Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting explores the different aspects of Indian, and American culture. The title explains the two parts of the book, Fasting in India and Feasting in America. However this is not necessarily the case, as in both of the two countries, elements of fasting and feasting can be seen. For example, Mira-masi who is physically fasting yet feasts obsessively on religion. In America, it is the opposite, where there is in fact plenty of food, but the family Arun stays with is fasting spiritually.
Mira-masi’s entrance in the novel begins with a description of a sweets, Uma exclaiming how she ‘makes the very best ladoos’. And if we follow Mira-masi, her last appearance describes her as being ‘gaunt, ill.’ Although Mira-masi has been feasting on her religious beliefs, this has not led her to being fulfilled. Much rather, it has left her hollow. Like all the characters in the book, their quest for whatever it may be: intelligence, a lost Lord, freedom, all ends in a sham. Their journey only ends with the realisation of complete limitation in everything.
Mira-masi’s religious devotion is echoed in her first appearance, where she is accompanied by Uma to the temple for daily puja. It is described brightly, with ‘pink stucco’ and ‘lit with blue fluorescent tubes’. This bright colours are so artificial, which emphasises the fact that the fulfillment Mira-masi seeks is unrealistic. The depiction of the temple is also quite rich, as a ‘brass bell’ gives a ‘mighty clang’, ‘the priest with.. red powder and yellow marigolds’ and ‘sweets’. The diction creates an embellished image of the temple, which shows the idealism of Religion that Mira so enthusiastically dedicates herself to. Her journeys with Uma to the temple begin where they ‘walk down the road together’. In contrast to her last stay over, she ‘stalked down the road… with an air of determined privacy’. The negativity in the phrase shows how drained and isolated she has become through the means of incredible devotion to her Lord.
Uma and Mira-masi’s relationship grows strong through the novel, yet like Mira-masi herself, weakens towards their last encounter. Mira-masi is the ‘second or possibly even third wife of a relative Mama preferred not to acknowledge at all’. Her relations with the family are only ‘hapless… by marriage’, this subtle mockery portrays the inconvenience Mama sees her as. The death of her husband has left her a widow, so she has ‘taken up religion as her vocation’. The extent of this is endless, in fact there is never an action without significant religious meaning. Mira’s day ‘was ruled by ritual’, simply emphasising how dedicated she is to her beliefs, making ‘her salutations to the sun.’ The first sign of her fasting is shown as she prepares the ‘widow’s single and vegetarian meal of the day’.
This fasting details how extreme her feasting on religion is, ‘like an obsessed tourist of the spirit’. She is portrayed as being a pure being, in her ‘widow’s white garments.’ This idea of purity is repeated as she ‘covers her mouth with the loose end of her sari’ at the smell of cooking meat. Her unearthly presence provokes Uma’s desire to delve deeper into Mira-masi’s beliefs. On the other hand, Mira-masi appears drained by her final visit, and eats only ‘bananas and peanuts and dates.’ Instead of cooking the ladoos for which she is notorious for, ‘she would cook nothing’. The bluntness of this statement conveys the lack of energy and spark she used to bring to Uma.
Her figure is now ‘gaunt, ill’ with ‘grey hair’. This is comparable to the white garments she used to sport, which seem to be tainted as she ages and appears frail. At first, Desai illustrates Mira-masi so she has an entrancing appeal to Uma, ‘curling up on the mat, around Mira-masi’s comfortable lap’ who is fascinated by the tales told by her relative. On their last meeting, Uma seems disappointed to have watched such an admired relative become so weak. Uma is left with the promise that Mira-masi will find her stolen Lord, and by doing so, Uma has been trapped into the idea that ‘there was someone who had won what she desired.’ In doing so, Mira-masi lost herself in the midst of her search for the Lord.
In Mama’s opinion, Mira-masi’s visits are not necessarily welcome. This is shown as she says ‘she never writes to ask if she may come… only to say that she is coming.’ Clearly, she is not openly invited to stay. She visits and informs the family of the news. A long list of Mira-masi’s news: ‘births, marriages, deaths… rumours, prattle, tittle-tattle…’ connotes her overwhelming self, yet is also a mockery and suggests that she has almost too much to say of very little relevance. Uma is much different, and enjoys her company and the religious life she leads.
Mira’s passion for religion leads Uma to follow her through the day, rather like a lap dog. Uma ‘crouches beside her’ and ‘curls up on the mat’, represents her enthusiasm for Mira’s freedom of worship, and keenness to join in. Uma feels as if she is being included into a celebration, but ‘of what, she could not say’. Uma even collects flowers for Mira’s altar, ‘immediately on waking’. Much like Mira’s early morning rituals when she makes ‘salutations to the sun.’ On the contrary, Uma’s actions go unnoticed at the end of her stayings, and Mira-masi ‘did not seem to care.’ To Mira-masi, these rituals are as casual as ‘if she were dusting her house’, which suggests she need not think twice about what she is doing with her life. Unlike Uma, who is enthralled by Mira’s actions, they are simply her duties now, much like Uma’s duties are to her parents.
Mira-Masi’s rituals are heightened through various techniques used throughout the text. The simile ‘like an obsessed tourist of the spirit,’ describing her pilgrimage, emphasises the captivation of religion that Mira feels. This makes her rituals seem very joyful and enriching. Detailed phrases, such as ‘only at night, after spreading out on the floor the rush mat that she brought with her, would she sit down cross-legged…’ reveal the preciseness of Mira’s actions. Her rituals, like never-ending cycles are much like chores instead of being insightful journeys. Uma, on the one hand expresses passion for the religion, and ‘never tired of hearing the stories’ that Mira-masi told. Long sentences explaining the stories of ancient myths of Hinduism create a feel of excitement, as if Uma upholds the truths in these tales.
It also makes them seem dragged out and exasperating, told in a way a child might tell them. Onomatopoeia is used when illustrating the sights and sounds of the temple. From the bell with a ‘mighty clang’, and ‘tang! Tang!’, to the conch-shells blowing ‘hrr-oom, hrr-oom’ these sounds add life and vivify the scene. Alliteration and imagery used when Uma ‘would go into the garden- and the dew on the dusty grass would transfer itself onto her bare feet…’ reflects her eagerness to carry out such tasks on her own will for her relative. The alliteration of ‘dew on the dusty grass’ enhances the idea of Uma behaving in such a way that resembles that of a child.
All these phrases have positive connotations, unlike the comparative passage. Unpleasant descriptions of Mira-masi, with words such as ‘gaunt,’ ‘ill,’ ‘grey’ and ‘dishevelled’ are all related to being feeble. Instead of Uma walking in the grass, she is now ‘ripping off bright canna lilies’, suggesting frustration. The action of ripping relates to ‘tear the heart out of her chest’, with regard to her missing Lord. Ripping and tearing connotes breaking, which could be the breaking of the bond Uma and Mira-masi once shared, . Uma herself is depicted and being ‘limp and drained’, much like Mira on her departure. The contrasting words convey the slow deterioration of Mira-masi, and the bond between her and Uma as the novel wears on. The effect of fasting has led Mira to become a weak, soulless female, on a mission to find her spiritual self, and her Lord.
Uma progresses through the book with the desire to escape her family’s clutches. She is suppressed in whatever she wishes to pursue, in this case, religion. Mira-masi shows her the ways and rituals which enlighten her, yet her family brings her back down to earth, leaving her to wonder about what could have been if she were not held back. Fasting and feasting are two extremes. Completely devoting to one or the other, either through food or religion or some other means leaves one unhappy and unsatisfied. Although the Lord is found in the end, Mira-masi is frail and in no way fulfilled. Until someone escapes from fasting, or feasting, and achieves an ultimate balance, there is no way that one can be fulfilled both spiritually and physically.
In this particular episode Desai puts the central character Uma who is bound by ropes of tradition, culture and her families wishes in complete freedom. Ramu, Uma’s cousin convinces MamaPapa to let him take her out to dinner. After dinner he takes her to a bar and this puts Uma for a change in complete control of her own life. Desai does this to show the immense frustration in Uma’s life and how when put in a situation where she can enjoy herself she easily ‘lets her hair down’. Desai very cleverly uses hair to symbolize limits ” her hair escaping in long strands from the steel pins that usually keep it knotted tightly in place”. The steel pins symbolize her parents expectations, her culture and tradition.
In many ways, Uma because of the way she has been made to live still tends to respond to situations in a very childlike manner. “Uma is crying because the evening is over”, this is something that a child would do when a trip to Disneyland had come to an end. Desai portrays Uma in this way to show the effect of her upbringing. The point that Desai is trying to convey is that her parents never really let her grow up and think for herself, due to this her ability to think and act maturely has been stolen from her. When she walks into the house and her parents are again in ‘control’ of her they scream at her and say “Not another word from you, you idiot child.” This backs up my point on how she has been forced into being a child in her house and when she is given complete freedom just like a child she treasures every moment of it.
The reason that Uma has been made to think and act in a child like manner is mainly because of the way her parents treat her. Desai holds the parents responsible for the state of their daughter and this is shown through the various techniques and symbols she uses. When Uma comes back drunk after the night out with her cousin Ramu her “Papa who is pacing up and down on the terrace comes thundering towards then with a face as black as the night”. Firstly this shows that her parents do not trust her even at this age, they are awaiting her return like a guard would await the return of a criminal into his cell. Desai uses an extremely interesting adverb “thundering” to describe the manner in which Papa approaches Uma and Ramu. The adverb basically shows Papas rage and his attitude towards giving his daughter a little bit of freedom. It gives the reader the image of a guard again frustrated at the late return of a prisoner.
The simile “face as black as the night”, the word “black” in particular has many connotations. Some of its possible meanings are: evil, death, loss of hope and danger. On the other hand when Uma walks into the house “Mama’s face glints like a knife in the dark”. Another simile used here symbolizes Mama to be a knife. Knifes are used to kill, murder and take the life of a living thing. My view would be Desai has symbolized the mother to be a knife because knifes take peoples life’s and this case Mama has taken the life of Uma away from her. Basically by treating her in the way her parents do they have taken away her ability to control herself and take care of herself which is equivalent to making her lose her life because without these necessities she will never be able to work alone in the real world.
The evening out makes Uma realize the importance of freedom and the fun of being able to do as she wishes. She enjoys the freedom to such and extent that she loses control of herself completely ” she takes another sip of the shandy Ramu has insisted she drink and hiccups like a drunkard in a farce about fallen woman”. The use of diction “drunkard” changes our view of Uma completely from a girl forced to stay on the path of tradition and culture to a girl desperately seeking control of herself but unable to get it weather she has the freedom or not. Desai addresses this point to show how restriction to this extent can make people completely lose themselves in the struggle for self-control.
To show a change in character when Uma is given freedom Desai describes Uma to be “choking with laughter, she laughed so much, she has tears in her eyes. They run down her cheeks.” This again shows lack of control, she ends up laughing so much that she starts to cry. The tears running down her cheeks symbolize relief of pain. When she starts crying the reader gets a sense of all the pain and sadness being left in the past and all her inner emotions being displayed. This is the first time in the novel that she is shown to directly express her feelings through emotion. When she starts to choke with laughter this is such a rare circumstance in Uma’s life she almost never even smiles, to show this Desai uses a very short sentence to add impact to the statement.
When Uma returns home drunk her parents tell her that she is a disgrace to the family-nothing but a disgrace ever!” This sentence will evoke sympathy for Uma from the reader because of all the hardships in her life and how her parents completely ignore all the work she does for them and call her a disgrace because of her loss of self-control. What they do not realize however is that they do not allow her ever, to have any control over her own actions what so ever and that is a result of their selfish upbringing. In Indian culture drinking is seen as a disgusting habit for women in particular. This is why MamaPapa were so infuriated when Uma came home drunk. The image of “mama waiting in her white night saree” is symbolic for purity.
Desai does this to show that because Uma came home drunk her parents now look at her as a disgrace and impure in comparison to themselves. In actual fact her parents do not realize that they are the ones provoking her actions. . In western culture however this is an extremely common practice for teenagers to go out drinking with their friends. This basically shows that these two cultures do not merge at all. Even today in countries like America the loss of culture in Indian children because of habits like drinking can cause them to get disgraced by their parents and often even disowned. In the novel Ramu is an example of a rebel who fought for his own freedom. Although he ended up in charge of his own life Desai never expresses weather he in the end gained happiness from abandoning his family’s expectations and culture.
In this short extract of the book Desai uses a variation of diction, similes and other language techniques to convey the point that when someone bound so tightly by so many restrictions is let out into the open they tend to lose control of themselves very easily. She also tries to accuse upbringing of parents like Uma’s by saying that they demand too much from their children and when their children need to let themselves lose they call them a disgrace. Desai also addresses the difference in the two cultures and their different opinions on ways of having fun.
In this section of the novel, the author of Fasting, Feasting, Anita Desai, illustrates the cultural expectations of women in India. Through the main themes – marriage and society, Desai shows India’s middle class values and how such expectations can lead to suppression and cruelty to women of this society.
The contrast in the general society’s expectations of women’s lives is illustrated in two different settings of every day life. Anamika’s life before her marriage shows her as a model daughter and illustrates traditional cultural values in Indian society. Her intelligence and beauty are highly valued to her family, relatives and friends as they will present the best opportunity for a good marriage. She ‘won a scholarship to Oxford’, yet it was ‘locked in a steel cupboard’ at home and only used to search for a husband. This action symbolises the locking up of Anamika’s dreams and a brighter future. Despite the stupidity of this act as Desai points out, ‘everyone understood and agreed’ that it was right for her to stay shows the strictness of the tradition and it must be followed in all cases.
In this first part, Anamika’s Aunts and Uncles saw her as the ‘perfect child’ and believed it was impossible for their own children to ‘measure up to this blessed one’. Contrastingly, in the second setting with her new family, her husband ‘barely seemed to notice her’ and he was ‘impervious to her beauty and distinction’. She was treated like a servant by her mother-in-law, who ‘beat her regularly’ and made Anamika do the ‘scrubbing or cooking’ and ‘massage’ her feet. Yet, Anamika remained subservient despite her intelligence, because Desai uses her to represent the female population that follow Indian tradition, who believe the role of women is to be married off and to work as a housewife.
The theme tradition is conveyed again through the characters in this section. The extended metaphor, first mentioned in page 66, of Anamika being the ‘first fruit to be picked’ suggests she is merely the fruit of her mother’s womb, a flower in a pot, which is locked up and follows the same routine every day. This technique is evident again on page 67, describing Anamika who is as ‘lovely as a flower’, ‘soft, petal-skinned, bumblebee-eyed, pink-lipped’ and has ‘good nature like a radiance’.
She illuminates the perfect daughter; like a flower and everyone is attracted to her, ‘as bees to a lotus’, which symbolises beauty in Hinduism. The use of this extended metaphor suggests that the traditional Indian society prefers a child who was ‘perfect’ because they are easier to marry off, which is what the society believes to be the most important role of women – to get married and have children. The importance of having children is illustrated when Anamika ‘had a miscarriage’, ‘was flawed’ and ‘no longer perfect’. This struck me as the most important part of the section as we realise how people see women who cannot have children as ‘damaged goods’. These women are worth no value to the Indian society.
The idea of men’s expectation within society is also vaguely touched upon in this section. Anamika’s perfection is contrasted with her ‘misshapen, deformed, dark misfortune’ of a brother, who has ‘club foot, hunched back and nearly sightless eyes’. The use of listing emphasizes his inferior status within the society, because his disabilities ‘club foot’ and ‘hunched back’ make him less capable to work. This means he is no longer of value within society, and this is evident later in the novel when he was not invited to Aruna’s wedding because ‘he was not considered fit for society any more’. By doing this, Desai highlights the reality of a scenario where the men are not outstanding academically or attractive. However, Desai then points out that ‘only the most favoured and privileged sons’ could ever ‘hope to go’ to Oxford. The fact that only ‘sons’ are mentioned and not daughters, shows that India is a patriarchal society, and in this culture only the boys get the opportunity to continue with proper education.
Patriarchy is further illustrated by Anamika’s husband, who was so ‘conscious of his own superiority’. By creating such a character in the novel, Desai tries to show us that in this patriarchal Indian society, men see themselves of a higher status than women. He was too ‘occupied with maintaining his superiority’ than to notice Anamika and later on it was also mentioned that their marriage ‘enhanced his superiority to other men’. The parallel use of ‘superiority’ is done to emphasize how much image matters to him. Desai uses him here to represent the general population of men. This also illustrates the superficiality of men.
Superficiality is another theme highlighted in this section to meet society’s expectations. As mentioned above, Desai uses the repetition of ‘superiority’ to illustrate how much men’s image matter to them. The fact that he marries Anamika to ‘enhance his superiority to other men’ suggests that he only sees her as an object. This illustrates the patriarchal hierarchy imposed on women. However, it was also mentioned earlier that Anamika’s scholarship ‘won her a husband…equal to this prize’, which also shows he is materialised, merely an object to the family as he is seen as a ‘prize’ to the family. The fact that both families only care about themselves and their image clearly shows that there is no love at all in their marriage and it was all purely superficial. Desai here implies the faults of the traditional attitudes towards this aspect in the society, as it foreshadows the pain and sufferings illustrated later on in the novel.
Anamika’s traditional way of living is contrasted with Aruna’s modern attitude. Anamika has ‘won a scholarship to Oxford’, yet it was ‘locked in a steel cupboard’ at home and only used to impress men when searching for a husband. The fact that ‘everyone understood and agreed’ that it was only right for her to stay and not go shows that the tradition must be followed. So she does not ‘contradict her parents or cause them grief’. Her subservient attitude leads her to holding back her dreams, which Desai questions as a cause for concern due to the negative consequences this can lead to. Anamika’s character is contrasted with Aruna’s, who is full of ‘determination, ambitiousness and desperation’. Towards the end of this section, Desai highlights her individuality as she questions her mother’s thoughts, ‘Who cares what they say? Who cares what they think?’, which shows her bravery to living a less traditionally based life, and by doing so she lives a more fortunate life, as illustrated later on in the novel.
The two mothers in this section demonstrate how women maintain the patriarchal society. When Anamika’s husband looked into the mirror and saw ‘the face of his mother…gazing back at him’, it suggests that he married Anamika for his mother. The fact that he saw his mother in himself shows her dominance over him. This is illustrated when she ‘beat’ Anamika ‘regularly’ and he just ‘stood by and approved’ and ‘did not object’. This shows how much power she has over him. And later on in this paragraph, it is only her that controlled what Anamika did at home – ‘folding and tidying her clothes’, ‘scrubbing or cooking’, ‘massage her feet’ etc. Uma’s mother on the other hand, also showed superiority within her family as she ‘snapped’ at her daughters and ‘scolded them’ without thinking twice.
To conclude, the idea of ‘fasting’ in this section is illustrated through Indian tradition, as the characters of hold back their dreams to meet their society’s expectations. Anamika had to subrogate her intelligence for marriage. She could have attended Oxford to continue with her studies and most likely end up with the brighter future, instead of becoming the servant of her married family and being constantly abused. Aruna on the other hand, has been accused for living with a more modern attitude, as illustrated by her individuality of not caring about what others think. In this section, Desai also points out that even though one may be seen as the most ‘perfect’ person, they may not necessary live a ‘perfect’ life, this is illustrated by Anamika’s life of suppression, depression and cruelty. Desai raises the question – why do people still live a traditional lifestyle if it means more suffering?
In this extract Mama’s hard work ‘at trying to dispose of Uma’ is finally fulfilled with a blind, ‘cut-rate’ marriage. This hasty wedding does not change Uma’s constant state of ‘waiting patiently to be disposed’, as she always was in the entire book: for marriage, for orders, for errands. It further illustrates her unwanted state, her inferiority to her family and the bridegroom’s – making her a dispensable burden being ‘heaved into’ like a heavy luggage to different households. However, ‘how could one not’ comply with this ugly cycle of Indian tradition?
The sense of extreme neglect and minimal love towards Uma is underscored by Desai in her depiction of the settings, Uma’s and the bridegroom’s household – ‘none of them paid her any attention’. ‘Uma’s unmarried state’ is considered ‘not only an embarrassment but an obstruction’ in her own household. The diction of ’embarrassment’ and ‘obstruction’ brings a continuous emphasis of Uma’s hindrance on the family, especially ‘perfect’ Aruna’s ‘great and bright’ future.
Whilst in the bridegroom’s household, Uma was given ‘a room that led off the kitchen’, with ‘all the speech directed at her … in the form of instructions’. This highlights Uma’s slave-like status in the house as a wife living in a confined, unfurnished room. There, ‘she did not dare ask them where he (her spouse) was for fear of not getting an answer.’ In her husband’s house, she fears for neglect. In her own household, she fears for over-attention. However, the two settings are interlinked with a similarity: they continuously repress, control her life from every single tiny aspect through treating her as a maid. Ultimately, these environments cause Uma to ‘relinquish all her foolishly unrealistic hopes’ and fall into the dooms of family abuse.
Subordination and inferiority are also found in the juxtaposition of unattractive Uma versus the glamorous, ‘ripening’ Aruna. Unlike Uma, Aruna knows how to lure her ‘preys’ through utilising her feminine attributes well ‘instinctively’. She knows the right moment of when to ‘thrust out the little foot in the red slipper suddenly like a tongue’, with a ‘laughter low and sly’, whilst Uma only knows how to ‘throw “fits”‘ at inappropriate times. To this, ‘Mama watched and wondered, Papa humphed and hawed and scowled’. The alliteration ‘watched and wondered’ delivers a sense of the passive traditional Indian women character, whereas ‘humphed and hawed’ displayed a manly outward projection of disgust. However, ‘…that upset Mama and made her speak sharply and severely. Then he looked a bit confused and withdrew.’ The verb ‘withdrew’ signifies that Papa is snapping back to the MamaPapa state. Perhaps, Mamapapa are one entity to maintain ‘the tightly knit fabric of family’ to close ‘holes and gaps that were frightening’ and prevent the crumbling of the family.
Like the bridegroom Harish’s family, there is minimal love for Uma in her own household. When Uma found a ‘married before’ man that ‘finally approved of …the unpromising material’, there is a sense of finality achieved after a long period of Mama’s desperate searching for a husband for Uma. The phrase ‘unpromising material’ makes Uma seem like a failing robot without any feelings and once again reinforces the idea of minimal love in this family. Papa responds to this by ‘never stopped reminding the women in the family’ about the dowry that he ‘had already thrown away’ for the Uma’s previous marriage scam. ‘Never’ is used to signify Papa’s strong emphasis on the money given away – he does not care whether his ‘burden’ of a daughter gets a good husband. He is simply a money worshipper, which is a complete damnation of him. On the other hand, ‘and so the bridegroom’s party was on its way’ after the dowry ‘was accepted with alacrity’.
These short sentences with the noun ‘alacrity’ give off a sense of suspicion – why would a person suddenly accept Uma and organize such a hasty wedding after such a long time of rejection? Once again, when compared to Aruna’s who had an ‘elaborate sari and jewellery’ at her ‘lavish’ and ‘splendid’ wedding , Uma’s ‘drab, cut-rate affair’ is inferior again with Uma finding ‘herself richer’ by only ‘a dozen saris, a set of gold jewellery and another of pearls’. Uma ‘then was handed a garland and posted at the entrance to the marquee to wait for the bridegroom’. Unlike the normal teary blessings given prior to a marriage, Uma was not greeted with any of this for this rash wedding. The negative diction depicting the bridegroom’s reaction towards Uma, like: ‘glumly’, ‘without much interest’, ‘reluctant’, ‘sullen bridegroom’ all convey an aura of forced willingness and foreshadows this couple’s upcoming divorce. The anonymity of Uma’s spouse gives a sense that he is some insignificant, blurry utility man in a swift chapter of Uma’s life. The ‘wilting garland’ is also symbolic of this marriage – it is ‘wilting’ before it even started.
The high level of boredom during the wedding ceremony is highlighted through Uma’s pathetic sole entertainment being her ‘tinkling her many new glass bangles gaily’ due to the absence of Ramu, a motif of Uma’s happiness and hope. ‘He(Ramu) was on his farm…to keep him from drink – or drugs, whatever it was.’ Again, this displays the minimal care Indian families give towards the ‘black sheep of the family’, which applies to Uma as well. Diction like ‘whatever’ underscores this feeling and reinforces Ramu’s deteriorating position in the family – they couldn’t care less ‘if he had received the invitation’. On the other side, the family’s hopeful ‘Anamika was with her husband and in laws…”they just can’t let her out of their sight for even one day, they love her so much”‘. The superlative ‘so much’ accentuates the disguise and amount of secrets in each family – the emotional fasting and neglect reimbursed on the children. The same superlatives also contains a sinister tone and indicates the possessiveness Anamika’s in-laws’ possessiveness.
After the wedding, ‘Uma was now to live’ at her spouse’s household. An image of Uma being moved around like cargo is shown through this quote – she has no choice as to where to land at the end. She is also now to ‘suffocate’ from ‘her sister-in-law’s thick fleshy back and odour of perspiration’ and her ‘hard-bitten mother(-in-law)’, with ‘teeth tightly clenched’ and ‘shrewd small eyes’. Diction of ‘thick fleshy back’ and ‘odour of perspiration’ presents a bad impression of a filthy family with no freedom from the start as she is ‘suffocating’. The ominous sibilance of ‘shrewd’ and ‘small’ reminds us of a mean, obnoxious step-mother that is going to torment and excruciate her ‘daughter’. This groom’s family further forms a clique against Uma – ‘they continued to talk to each other, in lowered voices, but still loud enough for her to hear their remarks on her clumsiness, her awkwardness, her clothes and her looks.’ This long sentence displays the immense disapproval and loathing they have towards her. The quadruplet of ‘clumsiness, awkwardness, clothes and looks’ exposes Uma’s imperfectness, her defects and her never-satisfying attributes.
Sentence structure further accents Desai’s damnation of Indian families’ display of minimal love. This is shown through long paragraphs without pauses, built clause upon clause undermining Uma’s unsought state from the opposite sex. Even extreme desperate measures of ‘giving Uma pink cheeks and almost blue eyes as she perched on a velvet stool’ do not solve the ‘problem’ of ‘disposing Uma’ out of the household. The verb ‘perched’ also exerts a sense of a bird pouting its chest on a branch, hence adds on to the desperate artificiality. Before the wedding, last minute measures were taken. ‘Mama stood behind her, securing the jasmines in her hand, and Aruna danced from one foot to the other…’ These commas provide a quick rhythm, showing the nervousness of Uma and sounds like anxious, fast breathing.
When Uma is on board of the train to her husband’s mï¿½nage, the commas in between the sentences signify the stopping for stations and also the start of another rapid chapter of Uma’s life. When she arrives at her spouse’s house, his relatives ‘stood in a ring around her, staring. They spoke to each other, making remarks about her complexion, her hair…”They addressed each other only, making comments on her saris… but saying nothing to her’. These quotes make Uma look like a disregarded animal on display, confined in cages of the zoo. Listing further reinforces this feeling of the bridegroom’s family being a bunch of rude visitors and Uma being suppressed. This triggers a surge of angst from the readers – why is Uma not rebelling? How she can tolerate this? Long paragraphs of Uma’s anticipation of her ‘husband’s’ return to the house without full stops allows readers to contextualize the long night of Uma’s waiting. The initial suspicion of her husband being dubious is confirmed – he is not going to return. These phrases and diction hitherto evoke pathos in the readers for Uma.
To further add on our disgust and loathing towards the bridegroom’s family, the metaphor ‘mounds of flesh heaped on other bunks’ dons a negative image of them being hippos, their obesity making them inactive and lazy. Adverbs like ‘crisply’ are utilized to deliver the message of waving Uma off, when she already minimalises her contact with the family and can be seen to be motifying treatment towards someone who has done nothing to deserve this.
As through the entire book, this chapter proves that no matter where Uma goes, what fate has in store for her is the same. She is to be a slave ‘waiting to be disposed of’, taking in speech ‘in the form of instructions’.
These pages reinforce the damning factor of Indian culture, their unnecessary cruelty towards characters like Uma and their bitter fate. Speech ‘was no other’ but ‘in the form of instructions’ despite a change of environ and marriage- however, this is going to be no other and will be no other. Her inferior position to the family’s negligence proves that India, like USA, is a land of emotional fasting despite its religious feasting.
Fasting Feasting Extract Close Analysis Pages 118-122
Arun receives “the best, the most, the highest” aspects of education as he is a boy. But the excessive demands of Papa leaves him emotionally starved, a “blank face” and so his development becomes hindered. The control exerted by MamaPapa on Arun and Uma who is “raised for marriage” but also confined to cater to the needs of her parents illustrates the oppressive side of Indian culture as it leaves both siblings trapped in a meaninglessness routine that exists in the family and in MamaPapa. In the excerpt, Uma is in her thirties and her fate is already irrevocably tainted by the “greyness” or ‘fasting’ of having her curiosity repressed, restricted by family demands because she is a girl and the oldest sibling.
However, Arun’s fate to ‘fast’ is not much different. Even though the opportunity of ‘feasting’ is given to him through education, freedom and standing, the regulation on his education, “years of scholarly toil” becomes a cruel act; the fact that this is all enforced upon him drowns him early on in his childhood and kills any potential for ‘feasting’. Arun’s physical deformation exemplifies the spiritual decay he experiences. By the end of the excerpt, despite each character’s “manic desperation” to break away from the horror of routine, Desai still returns them exhausted; passively, almost unwittingly succumbing to their descent into emotional deterioration.
A sense of desperation and anxiety is conveyed in Arun at first during his childhood. We witness his spiritual death as Arun declines into apathy. Arun’s incessant fidgeting “squirming, chewing his pencils down to lead, his erasers to mousy shreds of rubber” shows what a nervous wreck he is reduced to. The phrase “hand compulsively tearing at the tie around his neck” symbolizes Arun’s struggle to free himself from the suffocating pressures of “education”. Yet a mixed sense of dread and black humour is felt in the phrase “drumming theorems, dates, formulae and Sanskrit verse into Arun’s head which began to look like one of the rubbers he liked to chew, or the bitten end of a pencil”.
The violent personification of “drumming” exposes the brutality with which Papa’s rigorous “vigilance making certain that Arun would not slacken” quashes Arun’s weak attempt to extricate himself. The simile “bitten end of a pencil” demonstrates the actual dysfunctional effects and psychological torment that underlies the “careful handling” of Papa. Arun’s deterioration is also foreshadowed by Desai in the phrase “tie… reduced to little more than a string but still an essential part of his equipment”. The word “essential” is echoed ominously as if in a fulfilled prophecy later in the excerpt, “they had left the essentials: a nose, eyes, mouth and ears”. Ultimately, Arun is left barren of an identity, personality or mind. The listing of “essential” facial features also leaves the reader with a sense of emptiness and detachment, the apathetic state Arun has become.
Thus Arun, who at first had shown signs of weariness, as indicated in the simile “as a coolie might stagger along under an oversized load” shows how the demands of his spiritual subservience to Papa eventually breaks him. Diction connoting brittleness “creakily” and the metaphor “shuffled off… with the gait of a broken old man” tells of Arun’s pre-mature aging and fragility due to the unrelenting tensions of study. Like Uma, Arun is neglected. The crippling effects of his educational burden are not seen by his family. Only Uma is sensitive to Arun’s, even Papa’s suffering and recognises the toil that Arun has to bear, but Arun is already seen to be incontrovertibly desecrated in mind and internally. Uma’s words “deep well of greyness that was his actual existence” has metaphorically condemned Arun to the sense of futility and lifelessness; his mind too drowned and too fathomless to salvage anything.
Arun also shows the same traits of yielding to routine like MamaPapa. ‘He would himself collapse onto his bed, limply pull out a hand to lift a comic book… and disappear under it’, diction such as “collapse” and “limply” suggest how Arun responds to his exhaustion by reverting to passivity and repetition. Furthermore, Arun’s desire to “disappear” in the “several hundred comic books” he reads shows that he is unable to break away from the reality of emotional and spiritual ‘fasting’, but that he exists dependently and vicariously through “tales of adventure, wizardry, crime, passion, daring and hilarity”, all of which are absent in his life.
Nevertheless, this all becomes another futile, unrewarding procession; “scraps of coloured paper that might still float, but they sunk without a trace” is a metaphor showing how Arun’s life is devoid of fun and pleasure. While these comics may grant him some excitement, “some evidence of colour” in his life, it is short-lived; smothered by his impenetrable “well” of despair and hopelessness. This illustrates how it is merely an artificial substitute for happiness which Arun attempts to preserve by continuously letting the comics “flood into his mind” and continuously dispensing one after another.
Both Papa and Uma neither have the education, freedom or power to extricate themselves from their state of ‘fasting’. While Uma is bound by cultural norms, she is also “seized with a longing to stir up that viscous greyness, to bring to life some evidence of colour, if not in her life then in another’s”. Despite this strong show of emotions, Uma is powerless to detach herself as she is always the daughter “no one noticed”. Desai ensues Uma’s moment of frustration: “it made her glasses flash, it gave her movements an agitated edge” with the phrase “back and forth… packing and re-packing” to demonstrate how Uma resorts back to routine to assuage her frustration. This also alludes to the repetitive to-and-fro motion of the swing motif Desai uses to express the entrapment the family instinctively submits to because the rocking motion is so comforting and unobtrusive, unlike Uma’s feelings of distress.
As a result, Papa and Uma passively turn to Arun to resolve their “unfulfilled dreams”. Papa believes Arun can only be rescued from the fate of ‘fasting’ that his cultural identity naturally bestows on him by providing Arun with the benefit of education, the numerous “openings this would create later in life, the opportunities”.
However, they are strung up by false illusions. Upon receiving a postcard from Arun who is in the land of ‘feasting’, the US, they would “finger the crisp glossy paper in turn, marvelling at its quality that somehow endured through the journey”. The postcard symbolises a token of ‘feasting’ in prosperity, the American Dream that Papa too believes in and tries to bring Arun up to live in, to become the “healthy mind, healthy body”. Desai exposes a similarity here between Papa’s aspirations for prosperity and the American emphasis on the “pursuit of health”.
So the postcard represents “Arun’s own endurance, his survival”. Yet the irony that lies in this passage is that while Papa goes through exhaustive means to secure Arun a route out of “studying under the streetlights… dusty provincial courts” the extremes of ‘fasting’ and poverty which still haunt the recesses of Papa’s mind, he is unrewarded; Arun has not developed at all in personality, he “sounded thin, without substance” and his postcards devoid of the ‘excitement’ that his family had anticipated would “stir up… some evidence of colour” in their lives. Papa’s involvement in Arun’s education has only left him feeling a little deader, as the phrase “his face grey” suggests. Furthermore, the fact that Papa still strives to outdo the memories of poverty, eradicate the “painful beginnings” shows how despite that his current circumstances allows him to ‘feast’ in prosperity, Papa remains trapped, ‘fasting’ in the past.
Overall, this passage explores the devastating effects of force-feeding Arun to ‘feasting’. Arun is trapped by his cultural ‘fasting’, the abstinence and endurance that in turn infiltrates him and brings him to emotional ‘fasting’, to “stoop and shrink” internally. Predominantly, the act of ‘fasting’ is integrated in Indian culture and cannot be escaped as shown by Arun, even though he could have the opportunity and freedom to extricate himself. The family may feel agitated or threatened at times, the momentary realization of their entrapment, lifelessness and disfigurement eating them out from the inside, but Desai shows that they are doomed to remain this way as they subject themselves to the rhythmic lull routine.
In pages 131-132, Uma expresses a desire for escaping, for leaving and becoming independent, and her attempt at character development, like every other character in the book, is destroyed completely, emphasizing the lack of growth throughout the whole book. Uma is able to take herself to another world, but is brought back down from that world by Mira-masi who wakes her up by saying things such as “‘The Lord has…chosen you for Himself”, and waking her up to the reality that she cannot leave.
Like the other characters in the book, Uma’s attempt at developing and breaking out of her shell is brutally rebuffed. Desai shows this by making Uma’s escape take the form of a dreamland, a paradise where she will only reach in her dreams. Uma’s “escape” can grow from an “ancient banyan tree” to a place where “berries…baked in the clean white sun”, the “sand glistened” and “water gleamed”, showing how only in her thoughts she is allowed to develop before being brought back down to reality by “the sound of the water jar being set down on the veranda floor”.
Uma has to close her eyes again to re-visualise her ‘escape’ and is again interrupted, this time by Mira-masi. The fact that Uma begins “thrashing her arms…wildly” shows how her ideas of escaping are always suppressed or rejected by her family and culture, and her discontent with it. The way Mira-masi’s hands “grasp” her and Uma’s reaction could also highlight the families attempt to grab hold of Uma every time she displays an act of leaving or growing- for example when she goes to the Carlton with her cousin Ramu, and how MamaPapa are “protesting” her going with him. Her family dislike the thought of Uma becoming her own person, and this is shown by the way Uma’s escape is described at the beginning of the extract- “secret possibilities” makes it seem like Uma’s independence is a secret to be kept, rather than something to be celebrated. This highlights Uma’s suppression and how her family and culture are the ones preventing her from growing and developing.
To describe her urge to “run away, escape”, Uma uses a simile saying that her thoughts are “like seeds dropped on the stony, arid land” and that “sometimes, miraculously, they sprouted forth the idea”. The use of comparing seeds to how she feels highlights the potential for growth, but the use of the word, ” sometimes” shows how the idea of escaping and becoming independent stays a potential, and nothing more. To further add to the growth idea, Uma’s “escape, took the form of a…banyan tree”. In Hindu belief, Banyan trees are very special and are often called ‘wishing trees’ and are considered sacred and eternal because the branches keep growing. Uma’s “refuge” is a banyan tree, which could show how she feels close to her culture in a way but when she describes the “leafy branches in which monkeys and parrots feasted”, it could show how she wants to be the branches, to branch away from the confinements of her culture and to grow.
The first sentences are short- “A career. Leaving home. Living alone”- to highlight the shortness of Uma’s ideas. How they are “dropped on the…land” and left there, and how that’s all they will ever be. The short sentences can also emphasise how big the ideas are to Uma as they slow down the way you say it so it makes “leaving home” or having “a career” seem like a massive step or issue to overcome. Of course, for Uma it is but compared to Mrs Joshi in the previous passage, for example it is not so much an issue. The short sentences throughout the passage break it down into bits, which could show how Uma is thinking it out, bit by bit. Long sentences in the passage could show Uma when her thoughts have grown and have developed, unlike the short sentences.
Desai uses more techniques to contrast Uma’s thoughts and reality, such as the dark and light lexis. Uma’s escape ‘gleamed’, ‘glistened’, words which connote light and possibly happiness, as opposed to reality which is described as “an undercurrent into a secret depth, so dark that she could see nothing at all- just the darkness”. The last sentence of the passage could connote Uma’s imprisonment in her own home- she is not allowed to venture out of “the darkness” and can “see nothing at all”, as opposed to seeing “herself seated on a stone step…looking out at a flash of water…and the kites hovering in the sky so high above that they merged with infinity”. Uma is stuck in “the darkness” and can only see herself seated on a step, and not out there with the “kites, circling…at a great elevation” because her family and culture have suppressed her so much that she is even suppressed in her own dream world.
Overall, this passage further emphasises the lack of character growth and development in the book. Desai gives a different view on the Hindu belief that all children should obey and honour their parents- in this case Uma suffers as a person and cannot grow. It shows how Uma can dream of escaping but the dream never becomes a reality, and furthermore shows how far Uma is stuck in her entrapped bubble-far enough so that she cannot get out.
In this extract Uma’s family learn of Anamika’s death, and Anamika’s parents come for the ‘immersion of her ashes in the sacred river’. Anamika’s brutal death illustrates the oppression of women in India. They live to perform the role of a perfect housewife, to bear children and to surrender to their husbands every need. Anamika was not able to perform to her new families expectations and so they murdered her.
Desai uses various religious allusions throughout the passage to emphasize the restraints of the Indian society. The description of ‘where the two rivers meet’ is a religious allusion symbolizing reincarnation. Hindus believe that at death, the soul escapes the body and enters into the cycle of samsara. Anamika’s soul escapes from this life into the cycle of the next. Her soul ‘breaks through’ the surface of the water, breaking free from the repressive civilization that we all seem to be ‘drowning’ in.
Furthermore, the diction Desai uses to describe the priest, ‘irate…red accusing eyes…threatening’ connotes negativity towards traditional restraint. After all it was traditional restraint that caused Anamika’s death and it is traditional restraint that limits Uma. Anamika’s death could have illustrated to Uma’s parents that they should not take her for granted. They are lucky enough to still have a daughter, yet they do not treat her as a parent should treat a child. Uma is submissive to her parents just as Anamika was to her husband. However, further events in the novel show us that MamaPapa do not learn from this, and continue to treat Uma as they always have.
The simile ‘drawn along as if by an invisible rope’ comparing the boats movement to something being pulled by an invisible rope. This metaphor illustrates society’s expectations of not only women, but everyone. The family are on the boat and they are being pulled by an invisible rope, the ‘invisible rope’ of society to do what is expected of them. To mourn the loss of their daughter in the way society wants them to. Religion and society do not let you grieve in your own, let alone live your life the way you choose.
Desai further exemplifies the oppression of women in India when she describes how Anamika ‘wrapped a nylon sari about her’ and ‘knotted it at the neck and knees’. The diction of ‘wrapped’ and ‘knotted’ connote restraint, symbolizing the restraint that had been put on her during her lifetime.
During the beginning of this passage the sun is compared to a ‘pale white disc’ however throughout the passage, it changes to a ‘shimmering blur like a fire in full daylight’. This, added with the last sentence of the passage ‘blaze of the sun and flashes fire’ implies that there is no escaping this repression. The sun and fire connote an intense negativity implying that there is too much heat for any resolution to come out of this situation.
Desai seems to be insulting the family throughout the passage because during this time of tragedy they are still concerned about trivial issues, for example the price of the boat, and the state of the boat as soon as mama steps inside. The families trivialities are further highlighted in the long sentence ‘but not Aruna who is in Singapore on a shopping trip with her husband, not Arun who cannot be expected to break off his studies in America and return, and not Ramu who has become a hermit and communicates with no one in the family any more.’ The long sentence and repetition of the word ‘not’ overwhelms us with how this family is emotionally ‘fasting’. So much so that none of them could stop their inconsequential lives to mourn over the loss of their relative.
The extent of this tragedy is illustrated through the effect of Anamika’s death on her parents. They are speechless, disconsolate. The contrast of what they once were ‘elegant’ and ‘sophisticated’ to what they have become, ‘a heap of rags’ highlights the devastation of their daughters death.
Uma ‘feels like ash – cold, colourless, motionless ash’ just like her cousin who is a ‘jar of grey ashes’. This illustrates how Uma feels dead inside. Desai refers to Anamika as ‘charred’ and ‘dying’. The diction of ‘charred’ makes Anamika sound like an object, which is the way she was treated by her husband’s family, further highlighting the oppression of women.
Furthermore, the way Desai tells the story of how Anamika died makes it seem like deaths similar to Anamika’s are an ordinary occurrence in India. This is illustrated by the short sentences and repetition of ‘then’ in ‘Then she poured the kerosene over herself. Then she struck a match. She set herself alight’. The factual tone lacks emotion, making such a devastating tragedy seem ordinary.
In conclusion, this passage summarizes the oppression of women in a devastating way. Anamika’s death could have been used as a turning point for Uma’s parents, as seeing someone else’s child die, reminds you of how lucky you are that yours is still alive. However, they fail to see this, and continue living their emotionally empty lives.
In this extract of Fasting Feasting, Arun is first introduced to the horrors of American gluttony when the Patton family has dinner. He is portrayed by the author, Anita Desai, as disgusted and out of place. She uses a simple family setting of a barbecue to illustrate an intricate relationship between American and Indian attitudes towards both fasting and feasting. The author then continues on towards utter damnation of American culture’s displays of superficial materialism, greediness, vanity etc. In one of the most significant chapters of the book, Anita Desai is able to capture and vivify “the pantomime” of the American family.
The barbecue is the central setting and motif for this passage and is indicative of how Americans value food as at the centre of all their attention.
I feel that Anita Desai uses each character in the Patton family as a representative of an American characteristic. Mr Patton of course represents gluttony in his undying passion for red meat. The author’s use of diction in “he holds up a spatula in the air, waiting for his congregation to assemble” makes the readers regard him as self-important. The spatula which is a cooking utensil is portrayed as an object of power and reverence, showing America’s emphasis on the value of food. Mrs Patton symbolises American superficiality and fakeness.
Not only does she pretend to be a vegetarian to make Arun feel more comfortable seen in “Ahroon’s a vegetarian dear-…like me” which we find out later she is not when she continues to eat meat again later on. She then sycophantically pretends to enjoy the meal which we can see in “Mmm, it’s real good” and “Rod and Melanie just don’t know what they’re missing” while she “pantomines the eating of a meal” The reader immediately associates “pantomines” along with Mrs Patton’s sycophantic tone to artificiality, pretentiousness and hypocrisy . Melanie on the other hand is emblematic of vanity. Her bulimic condition is down to her need to look skinny, thereby feeling she has a need to sacrifice her health for “good looks”.
There is a large amount of dialogue in this extract which is in sharp contrast to the limited interaction between Melanie, Rod and Mr and Mrs Patton. The frequent uses of hyphens break up the syntax to give the extract the same fragmented feel as the Patton family. The son and daughter are both in hiding whilst the wife is siding with foreigner and his beliefs in food. Also, I notice how Mr and Mrs Patton are always separated as if they are different entities as opposed to MamaPapa and again reiterate the rift between members of the Patton family. It also demonstrates the difference in American and Indian cultures.
Desai uses irony of a situation in order to convey to readers the comical state of American’s beliefs. For example, in “Will Mrs Patton be brave and make it unnecessary for him to speak, publicly reveal himself as unworthy, unfit to take the wafer upon his tongue, the wine into his throat?”, the objects wafer and wine which are a reference to holy communion are “unfit for Arun’s mouth”. Desai is trying to convey here that being a vegetarian is regarded as a sin in America and he has to “confess- again” to Mr Patton. The irony of the situation is that the wafer and wine are also food. This bombardment leaves readers feeling that Americans are devoted to food as their religion.
Another situation in this extract that this reader found rather amusing was the portrayal of Melanie “gorging on peanuts” My first association with peanuts is when they are rewarded to elephants as payment when they are used as a mode of transport in India. This is very shrewd of Desai as she compares Melanie, who is trying to be as skinny as possible, is compared with something as large as an elephant. Also, the fact that she is “gorging” on peanuts again represents the American frame of mind. Even a girl focused on fasting to achieve slimness cannot help but continue on feasting.
Food and “religion” play a central role in this extract; which mirrors how Americans regard the almost pious ritual of feasting as the epicentre of their lives. This is reinforced by the fact that Mrs Patton feels “unfit to take the wafer upon his [Arun’s] tongue” and “[Mr Patton] drove home half an hour early so’s to marinate the steaks” Desai makes this reader feel as if Mr Patton is having to worship food because of the lack of a religion. She also makes frequent references to religious objects and rituals such as “Sacrament”; “minister” etc. again shows us how Americans regard their food as sacred and holy.
Fasting is seen as an act of deep personal worship in which followers wish to free their souls from harm and indecencies. This is curiously juxtaposed in the title by feasting, an act of self indulgent excess. This passage illustrates Desai’s scorn at American society and their love of feasting.
Fasting Feasting – pages 169-171
This part of the novel is where the writing style slips into past tense rather than present tense. It opens with a description of the campus, which is full of isolated imagery. The “mostly silent student from Louisiana” shows more and more of Arun’s distance from American culture. As the student smokes his “endless chain of cigarettes… that brought on Arun’s asthma”, it reveals to the reader that Arun becomes more and more of an outcast – unable to adjust to the American ways of life. The cup with the message “ya snooze, ya lose” is ironic as the boy spends his whole day lying on his back, ignoring the message whilst Arun works hard and is stared in the face “every time he glanced inadvertently, in his direction.” It reflects Desai’s feeling of how American culture is full of hypocrisy and how the American Dream has long since been forgotten.
The description of the dormitory extends the feelings of isolation as Arun’s room “was at the end of a long corridor”. The graffiti-covered walls symbolize how Arun feels he has been pushed into insignificance and there is a lack of respect or care. The use of phrases like “bleak expanse” and “leaving behind” shows how he feels that he is and will never successfully become part of the life that everyone else is leading. Desai even describes that he lives in ” desolation”, further emphasizing how alone the character is. The “sudden eruptions of music” very strongly separate Arun from the rest of the world, as they are “like voices shouting out of another world, another civilization… Their very volume created a fence, a barrier, separating him from them. They were the bricks of wall that held him out.” This quote very clearly defines how Arun feels he is viewed and detached from American life.
After this we enter the description of the woman with cancer. This character expresses human egotism and questionable pride. Although she believes for a good cause, her character is written in such a way that it becomes uncomfortable to hear her story. Her over exaggerated pride in the fact she has cervical cancer represents how she divulges in her illness to talk and be noticed. It also reflects how Americans see taboo subjects, when she delivers a chat show-style speech about her condition. Her forwardness in pressing the illness on him is almost frightening, as “she beamed at him” and “put her hand on her book bag with pride”. The moment where she tried to include him by saying “but you know more about that where you come from” shows a lot about human ignorance and stereotyping.
The whole chapter shows Arun’s resilience to be included in American culture and proves a major criticism towards how foreigners are accepted into its society. Arun embodies the stereotyped loner who is pushed out of the social circles and left “attend[ing] lectures where the lecturer never learnt his name, and find[ing] food in the cavernous cafeteria where no one tried to sit beside him.” Desai draws a lot of sympathy for the character, as it is easy to relate to him, but Arun’s constant withdrawal from others reflects how Indian culture holds a more conservative view. It shows both sides inability to accept the other, and the culture shock and fear that comes from moving countries.
In this extract, Desai cleverly reflects the gross polarities of Indian Poverty to the American “Plenty”. She, like in the other parts of the book, uses motifs, humor and diction to display how the Americans live.
At the start of the chapter, Arun is hit with a heated summer morning. “Summer is beating at them, out of a sky so blue that it threatens to spill and flood the green land. The horizon blurs, watery.” Not only does this atypical morning foreshadow what Arun will realize later on in the day but helps with the motif of tiredness and lost hope that appears throughout the book. “Arun wakes earlier and earlier till he hardly sleeps.” Fatigue is further seen with “The window is too bright, too impossible to darken or ignore.”
Next Desai displays the most important motif in the extract, the “American plenty”. Arun when returned from the library is confronted with Mrs. Patton, a typical American, sunbathing disgustingly and “wearing clothes so minimal”. Mrs. Patton having a sickening body in terms of appearance is still putting it up for display for everyone to see. This makes the reader disgusted. The simile “seems to be frying in the sun” emphasizes this as flesh being fried or cooked is very cannibalistic which connotate ideas of horror. The irony of Mrs. Patton sunbathing is further increased, “Her feet in sandals stretched out … she has painted her toes a startling crimson. Desai has used Mrs. Patton to show how some Americans take a lot of pleasure and not work.
Humor has also been utilized by the author to express the idea of the “American plenty”. “She might have been display in the Foodmart … Almost, one, feels, one might see a discount sign above it.” This suggests that she is not of value and is therefore useless. “Ahroon! She calls. Hi I’m sunbathing, Ahroon.” This increases the irony and humor as Mrs. Patton has stupidly pronounced Arun’s name wrong. “Wrinkles cut into the slack flesh of her bared belly, grey and soft as if cut into felt, Mrs. Patton, why?”, again the repulsion of Mrs. Patton’s body has been displayed but humor has been used to emphasize the idea as horror. Arun asking himself “why?” has portrayed stupidity of Mrs. Patton as she is doing something she should not do in a humorous way.
Arun that encounters another American Melanie, Mrs. Patton’s daughter is “rapidly spooning out” ice cream “the Chunky Monkey her mother bought.” Much irony is presented as ice cream is not a necessary food and is a type of pleasure. The name of the flavor makes it ridiculous and the fact that her mother bought it further intensifies the irony.
Desai also portrayed Melanie as being stupid and unable to speak words properly. “She’s Sunbathing! Melanie spits out suddenly” The choice of verb connotates barbarism and makes Mrs. Patton’s daughter seem more moronic.
Arun then realizes how this greatly contrasts his sister and the “Indian fasting”. Some people are able to sumptuously experience pleasure while others may not. “failing to express her outrage against neglect, against misunderstanding, against inattention to her unique and singular being and its hungers, merely spits and froths in ineffectual protest” means that all people are not equal. Her sister trying so hard to be the same as everyone else and experience the same as everyone fails because of reasons not her fault.
In conclusion, the entire negative that has been put on these two Americans lets the readers realize that the real world may not be fair. Some people work hard and are not rewarded.
This extract explores how Arun feels unsafe and alienated in America; Desai makes “Ahroon” very alienated by describing his experience at the swimming hole. His awareness of the beach’s clean-ness is drawn to the reader’s attention as he “wonders if it is clean”. This juxtaposes the fact that Arun finds that “water, an element that removes him from his normal self, and opens out another world of possibilities.” Readers are reminded of the fact that there may be times when all is back and dull, but if you just look and accept things, life will become brighter as it’s supposed to be.
Desai chose to expose this to the readers by setting this scene at a beach where many Americans go spend their time. By making Arun uncomfortable in this setting, Desai conveys that even though the American setting is very natural and very daily, Arun can still feel very ‘out-of-place. Arun also tends to have an emptiness kind of feeling when he has got nothing to do.
Back in India, he would have always been doing something, whether it be studying or reading his comics. But when he gets to America, he feels useless in a way that he himself thinks that he can’t do anything rather than there’s nothing to do. “What is he to do?” is the question raised. Considering that Arun is from India, where all about is action and activity, it is not strange that Arun would find himself very odd not doing anything while everyone is lazing around. Desai takes Arun along “up the sand, into the shade of the trees” so as to take him away from the Great America, to give him a break from all the hollowness.
Arun’s sense of futility is emphasized by him saying “‘Very nice’…miserably” This short sentence conveys the hopelessness and the doom that Arun imagines. “he puts out his arms like a man fleeing” This simile underlines the fact that Arun wants to escape from reality eg. America. Desai also suggests that even tough Arun has been in America for a year, he has difficulties adapting to the American “diet,” both literal and metaphorical, the food and the American culture; he still hasn’t yet gotten accustomed to the way Americans live their life, “he had not expected people at all”.
This give emphasis to the fact that he still imagines that America would be similar to India, in the sense that people in India are usually busy with their own life. But on the other hand, Mrs Patton feels secure in her homeland as “she stands on a boulder, striking a pose.” This shows how Mrs Patton still has her youthful side and that she’s the beauty of America, one of the people that keeps America together. Desai puts across to the audience that Melanie is suffering from bulimia, the emblematic disease of young women neglected emotionally; seemingly she is feasting on peanuts and candy bars, which, in reality, brings about starvation (fasting); “where she sat there is now a heap of candy papers, brown and gummy.”
When Arun “is on another path…it seems to head somewhere”, this short sentence suggests that Arun has found a sign of hope lingering. The use of the word “somewhere” seems to state that Arun doesn’t have anywhere to go; it’s as if he has to move cautiously because he meets objects about which he knows nothing about, as he makes his way around in an unknown area, where he has never been before and he can only find his way to the recognition of the unknown objects. “Arun backs away…startles him and quickly draws back…desperately” This short sentence indicates that since Arun doesn’t know how things were ran in America and so doesn’t know what to do and therefore starts to panic. His repetition of “shall I…shall I?” indicates how he would handle a situation in terms of a crisis. “Arun fears most to see” Mrs Patton’s “supine figure”. This shows how uncomfortable he is around nude women. While on the subject of women, Melanie “with a groan, she lifts herself onto her knees, thrusts her fingers down her throat and vomits again, copiously” This sentence creates an imagery of a teenage girl making herself sick just to be lean.
Desai uses the triple “mosquitoes, midges, gnats” to portray the nature of Great America; as the way she uses the triple “his hair, his eyes, his nostrils” to portray how vulnerable he is to the insects of nature of America. Arun’s vulnerable-ness also correlates to how insecure he is while in America. The listing of “a knot of small boys…a dog…a girl on a raft” signifies the type of people in America who goes to the beach – the large number of people surprises Arun who expected less people to be at the beach.
This is strengthen as they “all swarm at the other end” of the water that “sparkles innocently, spreading itself”. The word “swarm” implied the face that the people of America were like flies, going everywhere in a big bunch. And the personification of water makes it as if the water is inviting Arun in, into the waters of America. However, Arun eyes the water “with the greatest suspicion”; it shows how much Arun trusts America’s water. Which isn’t a lot. Additionally, the parallelism of the word “wonders” emphasizes the fact that Arun doesn’t really want to step into the water.
These few pages reinforce the fact of how Arun is very alienated in the world of America, “They are not the stuff of dreams” emphasizes the fact that we should all stop dreaming and start living in the real world.
Summer is compared to ‘a gilded ball that had been flung up, up into the sky – high, high – [that] now… comes plummeting down, down’. The repetition of ‘up, up’, ‘high, high’ and ‘down, down’ make this movement seem pendulum-like and never ending. Parallelism between up and down shows how although ‘it has reached its peak’, the American ideal summer vacation is completely superficial as it doesn’t last. The sun is now a boring and ‘barely audible sigh’, the surroundings ‘now shiver and turn grey, subdued’ and ‘everything [that was meant to be fun and amazing] is normal again’, without any change or dramatic twist.
After the superficial American ideal summer is brought to an end, the superficial back-to-school sales that serve absolutely no emotional or spiritual value, and everyday life that seems to be nothing but materialism, begins. Here the reader is given a sense of material America. Personification of ‘beer cans fly out of the car windows and clatter along dusty curbs’, which are seemingly worthless objects and are thrown our of car windows without a second thought, contrasted with listing in ‘shops… are preparing for huge sales of stationary, table lands, wastepaper baskets and posters’ that are ‘all the equipment needed to make their school year happy and profitable’ illustrate how materialistically centred and contradicting the American culture is.
The setting of the chapter contrasts Arun ‘withdraw[ing] quietly…leaving [Mrs Patton] sitting on the porch’ pondering, with the same shawl and tea package as the start of the book with MamaPapa ‘rhythmically swinging, back and forth’ also in a sloth-like state. This parallel framework of the book shows how although the characters have gone through journeys throughout the novel, none of them have actually achieved emotional or spiritual growth because they have not broken free of the bonds of the problem initially restraining them. This act of not breaking through social norms and the lethargy of both Arun and Mrs Patton, in this chapter, and MamaPapa, in the beginning, are really acts of emotional and spiritual fasting and the materialistic feasting.
Mrs Patton is dormant and oblivious to her surroundings. Arun finds her zoned out ‘quite still… holding an acupuncture chart on her lap but is staring over the top of it… at the yard which is empty… [that] looks fatigued, spent or faded’. Despite the fact Arun goes up to her very quietly, she is ‘bewildered’ to realize that he’s leaving and cluelessly says ‘leaving now?’ and ‘oh dear’. She isn’t living life in the present but pondering of other time and things, which could be interpreted as emotional and spiritual fasting.
. When Arun gives Mrs Patton the pack of tea, she bursts out of her lethargic state of gazing at catalogues of ‘numerology… gemology…karmic lessons’ initially to ask ‘is it herbal’, more interested in its material value and benefits than the fact that it’s a gift from him. We also get a sense that she has been fasting so long emotionally and spiritually. She has started to voice ‘a tentative interest in traditional medicines; she talks of taking a course at the Leisure Activities Centre in yoga or astrology’, trying to find some satisfaction, although once again quite pathetically materialism-wise, in other cultures, more exotic than her own, which she does to some degree.
‘She picks at a fold of it, and sniffs. Slowly her face spreads into a flush of wonder’ but because she only appreciates the tea packet because of the fact that it’s ‘of another land’ she is nevertheless still fasting emotionally, not having developed at all throughout the book. Also, Mrs Patton is compared to Mama in being a well-behaved and dutiful wife with cleaning Melanie’s room ‘herself, on her knees’. The action of getting down on her knees and doing manual labour in itself emphasizes how obedient and hardworking a housewife she is with carrying out ceremonies – much like the dinner ceremony (p. 23-24) where ‘the ceremony is over. She has performed it’.
Another character to note is Melanie. We learn that ‘she has been taken to an institution in the Berkshires where they know how to deal with the neuroses of adolescent girls: bulimia, anorexia, depression, withdrawal, compulsive behaviours, hysteria.’ The cold tone created by the medical and psychological terminology in the listing of ‘bulimia, anorexia, depression, withdrawal, compulsive behaviours, hysteria’ shows no love or care for her, or even an indication on how she is doing emotionally and spiritually. She has been taken to a place ‘where they know how to deal’ with her, not how to help her gain confidence and actually be happy with herself as she is.
We are told ‘she is playing tennis. She has helped bake cookies in the kitchen. She is making friends. She has gained weight. She can eat cereal, bread, butter, milk and boiled carrots without throwing up’. Yet the phrase ‘with so much improvement’, emphasizes the lack of care towards Melanie by giving a very sarcastic tone to the reader since to the institution and her parents, improvement is being ‘compliant and obedient’, not spiritually or emotionally stronger and happier. She might be keeping her food in and making new friends, all feasting – but materialistically, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she has overcome her bulimia and is happier now which is feasting emotionally and spiritually.
Also, in the midst of this paragraph of apparent care for Melanie in trying to help her get better, are two phrases in brackets ‘Mr Patton has taken on a night job to pay the bills’ and ‘Fortunately, Rod has won a football scholarship’. The punctuation of these phrases makes it seem that the family do not actually care about Melanie but rather the fact that Rod won a football scholarship, which is completely and pathetically only materialistic. Also this use of punctuation makes it seem that the other real issue is that Mr Patton has to work through the night to pay the bills, all of which have no spiritual or emotional significance that could ever equal that of a teenage girl trying to recover from an eating disorder.
To build on with Mr Patton; he is portrayed as blithering and pompous by ‘growl[ing]… What in God’s name is numerology? … What’s that? Hell, what’s this you’re getting into?’ The crass tone given off in the near sub-standard use of ‘Hell’ and ‘God’s name’ as swearing and repeated interrogatives emphasizes his complete lack of culture or respect for others, highlighting his own emotional and spiritual fasting.
Desai employs various literary techniques and communicates many different ideas. Yet despite this, the one over-riding idea is that materialistic feasting does not lead to emotional and spiritual feasting or growth, but rather the opposite. You cannot live a happy and fulfilled life solely concerned about material objects, you need to emotionally grow and to grow in this way means breaking the bonds of society and social norms that hold you back.