Fasting Feasting by Anita Desai Detailed Study Notes

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An Inner World                                                                

pp38-43 and pp137-140

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.

Fasting, Feasting                                                          

Pg 50- 53 ‘The Disgrace’

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.

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Fasting, Feasting Extract Close Analysis                                        

Chapter Six
Pages 66 – 72

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 ...

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