2007 was the year in which I failed to finish the Indian novels I started. I read 2 and faltered at the 500 page mark in both. I found Vikram Chandra’s amalgam of literary fiction and crime in Sacred Games remarkably tedious. But my failure with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was downright weird. An absolute 5-star epic, I was enjoying it. Unfortunately I had listened to an abridged audio a few years before, so I knew where it was heading and I couldn’t motivate myself to read the extra 1000 pages I needed to reach the end.
So 2008 heralds a change of tactic. For starters, a short novel by an Indian authoress.
Desai was born and educated in India and has spent many years teaching in the States. Well placed, therefore, to write about the similarities and differences of both cultures and she does this with a text that is by turns witty, farcical, poignant and shocking. It’s quite a mix and one that kept the pages turning ….. right to the end!
It could be argued that this novel is actually two novellas linked only by the character who moves from India to America. Each section is self-contained. Yet separating them would dilute the impact of the message that modern culture (be it Indian or American) is dissatisfying with gender inequality rife in both.
In India, MamaPapa (so in tune with each other, they cannot be divided) are raising their two daughters and a son. Aruna is beautiful. Uma is clumsy and plain. But both must be married off. Aruna has her pick of suitors but finding a bridegroom for Uma is a desperate task and the squandering of two dowries is source of much entertaining farce. Flip the coin, however, and the farce becomes tragedy.
A failure to marry means a life of humiliating servitude to parents and a life of spinsterly loneliness and suffocation. My heart aches for Uma but it bleeds for Anamika (Uma’s cousin), denied her Oxford scholarship and married off to a family who cared little for her. She endures 25 years of servitude and married loneliness before …. well, you’ve heard the rumours of what happens when unloved wives grow old and a second dowry is required.
Desai barbecues American family life as thoroughly as Mr Patton does his steaks. America, the land where freezers are full yet the food cannot be eaten because what would we eat in an emergency? Housewives wear t-shirts with born-to-shop slogans because that is all they are good for! Keep the cupboards full. We’ll help ourselves. The tv is king – forget spending time together and eating at the dinner table.
Eating disorders are both cry for attention and rebellion against the profligate overconsumption of the West. Mrs Patton, as neglected as many as Indian bride. seeks to keep herself cheerful with the shopping and her sun-bathing. One day Arun comes home to find her bikini-clad and oiled-up ready for her day in the sun.
She might have been on display in the Foodmart, a special offer for the summer, gleaming with invitation. Almost, one feels, one might see a discount sign above it.
Surprising that Desai has painted this incident with so cruel a brush? Yet a major point of the novel is that daughters suffer most when their mothers unquestioningly comply with traditions or the lead of their men-folk. Actually not only daughters. Sons too.
Arun is damaged by the excess of education and the weight of familial expectation. Seeking solitude and anonymity (the ultimate freedom) when he reaches America, his behaviour unconsciously mirrors that of his sister Uma, back at home. Just one of many echoes which Desai uses to tie her two stories together.
Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, Desai’s novel was, in effect, the runner-up. In a rare glimpse of the judging process, Gerald Kaufmann, the chair that year said, “If we could have a chosen a runner-up, we would undoubtedly have given the runner-up award to Anita Desai and Fasting, Feasting; a most beautiful novel, very moving, very funny, terribly illustrative of what happens to women in different parts of the world.”