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|Publisher||Chatto and Windus|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||228 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||0-618-06582-2 (first edition, hardback)|
Anita Desai's novel of intricate family relations plays out in two countries, India and the United States. The core characters comprise a family living in a small town in India, where provincial customs and attitudes dictate the future of all children: girls are to be married off and boys are to become as educated as possible. The story focuses on the life of the unmarried and main character, Uma, a spinster, the family's older daughter, with Arun, the boy and baby of the family. Uma spends her life in subservience to her older demanding parents, while massive effort and energy is expended to ensure Arun's education and placement in a university in Massachusetts. Aruna gets married. In part two we are introduced to Arun in America.Therefore, we can compare and contrast between the Indian and the American culture.
Rather a series of events from a life than a complexly plotted work. We follow the fortunes of Uma and Arun as they engage with family and strangers and the intricacy of day to day living.
The novel is in two parts. The first part is set in India and is focused on the life of Uma who is the overworked daughter of Mama and Papa. She is put upon by them at every turn, preparing food, running errands. In the early part of the novel we see her struggling at school. She is not very bright but loves the sisters who teach and appreciate her. Finally she is made to leave school and serve her parents.
We meet many interesting characters through her; Ramu-Bhai a travelling bon viveur who tries to show Uma a good time. He is banished by her parents.
Another character is the religious Mira Masi who tells Uma all the tales of Krishna and takes her to the ashram allowing her to escape her mother's domination for a time.
Uma's parents attempt to marry her off on three occasions; on the first occasion the chosen man fell for Uma's younger sister, Aruna. On the second her parents accept her marriage on behalf of her before finding out later that their dowry has been spent and the engagement is cancelled. On the third occasion a marriage took place but it turns out the Uma's new husband already has a wife. She lives with his sisters while he lives in another town spending her dowry on his ailing business. Uma's father quickly spirits her home.
We are also told of the episode of Anamika's (Uma's cousin) sad fate. She has won a scholarship to Oxford but her parents insist that she get married. She does and fails to please her husband by providing him with children. He keeps her for a time as a servant but eventually she dies by burning. It is strongly hinted that her in-laws killed her. The final scene of Part 1 is the immersion of Anamika's ashes in the sacred river.
We are left with great sympathy for Uma and her simple kindness as she survives as best she can in a not altogether friendly world.
In Part 2 we meet Arun, Uma's privileged brother. He is attending college in America and during summer holidays he lives with the Pattons an all American family. Again, plot is not complex or intricate. The events are told in a serial manner as Arun encounters them.
Of note is his intense dislike of American food and cooking methods. He is dismayed at the behaviour of Melanie, the daughter who is deeply troubled and suffering from bulimia. Although Mrs Patton seems to care about Melanie, she does little to help.
While apparently close, the family are actually distant from one another, something very different from Arun's experience of family life in India. Arun spends most of his time alone and isolated. Arun tries his best to escape from the western society but in vain.
There are many unheralded transitions from scene to scene and flashback (15–63) is used to excellent effect. Threads of the story are left unfinished only to be taken up again later in the novel and given a deeper significance.
General Vision or Viewpoint
Think well about this question from a couple of standpoints. It might be easy to dismiss Uma's world as oppressive to women and to the servant underclass and to decide that life could not be a fulfilled experience in such circumstances. You might think that Uma's life is a tragic injustice; that she is used and misused by a patriarchal family and society. You might see Arun as a narrow-minded, judgemental outsider unable to adjust to a culture different from his own and whose life is quite unfulfilled. But this might be to miss the humour and love that is invested in daily living. In India people have a warmth and a variety to their lives that is enviable
Two cultures are explored in this text, the Indian and the American. In both cultures males are portrayed as dominant with Arun being given tutors(17) while Uma is taken out of school. (18). Indian society is portrayed as patriarchal. See (24/5) as the women watch Papa eating fruit! Note Papa's attitude to women working (143) "His frown...for women who dared to step into the world he occupied." In America things are much the same. Mr. Patton rules the house while Mrs Patton stays sane by visiting the shopping mall (see Chap. 19). Ironically, Mama appear to have more freedom than Mrs Patton (30) "those games of rummy, those secret betel leaves.."
Subjects and issues
Suffering Human suffering is depicted frequently in both parts of the novel. Uma is made to suffer by her parents and men who take advantage of her. The unusual thing about her is her response to this suffering. She seems to maintain optimism throughout her ordeals. Anamika's terrible life and the abuse she suffers may illuminate your discussion of suffering as would the plight of Melanie who suffers mental illness and bulimia and is a sad example of American youth.
Loneliness The plight of Arun in America will yield many examples of loneliness as will Uma herself who despite her large extended family keeping her busy seems quite isolated.
Loyalty/Betrayal You might advance the notion that Uma and Anamika are betrayed by their parents in that they treat them very badly when it comes to marriage and relationships. Both girls are seen as burdens to be disposed of and you could say they were betrayed. Similarly, Melanie's plight is so ignored by her mother that the word betrayal might not be too strong.