Patton family is portrayed as equally dysfunctional, with patriarchy, again, as the main culprit. 

Thus the main themes of the novel are patriarchy, family, and education, with women's education in particular and women's spirituality acting as loci of resistance to patriarchy.

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What are the major themes that Desai discusses in her novel Fasting, Feasting ? 

As in other novels and short stories by Desai, the focus of Fasting, Feasting is on family relationships and how these determine the fate of the characters, particularly the female ones. The title also calls attention to the rituals of food and eating habits which the novel links to the main theme of family relationships. Food becomes almost an obsession for the characters in the book and their attitudes to it almost come to define them. For example, we can link the word "Fasting" in the title to the character of Uma, as she is left without any intellectual or educational nurture by the conservative values of her parents and, at forty-three years of age, still finds herself living with them and without a life of her own. The word "Feasting", instead, has been applied to her brother Arun, because he has always had the possibility to get the best opportunities and the second part of the novel describes his life in the U.S., whose society is described by Desai as one of excess.

"Different lives," Desai claims, "are parallel lives". This sentence can guide us through the two parts of Fasting, Feasting as continuous parallels are drawn between Uma's Indian family and the Pattons, the American family where her brother Arun stays at in the U.S. The women in both families, for example, tend to be bossed around by the male characters. Uma's fate, described through the word "fasting" in the title, is mirrored by that of her American counterpart, the Pattons' anorexic daughter, once again with reference to food and eating habits/disorders. 

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