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A Reader's Guide

Fasting, Feasting Diamond Dust

"India's finest writer in English." — The Independent

"Desai has a remarkable eye . . . for the things that give life texture." — The New York Times

"Anita Desai is one of the most brilliant and subtle writers ever to have described the meeting of eastern and western culture." — Alison Lurie

Fasting, Feasting

A Booker Prize Finalist

"[Desai] has much to say in this graceful, supple novel ... " — Publishers Weekly

From an Indian summer's sun and dust to a New England summer's "white heat," Fasting, Feasting examines the intricate web of family conflict and security on two continents. Anita Desai's eleventh novel—her third to be shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize—is the moving story of Uma, the plain and awkward older daughter of an Indian family, and of her younger brother, Arun, attending college in Massachusetts. Their parents are so much of one mind that they are thought of as a single being—MamaPapa. With the favored son away at college and her younger sister married, Uma is little more than an unpaid servant to her tyrannical parents. Her search for beauty and freedom leads her to a convent school, her aunt's ashram, a sacred river, and her collection of Christmas cards.

Across the world, Arun is bewildered by American college life, especially by the ways of the Pattons, with whom he spends the summer. Mr. Patton's devotion to red meat, Mrs. Patton's commitment to a well-stocked kitchen, their son Rod's dedication to physical fitness, and daughter Melanie's bulimia confuse and frighten Arun and move him to reassess everything he has ever taken for granted.

Hailed in Britain as and as "rich in the sensuous atmosphere, elegiac pathos and bleak comedy at which the author excels" (The Spectator), Fasting, Feasting brilliantly confirms Anita Desai's place among today's foremost writers in English.

Diamond Dust: Stories

A Mariner Books Original

In these nine radiant new stories, Anita Desai continues her peerless exploration of the tensions between social obligation and personal independence, the complex dynamics of families, and the clash between the old and the new. Traveling from India to Canada and on to Mexico, she deftly captures our struggles against cultural and emotional constraints.

Desai's range is astonishing. In the title story, a civil servant's devotion to his mongrel dog leads to tragedy. In "Royalty," a long-married couple's plans are thwarted by the arrival an old friend, a guru who relies on others to house and feed him. In "Winterscape," an Indian man brings his mother and aunt to Canada for his first child's birth. After his wife's death, the owner of the small English seaside hotel in "Underground" spends his evenings feeding a family of badgers. "The Man Who Saw Himself Drown" is a businessman who must come to terms with death. Young Polly of "The Artist's Life" finds her illusions shattered by her parents' unkempt tenant. In "Tepoztlan Tomorrow," a U.S.-educated man returns to his native village to find its residents—and himself—much as they were when he left but caught up in some entirely new causes. And in "The Rooftop Dwellers," a young woman from a small provincial city struggles to make a career and a life of freedom for herself in Delhi.

These collected stories are a splendid addition to Anita Desai's distinguished career. And—together with Fasting, Feasting and Mariner Books' reissue of her classic novel, Baumgartner's Bombay—they mark a formidable addition to Houghton Mifflin's list of world-class authors.

About the Author

Anita Desai

Anita Desai was born Anita Mazumdar, in northern India's Mussoorie, in 1937. With a German mother and Bengali father, she and her sisters and brother grew up in Old Delhi, speaking German at home, Hindi with friends and neighbors, and English at school. Her formal education began at the Queen Mary's School and she went on to receive her B.A. from the University of Delhi.

Married in December 1958, Desai began writing during times salvaged from house, husband, and children. Her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963) introduced a theme that would remain a constant in her fiction—the suppression and oppression of Indian women. It was followed by Voices in the City (1965), Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1968), Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1973), and Fire on the Mountain (1977), the first of her novels to be published in the United States. The latter received both India's National Academy of Letters award (Sahitya Akademi) and the Royal Society of Literature's Winifred Holtby Prize. A collection of stories Games at Twilight (1978), followed and then a children's book, The Peacock Garden (1979). Clear Light of Day (1980) was the first of Desai's novels to be shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize, joined in 1984 by In Custody (also a Merchant Ivory film) and, in 1999, by Fasting, Feasting. Baumgartner's Bombay (1988), a Hadassah Prize winner, and Journey to Ithaca (1995) round out the list of her published novels. Desai's prizes extend to the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction 1993 for her book, The Village by the Sea (1982).

Desai resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a professor in MIT's Writing and Humanistic Studies Program; in Cambridge, England, where she has been a visiting fellow of Girton College and Clare Mall; in New Delhi; and in Tepoztlan, Mexico, the setting of her story, "Tepoztlan Tomorrow" and her next novel. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Questions For Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and, for every reader, provide a deeper understanding of Fasting, Feasting and Diamond Dust: Stories.

Fasting, Feasting

1. In what ways do the two terms of the title—"fasting" and "feasting"—apply to family life and society in general in India and the United States?

2. What kinds of freedom and what specific freedoms do the characters seek? In what ways is the "total freedom of anonymity" that Arun experiences in his university dormitory similar to the freedom that Uma seeks?

3. What is the significance of Uma's experiences at, on, and in the sacred river? What does Desai mean when she writes of Uma's near-drowning (in chapter nine), "The saving was what made her shudder and cry ..."? What mysteries and "golden promises" does Uma seek within the convent school, with Mira-masi, and in her Christmas-card collection?

4. In what ways does spirituality enter the novel? What characters have authentic spiritual leanings or capacities? Are Uma's seizures, for example, instances of spiritual possession or eruptions of suppressed frustration and rage?

5. What roles and expectations are open to women and men in the India and America of Fasting, Feasting? What do the details of Anamika's and Aruna's marriages reveal about women's lives in traditional India?

6. What rebellions and attempts at escape, successful or not, occur? How do they suggest the significance of Uma's vision of escape as "a huge and ancient banyan tree" and a river? (131)

7. Arun "ponders these omens and indicators" of life in Massachusetts—the objects that adorn the interiors and exteriors of the houses. What do these "omens and indicators" reveal to Arun and to us as his summer stay with the Potters proceeds?

8. What differences and similarities are there between the Indian and American families, between corresponding members of the two families (for example, Mama and Mrs. Potter), and between the their communities?

9. "I've always been aware of food as an obsession," Desai has said. What function does food play in the novel? How does food provide both "focus and continuity" in both societies?

10. What instances and images of imprisonment and entrapment occur in the novel's two parts? To what extent is entrapment of one kind or another envisioned as an inescapable fact of life?

11. What are the purposes of the various rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and routines—personal, social, and religious—that are observed in the novel's two parts? What are the consequences of ignoring tradition and custom and of disrupting established routine?

12. Arun takes up jogging, having recognized the American joggers' struggle "to free themselves and find, through endeavor most primitive, through strain and suffering, that open space, that unfettered vacuum where the undiscovered America still lies ..." Why does Arun partake of this American  struggle?

13. How does Desai establish Mama and Papa's identities as separate persons and, at the same time, as the single, and singular, MamandPapa? In what ways do "they have the comfort of each other," as Uma later realizes?

Diamond Dust: Stories

1. How does the title of each story reflect the story's main theme, action, or character?

2. What are the tensions in these stories between women and society and between women and their families? Whether alone in a large city or still within the confines of their family homes, what "defensive strategies" are women required to develop?

3. We are told that "there was about [Raja] an air of fragility, of some precious commodity" that Ravi and Sarla "had been called upon to cherish." Can you explain Raja's value as a "precious commodity" and the resulting willingness of Sarla, Ravi, and others to care for him, to tend to his every whim?

4. In "Winterscape,"Beth takes Asha and Anu shopping for winter clothing notices that "their white cotton kameezes hung out like rags of their past, sadly." What other indications are there in the stories of the clashes between past and present, and between different cultures?

5. In "Winterscape," Beth and Rakesh's house is "crowded with [Asha's and Anu's] hopes, expectations, confusion and disappointments." To what extent is this true of many of the characters in these stories—Polly, in "The Artist's Life, and Moyna, in "The Rooftop Dwellers," for example?

6. What everyday and more formal rituals and routines ("the rituals of baby care," in "Winterscape," for example) are portrayed? What are their purposes and importance to those who maintain them? What are the consequences of misunderstanding, ignoring, or departing from them?

7. In "Diamond Dust," Mr. Das's neighbors reflect, "Propriety, decorum, standards of behavior: these had to be maintained." Why is this so important, and, at the same time, why do some people believe that questioning or undermining established standards is more important?

8. In "The Artist's Life," Polly takes to the backyard tire-swing "to act out the contortions of the inarticulate mind." What are these contortions, as far as Polly is concerned, and how are they worked out in the course of her story?

9. To Louis, in "Tepoztlan Tomorrow," his aunt's house "was a larger cage." What roles do houses and other residences play in these stories?

10. As she entertains Tara and Adrian on "her terrace and at the end of "The Rooftop Dwellers," Moyna experiences a sense of freedom. In what ways can we say that Moyna is free?

11. In what circumstances do individuals relinquish established or expected roles to others, as Anu relinquishes her role as mother to Asha, in "Winterscape"? What are the outcomes of these role shifts?

12. In "The Artist's Life," the camp art instructor enjoins the campers to "paint your dreams." Do you think that Miss Mabel Dodd enjoins her students to do the same? What are the implications, and the possible outcomes, of using one's dreams as the impetus and content of artistic expression?

An India Timeline

1930 Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948) launches a civil disobedience campaign against British rule.

1935 Britain grants India a constitution providing for a bicameral federal congress.

1947 Britain partitions British India into the dominions of India and Pakistan. India becomes a self-governing member of British Commonwealth. Jawaharlal Nehru (head of the Congress Party) becomes independent India's first prime minister. More than 12 million Hindu and Moslem refugees cross the India-Pakistan borders; approximately 200,000 people are killed in communal fighting.

1948 Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated by a Hindu extremist.

1950 India becomes a democratic republic, with a new constitution.

1952 The first general elections result in the Congress party retaining power and Nehru continuing as prime minister.

1959 The Dalai Lama flees from Tibet into India.

1962 India goes to war with China.

1964 Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru dies.

1965 War with Pakistan ends with a ceasefire.

1966 Mrs. Indira Gandhi (daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru) becomes prime minister.

1969 Mrs. Gandhi is expelled from the Congress Party for indiscipline.

1971 Pakistani troops attack Bengali separatists in East Pakistan and approximately 10 million refugees flee into India. War between India and Pakistan. East Pakistan becomes the independent nation of Bangladesh.

1974 India becomes a nuclear power.

1975 Mrs. Gandhi is found guilty of "electoral malpractice" and invokes emergency provisions of the constitution.

1976 India resumes full diplomatic relations with Pakistan.

1977 The sixth general elections end the Emergency. Anti-Gandhi opposition parties turn Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party out of power for the first time since independence. Morarji Desai becomes the first non-Congress prime minister.

1980 Mrs. Gandhi becomes prime minister a second time.

1984 Mrs. Gandhi is assassinated. Her son, Rajiv, replaces her as prime minister. A Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal kills more than 2,200.

1989 Rajiv Gandhi is swept from office in ninth general elections.

1991 Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated. The tenth general elections return the Congress Party to power.


(H = Hindi; M = Mexican Spanish; S = Sanskrit; U = Urdu)

ayah (H) a children's or lady's maid

badmash (U) rogue; scoundrel

badmashi (U) scandalous, mischievous behavior

banyan a tropical fig tree, native to India, that grows new trunks from aerial roots over an increasingly large area

basura (M) garbage; rubbish

betel nut the fruit of the betel palm, chewed with lime and betel-pepper leaves in southeast Asia as a mild stimulant

bolsa (M) bag

bomba de gaz (M) propane tank

chaiwallah (H) seller of tea to travelers

charpai (U) a lightweight bedstead or cot. English: charpoy

chunni (H) white (the color of mourning) article of clothing draped over shoulders and head by women

dhal (H) a tropical shrub (a pulse) cultivated for its pealike seed-pods; also refers to a dish of cooked lentils, beans, peas, and similar leguminous plants

dhoti (H) a long loincloth worn by Hindu men; most familiar in the West as being worn by Mahatma Gandhi

faisla (U) settlement

helados (M) ice cream; ice-cream cones

jacaranda a tropical tree bearing large clusters of lavender flowers

Jumna a river in northern India, flowing southwest from the Himalayas into the Ganges

koel a large cuckoo

Krishna the most important avatar of Vishnu (second god of the Hindu trinity), a demon slayer, flute player, and lover

maidan (U) an open space in or a near a town, used for public walking and recreation, parades, and sports events

mali (H) gardener

masi (H) aunt

mynah (H) a large tropical starling of India and southeastern Asia

oleander a poisonous warm-climate shrub bearing fragrant white, pink, or red flowers

"Om swa-ha!" (S) Sanskrit chant at Hindu religious ceremonies

pai dog (H) stray dog

paisa (H) a small-denomination coin, equal to 1/100 of a rupee in India

pipal tree (H) a fig tree of India, also called "bo" tree, sacred to Buddhists; traditionally regarded as the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment

plumbago a plant of the genus Plumbago, bearing clusters of variously colored flowers. English: leadwort

puri (H) a light, flat wheat cake, usually fried in deep fat

Quièro es? (M) Who's there?

Ramayana an ancient Sanskrit epic poem relating the adventures of Ramachandra, an incarnation of Vishnu; regarded by Hindus as sacred

sahib (H) a title of respect, similar to English "Mister," "Sir," or "Master"

salwars (U) loose trousers tied with drawstrings

samosa a small pastry turnover filled with a spicy meat or vegetable mixture

sardar-ji (H) a Sikh, the added "-ji" a term of respect

sari (H) the principal outer garment, formal or casual, of a Hindu woman, consisting of a long piece of cloth wrapped around the body and draped over one shoulder and, sometimes, over the head

Shiva the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, a member of the supreme Hindu trinity (along with Brahma and Vishnu)

slokas (S) Sanskrit verses

sri (S) Mr. or Sir

sucio (M) dirty

tonga (H) a two-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage

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