By Anita Desai

Mariner Books. 240 pp. $13 paperback

Uma, oldest daughter of an obscure provincial Indian family, has gotten stuck with the short end of life's stick. Her parents pass long, inconsequential days huddling together on the veranda, thinking up things for her to do. Uma has to keep the boys of the neighborhood away from the family's mango tree, or tell the cook to make additional sweets to go with the fritters at afternoon tea, or accompany her impatient father on his occasional constitutional through the local park. Her life is made up of doing nothing -- and everything. She's the one in the family whose plan didn't work out; she's the one left to do the scut work in a life full of scut. She's getting a little old now; her shoulders hunch, her hair is turning gray.

Uma should have married, since the life of any woman in India (and, God knows, in a lot of other places) depends on marriage. But Uma is uncoordinated, ungainly, uncouth. Her voice is too loud, she's prone to wild enthusiasms, she spills cold drinks, she steps off safe sandbars into deep water. After a couple of engagements and almost-marriage misadventures, her life -- such as it is -- has been settled. She will be an overlooked, pitied old maid, her existence reduced to servitude.

But Anita Desai is so much smarter than anything having to do with this initial premise. "Fasting, Feasting" is extremely short and constructed with such beautifully simple prose that it really is like wading into a "harmless" river that looks shallow and simple, and sinking, before you know it, in over your head. Through a series of repetitive reflecting images, through the description of just one "ordinary" family -- and then another one -- Desai examines the deepest nature of life, and leaves the reader blinking, thinking hard, perhaps in tears.

Uma's parents: What could their life be like? The author shows us in a mere two-thirds of a page: Papa sits, part martinet and part little bird, as his wife peels an orange, removes all the pith and seeds, and carefully hand-feeds him each morsel. And their other children? Uma's sister, Aruna, was the pampered favorite until their little brother, Arun, was born; from that day, the middle sister, in the grip of exasperated rage that comes from the removal of all attention and love, embarks on a lifelong temper tantrum. (Of that youngest son, more later.)

There's an aunt and some cousins out there; the aunt, widowed now, enjoys comparative freedom as a religious pilgrim. She tells her niece that she (Uma) has been "chosen by God," but her parents won't release her that easily. And Uma has a couple of cousins on the other side; the young man, Ramu, is clubfooted and drunken, the scandal of the family, while "good fortune" smiles on his sister, Anamika, who is beautiful and smart and kind. Anamika earns a scholarship to Oxford, which, of course, she's not allowed to use, but she marries well, fulfilling her family's dreams.

Except that Anamika is beaten, and worse. Her family will never see her again. To be a woman and do badly in Indian society, as Uma does, is bad. To be a woman and do "well," the author suggests, might be even worse.

But this is not, in any sense, a feminist novel. Anita Desai is so smart! If one part of a community suffers, she insists, everybody suffers, and with that she gives us Arun, Uma and Aruna's pampered brother, skinny, asthmatic, distressed and depressed. While the girls' educations are neglected, Arun must study from dawn to dusk. While the girls never get quite enough to eat, Arun is crammed with goodies (and cod-liver oil), so that he's always faintly sick. He's showered with so much loving attention that his one wish is to live entirely alone, where no one will know him and he must accede to no one's demands.

While Uma pines, futilely, for a chance to be "elsewhere, elsewhere. Elsewhere," Arun is sent off to the University of Massachusetts, where he finds himself spending his first summer as a guest of a decent enough, "average" American family. Arun has expected and hoped to be anonymous and un-put-upon, but he's plunged immediately into much the same set of troubles that has plagued his own family. While his Indian mother has spent much of her time -- and everybody else's -- painstakingly peeling oranges for her inert, cantankerous spouse, this American mother spends her days in supermarkets buying enough food for a small army, but no one in her family wants to eat it.

The American father and son here, though benign enough, have ingested so much meat and processed glop over the years that they've turned into subliterate, huffing, jogging giants. They live on barbecue, takeout tacos and pizza; they separate themselves as much as they can from their women and from the persnickety, vegetarian Arun. The mother, bereft of any real ideas, dabbles in herbology, numerology, gemology. She's not beaten, not killed, but it can certainly be argued that she's dead inside. And the sister in this American household is bulimic, force-fed and neglected at the same time, starving for something she can't even begin to name, living in life but absolutely unable to feel anything but heartbreak. She spins in pointless rage, much like Aruna, Arun's own furious sister at home.

Beyond these particular familial tortures the two countries still loom, inscrutable but somehow available to give solace: America, still in many ways an untracked wilderness; India, described at the last here in four perfect adjectives that tear at the reader's heart. Desai is more than smart; she's an undeniable genius.

Upcoming in Book World

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LIQUID CITY, by Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair. A tour, in words and pictures, of the raffish side of London. Reviewed by Michele Slung.

MY LESBIAN HUSBAND: Landscapes of a Marriage, by Barrie Jean Borich. Reviewed by Norah Vincent.

THE LAST MADAM: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, by Christine Wiltz. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

THE IRON WALL: Israel and the Arab World, by Avi Shlaim. Reviewed by Milton Viorst.

SO I AM GLAD, by A.L. Kennedy. In this surreal novel, a contemporary Scottish woman falls in love with Cyrano de Bergerac. Reviewed by Carolyn See.