When Tim Parks reviewed Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, in the New York Review of Books he grumbled ‘that the sheer quantity of events that crowd these 575 pages is such as to overwhelm any depiction of inner life or any mind’s attempt to grasp the half of them’. By the end of his piece he is thoroughly exasperated: ‘By making the double gesture of appearing clear-sighted and then filling his pages with supernatural incident and metaphysical muddle that could mean anything or nothing, Rushdie, and many like him [my italics], play to those who, while understandably unwilling to subscribe to any belief so well defined as to be easily knocked down, nevertheless yearn to have all the mystical balls kept perpetually spinning in the air before them. Closet New Agers will be thrilled. The potential readership is huge.’ So boo squish to Vikram Chandra too, and a reprimand even for Vikram Seth, who doesn’t go in for mystical mythography, it is true, but might be accused of narrative plethora; he certainly fits in with the idea of fiction held by Rushdie’s naive hero: ‘I always thought story-telling was like juggling ... You keep a lot of different ideas in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you’re good you don’t drop any.’
Well, anyone who agrees with Parks should be happy with Anita Desai. Her plots are minimal, her characters few, her voice low, her style and structure traditional, and, best of all, she is a sensitive analyst of what Parks calls ‘the inner life’; and funny, besides. But she does have one thing in common with the mythomaniac school of Indian writing. The Indian writers we read are almost all explainers. English or American-educated, they write in English. So whether they want it or not, they have a mission to explain their world to us, and, deliberately or not, that is what they do. They are guides.
Desai’s last novel but one was the melancholy biography of a German Jew who escapes to India in the Thirties, is interned there as an enemy alien for the length of the war, and lives out the rest of his life, poor and lonely, in a Bombay slum. His only friend is a feisty German who was once in cabaret in Shanghai – the kind of woman who might have been sung by Lotte Lenya or played by Marlene Dietrich in her Touch of Evil days. The title, Baumgartner’s Bombay, is a rueful allusion to Baedekers – Baedeker’s Italy, Baedeker’s France. In a sense, all Desai’s novels are Baedekers. With Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, she is the best of guides to what it’s like to be Indian, and maybe that is because she is half-German – Prawer Jhabvala is Indian only by marriage, and Polish by birth. It is usually foreigners who write guidebooks, and their access to the multitudes, of whatever nation, tends to be limited – as it would be, one imagines, for an Indian woman of Desai’s sophisticated cosmopolitan background. So she writes about educated India. She tells you what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like, what the traffic is like, and what people do in the evenings (they play bridge). She re-creates the social structure, and sometimes illumines a stretch of recent history: Partition, for instance, in Clear light of Day (1980); the battle to keep Urdu going as the language of poetry in In Custody (1984); or, in Journey to Ithaca (1995), the hippie invasion and the Western misapprehension of Indian mysticism (which is also covered in Prawer’s agonising and wildly funny How I Became a Holy Mother). Most of all, Desai makes you understand and feel what it is like to be part of India’s middle class; especially an unsuccessful part. Her heroes (not the best name for them) tend to be losers: Baumgartner; In Custody’s failed schoolmaster-poet Deven in his dismal suburb ‘of low-paid employees’; and Arun in her new novel.
Women are born to be losers anyway; though it could be said that Desai’s portrait of Indian womanhood, all restriction and frustration, is beginning to go out of date for the middle classes. But then it also has to be said that the anguish of spinsterhood made very good material for novels in the 19th century: so why not exploit the theme as long as there is still some life left in it? Its particular pathos suits Desai’s particular manner particularly well: submission, loss, resignation – those are the melancholy themes she does so well, the mournful rhythm of her prose occasionally (quite often, really) broken by an ironic jolt.
Fasting, Feasting is a reduced variation on the elegiac Clear Light of Day, in which two sisters (not three, though their situation and state of mind invite a comparison with Chekhov) look back from the present to the time when it was still the future and they were waiting for it to come. There are two parts to Fasting, Feasting. The first centres on Uma, the eldest daughter of an ambitious, conventional and conventionally ambitious lawyer and his equally conventional wife. The parents are known as PapaMama, because they always agree, especially in disagreeing with almost everything their children may do or want to do. They are ‘enemies of abandon’, and regard even the convent school to which they reluctantly send their daughters as a sink of modernity. Uma adores school, though she is a dismal failure there, being plain, shortsighted, clumsy, and not very bright. She is 17 and her sister Aruna 12 when their mother becomes pregnant again: a terrible embarrassment at her time of life, until it turns into a triumph – the late child is a son!
Uma is immediately removed from school to help the ayah look after little Arun: what’s the point of school, say PapaMama, when she fails all her exams; and anyway, it’s time she was married. As ‘a sign of the family’s progressiveness’ (an explanation that wouldn’t be required for Indian readers), Uma is allowed to see photographs of possible suitors. Terrible humiliations follow: the first suitable boy comes to visit and prefers pretty 12-year-old Aruna; the second goes through with an engagement, but breaks it off and his father refuses to return the dowry. At the third attempt Uma is married and packed off to live with her in-laws in a strange town. They treat her like a servant, and she never sees her husband again after the wedding. He is on business in Meerut, his parents say; but it turns out that that is where he lives with his wife and children: Uma has married a bigamist. She returns home with another dowry lost and in permanent disgrace. So she becomes the family housekeeper, exploited and criticised, though efficient enough.
Aruna, on the other hand, is clever and pretty, and has no problem finding a husband. His main attraction is that his family lives in Bombay, a shopper’s paradise. So Aruna is happy, shops till she drops and goes to lots of parties; when she comes to visit her family, Uma has to look after her babies while she goes out with her friends. There is a poignant moment when Uma glimpses a possibility of escape. Dr Dutt, the daughter of a former Chief Justice, arrives on her bicycle. She runs a department at the hospital, and has come to ask Uma to help out in a crisis: the newly established Institute of Nursing needs a domestic supervisor to run it for the 22 trainees who have already moved in. Would Uma do it? ‘Papa was quite capable of putting on a progressive, Westernised front when called upon to do so – in public, in society, not within his family of course – and now he showed his liberal educated ways by rising to his feet when Dr Dutt dismounted from her bicycle.’
But that’s as far as his liberalism goes. Of course PapaMama refuse to allow their daughter to go out to work. So the prison gates close, and the closing coincides with the suicide – a traditional Indian suicide with kerosene and matches – of Uma’s beautiful, talented cousin Anamika after twenty years in an unhappy arranged marriage, for which her parents forced her to renounce the Oxford scholarship she had been offered. At this point perhaps, the sad lot of unemancipated Indian women is rather too heavily underlined by coincidence: Part One of the novel ends with Uma among the mourners watching Anamika’s ashes being scattered in the sacred river. After that, Uma disappears from the story as completely as her cousin.
Part Two is less than half the length of Part One. It is a Baedeker’s United States for Indians. Compared to the subtle, atmospheric, perceptive first part, it is crude: a familiar caricature of small-town America. The central figure is young Arun. He is not autistic like the brother in Clear Light of Day, but almost as uncommunicative and withdrawn. His life is ‘a deep well of greyness’, a never-ending academic grind from his earliest childhood on. Ambitious Papa has him coached daily after school: his own parents were so poor, he likes to remind his son, that he had to do his homework under a street lamp.
Arun duly wins a place at an East Coast college in the US. He doesn’t mix with the other students or talk to his equally taciturn room-mate. When the vacation comes, he goes to lodge with a family nearby. This is where the caricature begins. The Pattons are a cartoon family. The son is a loutish health freak, his only interests being fitness, games, exercise and jogging. The daughter is bulimic: she stuffs herself with peanuts and chocolate, then vomits it all up. Occasionally she emits an obscenity, but otherwise refuses to speak. The mother is a shopaholic, not for jewellery, like Aruna, but for food. She takes a shine to Arun and makes him accompany her on her daily expeditions to the overpowering supermarket where she stocks up the overflowing freezer. There are no family meals of the kind that cheer (or torment) Indians: insofar as the Pattons eat at all, they help themselves to snacks from the fridge. There is plenty of tension just the same – ‘on the other side of the world, Arun is caught up again in the sugar-sticky web of family conflict.’ When the hot weather comes, Mrs Patton gives herself up to sunbathing, and toys with yoga, astrology, numerology, gemmology, Karmic lessons. Arun is relieved when the vacation draws to its end, and one sympathises: the send-up of America is perfunctory, déjà vu, and weary.
Fasting, Feasting is described on its cover as ‘a dazzling Novel of Conflicting Cultures’; it has no new light to shed on this well-documented subject, though. Uma would be better off if she had her touching and fastidiously written novella to herself, and Arun were consigned to the sacred river.