Set in a small town in India in the initial part of the book, and contrasted later on with the ‘ideal’ American life entrenched in college education and an adoptive family in a suburb in Massachussettes, Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting makes tangible the lines and boundaries which separate eastern and western cultures, not only in terms of societal norms, customs and traditions; but also, quite specifically, in the all encompassing but seemingly mundane instance of food. Central to mankind’s most fundamental needs, food plays an inescapable part in the extent of one individual’s existence, or just in the space or course of a day. But despite the seeming routineness and mundanity of the instance of food and its consumption, people have different ways of treating, preparing, consuming, and relating to it. This relationship with food is explored in the aptly titled Fasting, Feasting. The plot largely revolves on the daughter and son of a strict and conventional Indian family. The novel begins with the daughter, Uma, overworked by the seeming singular entity that is her parents, who are referred to as either “MamandPapa” “PapaMama” or “MamaPapa.” Uma runs around the house attending to domestic duties and routines of similar concern because of the conventional roles assigned to her gender; and as a matter of necessary practice and training, in order to find her a suitable husband to marry and domestic family life to settle into.
Needless to say, cooking, or the choice of food of which to prepare or partake of, falls into the said domestic duties assigned to the conventional household woman; and to Uma. This is made evident in the first chapter of the book when Uma is called out by her ‘MamaPapa’ to tell the cook that tea and fritters won’t do, and that they intend to have sweets as well, while lounging in the veranda. Uma comes to the door to respond to a newer set of instructions, she takes it in and works out which of the seemingly inane domestic tasks to finish first, the sweets, tea and fritters, the parcel she was currently packing to send to her brother, or the letter she was supposed to write down, as dictated by her mother; ‘MamaPapa’ wanted everything to come first. The fact that Uma’s family has a cook, or that a picture of a seeming regular domestic day in India involves a slow and lazy afternoon drinking tea, eating fritters, and asking for sweets when impulse dictates it puts eating in the category of leisure, but not in a crude and repulsive point of view.
Meanwhile, Uma’s brother, Arun, living with an adoptive family, the Pattons, in the suburbs of America faces the reality of food as viewed in a different country. Of the reality of eating disorders and bulimia evident in the Pattons’ daughter, of raw cabbage leaves and tomatoes constituting an apparent vegetarian diet, and of processed meat by the bulk stashed in the freezer. Arun, who is a vegetarian himself, finds the instance by which food in America is treated, served and related to as less likable and endearing than that of the Indian food he has grown up with, and grown accustomed to. Food comprised of myriad spices and flavors, cooked and prepared with an adequate amount of time and attention that didn’t limit itself to store brought food processed and packaged into packets and boxes, or disguising as ‘healthy’ and ‘organic’ but on an alternate term, can best be referred to as ‘raw’ and ‘inedible.’
The concept of bulimia or any eating disorder probably strikes Arun as an unfortunate, or perhaps, utterly foreign concept, because food, in all its gloriousness, in all its tastes, flavors and variety should be enjoyed, and not be regarded as anything otherwise, and Mrs. Patton isn’t helping her daughter overcome her eating disording by resorting to ‘cooking’ the type of food that she does. The alleged ease brought into developed countries and nations like ours as opposed to developing ones like India fail to manifest itself in the prospect of food and its consumption in the extent of our daily routine. The following lines from chapter twenty-three pronounces and touches on this concern:
“Mrs. Patton no longer cooks dinner for Arun. She does not set out to fetch food for her family either… Mr. Patton goes indoors, gets himself a can of beer from the refrigerator, and slumps onto the sofa in front of the television. There is a kind of desolation in the kitchen now… past darkened yards where the smoke spiralling up from all the barbecue fires smells of charred flesh, of food that is spoiled (Desai).”
The contrast between American and Indian food, although not explicitly stated, is made implicitly obvious. Being an apparently advanced and developed nation, Americans do not need, and do not spend time in the preparation of food is going to be as quickly consumed, or not consumed anyway; food may seem like something people indulge in daily, but the aspect of ‘indulging’ appears to take a different form when everything is instant and automatic, from beer bottles to microwavable TV dinners, and so on. The preciousness of drinking and eating food that people have taken the time and effort in preparing minutes before its consumption appears non-existent, or something which exists in expensive restaurants, and elsewhere outside the regular American home. Whereas in India, for instance, the seeming ‘developing’ nation, where life is on a much slower pace, the appreciation and indulging in food is less fleeting and thereby, much appreciated.
The same relationship between people and the seeming triviality of food is a concept touched in Jon Katz’ Geeks. Although the title of the book appears not to relate to the said subject matter, and doesn’t connote the same visceral sentiment as Desai’s, Katz novel centering on the lives of two teenage hackers displaced in a Mormon town in Idaho, offers a glimpse into the same state of contemporary America’s relationship with food in the extent of the everyday embodied in the the unlikely heroes or ‘geeks’ that is Jesse Dailey and Eric Twilegar, and as evident in the following text taken from the book:
“Before settling in at his own rig, Eric grabbed a swig of milk from a carton in the refrigerator, taking a good whiff first. Meals usually consisted of a daily fast-food stop at lunchtime; everything else was more or less on the fly. There didn’t seem to be any edible food in the refrigerator, apart from a slightly discolored hunk of cheddar cheese (Katz).”
The reality pronounced in the aforementioned text is entrenched in familiarity, because almost everybody in contemporary middle America has had the same stale milk, or take-out, or mouldy cheddar cheese begging to be thrown out of their refrigerators at one point or another. Jesse and Eric’s forays into Chinese and Mexican restaurants, by no means appear foreign to the rest of us as well. A slice of another country’s culture and food is only a take-out or phone call away, made available in copious versions, sometimes cheap, sometimes not, sometimes referred to as ‘good,’ sometimes passable. But ultimately, our regard for food is viewed as something instant, efficient, automatic, and as easily dispensible. A fortunate or unfortunate reality in America that isn’t shared by other countries as touched and made evident in Anita Desai and Jon Katz’ respective novels.
Desai, Anita. (2000) Fasting, Feasting. Houghton Mifflin Books.
Katz, Jon. (2000) Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho. Villard.