Fasting, Feasting

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Mama Character Analysis

Mama is the wife of Papa and the mother of Uma, Aruna, and Arun. Throughout the novel, her first name is never revealed—rather, she is just called Mama, defined by her roles as wife and mother. Mama is the picture of a proud, submissive wife, seldom expressing an opinion different than her husband's. She pursues her own interests only on the sly, making it her mission in life to cater to her husband's needs and to work with him in controlling the destinies of their three children. Uma can recall few instances of Mama's separateness from Papa. The most noteworthy example is her failed plea to her husband that he let her terminate her late-in-life pregnancy with Arun, which is both painful and dangerous to her health. Later, when Uma is older and complains of pain in her eyes, Mama pleads with Papa to allow Uma to visit a specialist for her eyes. On occasion, Mama shows some comradery with Uma, such as when her niece Anamika dies and Mama draws close to her daughter, realizing perhaps for the first time how lucky she is to have Uma.

Mama Quotes in Fasting, Feasting

The Fasting, Feasting quotes below are all either spoken by Mama or refer to Mama. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin edition of Fasting, Feasting published in 2000.
Chapter 1 Quotes

MamaandPapa. MamaPapa. PapaMama. It was hard to believe they had ever been separate existences, that they had been separate entities and not MamaPapa in one breath.

Related Characters: Mama, Papa
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the protagonist of the novel, Uma, thinks about her parents, Mama and Papa. Uma is an adult at this point, but she thinks of her parents as one collective being, not two individuals. Uma struggles to remember if there was ever a time when she thought of her parents as separate people.

The passage, which sets in motion the flashbacks that constitute the bulk of the first half of the book, also establishes some of the book's key themes: including the importance of family, and the potential collectivism of identity within family and tradition. Growing up in a strict Indian household, Uma is treated severely--her parents have strong expectations for her, and they think of themselves as filling a specific role (i.e., raising their children and making sure they find spouses). Mama and Papa are one character, then, insofar as they fulfill the same basic role (of Mama going along with everything Papa decides), which revolves around supervising their children. 

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One could be forgiven for thinking Papa’s chosen role was scowling, Mama’s scolding. Since every adult had to have a role, and these were their parents’, the children did not question their choices. At least, not during their childhoods.

Related Characters: Mama, Papa
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator offers a trivial distinction between Mama and Papa: Mama scolds, Papa scowls. The point of making such a distinction, of course, is to remind readers that there really is no difference between Mama and Papa: they're two sides of the same coin, united in their loyalty to their children and, at times, their harsh rejection of their children's feelings and dreams.

The passage is also significant insofar as it alludes to the flashback structure of the book. Uma is now an adult, but she's beginning to think about her parents more critically than she ever has before. It's worth asking why Uma hasn't pondered her parents' lives in more detail before--i.e., why the novel is beginning now. Perhaps the narrator's point is that Uma has always felt both tyrannized by and inextricably tied to her family; it's only now that she's an adult that she feels more objective distanced from them and free to think about whatever she wants.

Chapter 2 Quotes

No doors were ever shut in that household: closed doors meant secrets, nasty secrets, impermissible. It meant authority would come stalking in and make a search to seize upon the nastiness, the unclean blot.

Related Characters: Mama, Papa
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator here depicts the household in which Uma was raised. Uma was raised by her parents to be totally honest and transparent; she could never have secrets of any kind. While Mama and Papa raised their children this way, presumably, because they thought it would help their children be virtuous and honest, their child-rearing methods had some unexpected effects. Mama and Papa make their daughter Uma weak and fragile: Uma was so "policed" in her home (to the point where she couldn't even keep a door closed) that she couldn't even think freely.

This kind of "honesty" regarding Uma and her siblings is then contrasted, in this scene, with the sudden secrecy regarding Mama's new pregnancy. The pregnancy is not discussed because by its very nature it is a reminder of female sexuality, something seen as shameful. For Mama, any kind of sexuality and independence is the "unclean blot" that must be kept behind closed doors.

Mama was frantic to have it terminated. She had never been more ill (…) but Papa set his jaws. They had two daughters, yes, quite grown-up as anyone could see, but there was no son. Would any man give up the chance of a son?

Related Characters: Mama, Papa
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage describes one of the few times in Uma's life when she witnessed her parents disagreeing about anything. Uma's mother was pregnant with a child, and Papa wondered if the child might be a boy. Because Papa wanted a boy (a badge of honor in India, far more than having a girl), he insisted that Mama go through with the pregnancy, even though Mama didn't want to go through the pain of birth one more time (especially now that she's older), or raise a third child.

The passage offers an interesting twist of the theme we've been studying so far: while it's true that Mama and Papa seem to be the same person, united in their "policing" of their children, it's also true that Papa exercises comparable authority over Mama: even though it's her body, Papa makes the final call to have the child (and the child ends up being a boy). The authority and unity between Mama and Papa, it's suggested, is a kind of illusion--or it's only a reality because Mama has surrendered her own agency to her husband.

Chapter 3 Quotes

More than ever now, she was Papa’s helpmeet, his consort. He had not only made her his wife, he had made her the mother of his son (…) Was this love? Uma wondered disgustedly, was this romance? Then she sighed, knowing such concepts had never occurred to Mama: she did not read, she did not go to the cinema.

Related Characters: Uma (speaker), Mama, Papa
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uma--now a teenaged girl--contemplates the loveless marriage between her parents. Uma is used to seeing her parents work as one unit, and she suspects that they work so well together because her mother has surrendered her freedom to Papa. Papa, Uma thinks, is a bully--he's married Mama because he wants a wife, not because he loves Mama. Uma is disgusted with her Mama for surrendering to Papa so easily: Mama, Uma thinks rather smugly, has no knowledge of romantic love, since she doesn't read or watch movies.

The passage is a good example of how the narrator both makes fun of Uma and suggests that she has a point. Uma sounds a little naive here (why, exactly, does Uma know anything more about love than her Mama--and is it really possible to understand love by watching movies?). And yet we've already seen plentiful evidence that Uma is partly right: Mama has surrendered control over her body and her life in order to marry Papa--because, of course, doing so is a part of life for a woman in India, as it's portrayed in the novel. So perhaps it's too simple to say that Mama doesn't love Papa, even if it's true that she's surrendered her freedom to him.

Chapter 4 Quotes

To Mira-masi, the gods and goddesses she spoke of, whose tales she told, were her family, no matter what Mama might think (…) Uma, with her ears, and even her fingertips tingling, felt that here was someone who could pierce through the dreary outer world to an inner world, tantalizing in its colour and romance. If only it could replace this, Uma thought hungrily.

Related Characters: Uma, Mama, Mira-Masi
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Uma meets with her distant relative Mira-masi, a surprisingly independent woman who has devoted herself to worshipping the god Shiva. Uma's parents are (in some senses) modern, practical people, and they don't have a lot of patience with Mira-masi. Uma, however, is naturally attracted to Mira-masi: she's mystical, creative, dreamy, and generally the opposite of MamaPapa. Where MamaPapa encourage eating meat (the "modern" way), Mira-masi practices traditional Hindu vegetarianism.

Why, exactly, does Mira-masi's way of life seem so attractive to Uma? Uma doesn't like her life with MamaPapa, and she itches for an escape of any kind. Mira-masi is different enough from Uma's parents that she must be better: Uma is hungry for adventure, excitement, and sincere emotion, and Mira-masi seems to have plenty of all three.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Uma said, ‘I hope they will send her back. Then she will be home with Lily Aunty again, and happy.’
‘You are so silly, Uma,’ Mama snapped (…) ‘How can she be happy if she is sent home? What will people say? What will they think?’

Related Characters: Uma (speaker), Mama (speaker), Anamika, Lily Aunty and Bakul Uncle
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn what happens to Uma's stunningly beautiful, intelligent cousin, Anamika. Although she's awarded a prestigious scholarship to Oxford, Anamika is forbidden to attend university--instead, she's married off to a rich, cruel man, beaten, and rendered infertile. Uma wishes that Anamika's husband would send her away (i.e., back home to her mother); but when Uma raises such a possibility, Mama calls her a fool. Anamika must remain with her husband, Mama insists, or "people will talk."

The passage illustrates Mama's insensitivity to people's individual suffering when it doesn't fit her worldview, as well as her slavish devotion to public opinion. It doesn't matter to Mama that Anamika is suffering, or that she was denied a life of education and liberty at Oxford--the only thing Mama cares about is the opinion of other people (who would, supposedly, be shocked if they heard that Anamika had left her husband). Mama's horizons are so narrow, so confined to the opinions of her neighbors, that she can't conceive of a world in which Anamika's going off to Oxford independently would be the "right thing."

Chapter 7 Quotes

‘Didn’t I tell you to go to the kitchen and learn these things? (…) No, you were at the convent, singing those Christian hymns. You were playing games with that Anglo-Indian teacher showing you how to wear skirts and jump around. Play, play, play, that is all you ever did. Will that help you now?’

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Uma
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

As Uma grows older, her mother becomes increasingly angry with her. Because Uma genuinely enjoyed studying in school (despite the fact that she wasn't much of a student, to say the least), she never spent much time learning how to cook, clean, or dress from her Mama. Mama is furious that Uma is so ignorant of how to "be a real woman"; she doesn't respect Uma for trying to learn, or for enjoying herself at school with her friends. For Mama, the only business women have is learning how to serve husbands domestically; everything else is just frivolity.

Here Mama is basically encouraging her daughter to abandon her interest in education altogether, and dismissing Uma's interest in studying at a convent as "play." Mama is so devoted to the idea that women are made to be wives that she can't see anything but laziness in Uma.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Uma’s ears were already filled to saturation with Mama’s laments, and Aruna’s little yelps of laughter were additional barbs (…) The tightly knit fabric of family that had seemed so stifling and confining now revealed holes and gaps that were frightening—perhaps the fabric would not hold, perhaps it would not protect after all. There was cousin Anamika’s example, the one no one wanted to see: but how could one not?

Related Characters: Uma, Aruna, Mama, Anamika
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uma has been married off to an old, fat man, who immediately runs off with Uma's family dowry and never returns. Uma's Mama is humiliated by the experience; she mourns that she'll never marry Uma off to anyone. The experience is especially crushing for Uma because Uma's sister, Aruna, is beautiful, and has lots of handsome, wealthy suitors to choose from.

Uma's thought process is complex: she's both embarrassed by her experience with the old man, and relieved. Uma lives in a community where to be a woman is to be married: her failure to find a husband is treated as a hideous problem, almost a crime. And yet Uma recognizes that marriage, for all the emphasis that her culture puts on it, doesn't seem so great: even the beautiful Anamika had her life ruined when she married. Maybe the single life isn't so bad after all.

Chapter 11 Quotes

A career. Leaving home. Living alone. These trembling, secret possibilities now entered Uma’s mind—as Mama would have pointed out had she known—whenever Uma was idle. (…) But Uma could not visualize escape in the form of a career. What was a career? She had no idea.

Related Characters: Uma, Mama
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uma thinks about her parents' neighbor, Mrs. Joshi. Mrs. Joshi is everything Uma's parents aren't: tolerant, relatively feminist, etc. She encourages her children to pursue careers that give them financial independence from their families and from their spouses.

The passage is meant to illustrate the full extent of Uma's sheltered, isolated worldview. Uma is so "imprisoned" by her society's and parents' expectations (i.e., the expectations that she get married, be a docile, timid wife, never pursue her own dreams or career goals) that she can't conceive of what a "career" is. The passage also makes a more subtle point about language, knowledge, and education: the main reason that Uma doesn't try harder to achieve independence for herself is that she has no idea of how to go about doing so. The most powerful tool for liberating women from repressive cultures is knowledge--throughout the novel, we see women being barred from pursuing school and university, and therefore being barred from achieving freedom.

Chapter 12 Quotes

She sloshes some milk into the coffee. ‘Rosebuds. Wild Waltz. Passionately,’ she screams at them silently. She tosses in the sugar. ‘Madly. Vows. Fulfill,’ her silence roars at them. She clatters a spoon around the cup, spilling some milk into the saucer, and thrusts it at Papa. ‘Here,’ her eyes flash through her spectacles, ‘this, this is what I know. And you, you don’t.’

Related Characters: Uma (speaker), Mama, Papa
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uma attempts a small but powerful rebellion against her family and her entire culture. Uma has been reading poetry; the words of the poem inspire her to celebrate her own experiences, instead of submitting to the authority of men in general and her father in particular. Here, in the middle of pouring coffee for her father (as is her duty as a daughter), she angrily thinks of (and perhaps also mutters aloud) words from her favorite poems. In doing so, Uma seems to be trying to demonstrate what has happened to her: like a character in the poem, she ended up wilting away because she tried too hard to find a suitable husband for herself. The passage culminates in Uma telling her father that she knows things that he doesn't--not just the literal practice of pouring coffee, presumably, but the general experience of being a woman, having to base one's entire life around men, etc.

Uma has often been meek and frightened around her father, but here she seems to be lashing out against him, even if mostly in her own mind and her domestic sphere (the only places she has any kind of control). Her father, she feels, doesn't understand the pain that she goes through: he looks down on her, and even feels ashamed of her for "failing" to get married. Uma, however, is learning to celebrate her own life: she seems not to see herself as a failure any longer. Her experiences have inherent worth, and her father needs to recognize that.

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Mama Character Timeline in Fasting, Feasting

The timeline below shows where the character Mama appears in Fasting, Feasting. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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Family Life and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
...Uma, middle-aged and still unmarried, at home in India in the summer, taking orders from Mama and Papa, (or MamaPapa, as she thinks of them). At first, they are instructing her... (full context)
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Uma struggles to remember a time when MamaPapa had 'separate existences'. She recalls that Mama and Papa have offered few memories of their... (full context)
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Uma remembers the only example of Mama having a separate life from Papa as being when Uma was young and Papa was... (full context)
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...about having the family and the household servants facilitate his games and provide an audience. Mama would observe the games proudly, and she would get angry if his tennis suit hadn't... (full context)
Chapter 2
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...has had his car driven up to the front of the house. He declares that Mama and Uma need to get some exercise, so he takes them to the park. At... (full context)
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The novel flashes back to the past, to Uma's childhood. Uma remembers when Mama became pregnant with Arun, and she recalls this as the only time she noticed a... (full context)
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
Family Life and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
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...Arun is born, and when the nuns start sending notes home describing her bad scores, Mama tells Uma that there is no point in going to school any longer. Uma refuses... (full context)
Chapter 3
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
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...bowel to her father, but Papa remains still and silent and does not take it. Mama interprets this silence as his nonverbal demand that the women peel and part the fruit... (full context)
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...learn home keeping. Uma shrieks, and has her first epileptic seizure on the convent floor. Mama blames the convent nuns for causing Uma’s seizure, using the incident to justify her decision... (full context)
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Uma settles into taking care of baby Arun. Mama and Papa attend nervously to Arun’s care, worrying over his diet, his every step, his... (full context)
Chapter 4
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In the modern day, Mama and Papa have left home to attend a wedding. With few chances to be home... (full context)
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...the country, visiting different relatives and different Hindu temples. Uma loves Mira-Masi’s visits, even though MamaPapa disapprove of Mira-Masi’s traveling lifestyle, her vegetarianism, and her “old-fashioned” religious devotion. Uma recalls curling... (full context)
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Mira-Masi carefully cooks her food separately in her own stone oven outside, and while MamaPapa frown, Uma feels honored if Mira-Masi lets her help in her food preparation. Every evening,... (full context)
Chapter 5
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
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...age, her rebellious cousin Ramu surprises the family with a visit after adventuring at sea. Mama and Papa are unhappy to see Ramu, for this son of Lila Aunty and Bakul... (full context)
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Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
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...Mira-Masi has grown older and weak with fever. She comes to visit the family, and Mama urges her not to travel to an ashram in the foothills. Mira-Masi insists she will... (full context)
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...young boy at the time. Ramu tells Uma that he has come on Papa and Mama’s instructions to reclaim her, for she has stayed much longer than they expected, and they... (full context)
Chapter 6
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In the modern day, the local jeweler has come to MamaPapa’s house to show his spread before Mama and Uma, as he does every year. He... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Right after Anamika’s marriage, Mama is sending pictures of Uma out to relatives and friends, who are all helping to... (full context)
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MamaPapa respond to an ad in the newspaper for a family looking for a bride for... (full context)
Chapter 8
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In the modern day, Mama wakes Uma to tell her that thieves are stealing guavas from their trees. Mama remarks... (full context)
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MamaPapa make a last effort at marrying Uma off. The old man from the newspaper ad... (full context)
Chapter 9
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Uma is at home alone in the modern day, while MamaPapa are out at a bridge game. Rarely by herself, Uma enjoys the opportunity to go... (full context)
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...no pity on Uma, but expects Uma to care for them as the “maiden aunt”. Mama and Uma unite against Aruna’s criticism, and on one occasion laugh together over Aruna’s suggestion... (full context)
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...gets angry and says that the doctor in their town should be good enough. Later, Mama tells Aruna about the doctor’s suggestion, in an attempt to get her help—but Aruna only... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...is invited to a coffee party thrown by Mrs. O’Henry, the Baptist missionary she admires. Mama and Papa say there is no good reason for Uma to go. Uma argues that... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Uma is writing to Arun on behalf of MamaPapa, and Papa criticizes Uma for her slow writing and her inability to keep up with... (full context)
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...the Christmas bazaar to help Mrs. Henry run her Christmas booth. Against the complaints of MamaPapa, Uma goes, and she describes the entire event as heaven. The paper crafts, the treats,... (full context)
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The novel tells the story of Mama’s friend and neighbor, Mrs. Joshi—one of few people who Mama allows Uma to visit. Mrs.... (full context)
Chapter 12
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After MamaPapa have Uma write the letter to Arun, they begin ordering Uma to do many chores... (full context)
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...of her social rank, he feels he must entertain her. A ‘no-nonsense’ woman, she tells MamaPapa that she needs a capable lady to run the boarding house for her nursing school.... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
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...Lila Aunty and Bakul Uncle do not speak, or eat; they only look down, while Mama and Papa try to cheer them up and to arrange everything. Uma cannot stop thinking... (full context)