Fasting, Feasting

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Water / River Symbol Analysis

Water / River Symbol Icon
Throughout the novel, submersion in water represents freedom from the constraints of society, family, and the self. As a child restricted and unappreciated by her family and society, Uma feels drawn to the water's edge where she sees Mira-masi bathing in the "sacred" river that runs through the village. Uma has no fear of drowning, and against the warnings of her parents, she dips her feet in. Years later, when Aruna and her in-laws come to make a pilgrimage to the river with her family, Uma impulsively jumps off the boat and into the river, allowing herself to sink to the bottom. At a time in her life when there are no more prospects of education or marriage, nor any other feasible escape from Mama and Papa, Uma feels both neglected and trapped. She is drawn to the river, to the feeling of sinking, as if drawn to death as her only escape. Whether or not she is suicidal is unclear. Later, when her cousin Anamika dies a tragic death at the hands of her abusive in-laws, Uma's parents and relatives go to the sacred river to sprinkle Anamika's ashes. Uma, cold and empty, watches with longing as Anamika's ashes float out, freeing Anamika from the pain of an entrapped life. In America in the second half of the novel, Melanie is also entrapped—by her emotional turmoil, her eating disorder, and her inattentive parents. She spends long nights in the bathtub to escape. Arun finds himself trapped even in America by the memories of his family and the self-restraint he has developed throughout his life as a survival mechanism. The only instance in which Arun feels peace is toward the end of the novel, when he swims for the first time in his life in a pond outside the Patton's house. There, he feels calm, as if freed from reality. 

Water / River Quotes in Fasting, Feasting

The Fasting, Feasting quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water / River. 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 4 Quotes

Only Uma tucked her frock up into her knickers and waded in with such thoughtless abandon (…) It had not occurred to her that she needed to know how to swim, she had been certain the river would sustain her.

Related Characters: Uma
Related Symbols: Water / River
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Uma and her siblings go down to the river with Mira-masi, their distant relative. There, Mira-masi engages in a ritualistic bathing ceremony, a reflection of her worship of the god Shiva. While her siblings hang back, afraid of the water, Uma wades in in an effort to be closer to Mira-masi, whom she idolizes.

Uma's behavior is reckless, dangerous (she nearly drowns), and also deeply revealing of her personality. Uma feels so sheltered and lonely at home with MamaPapa that she's hungry for escape of any kind. By walking straight into the water, she's both active and passive: she makes a brave, dangerous choice, crossing her fingers and trusting that the water will be gentle with and "sustain" her. Uma's entire life will be full of "leaps of faith" of a similar kind: for all her repression, she's still full of life and vitality, and wants to find adventure.

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Chapter 9 Quotes

When it was that she had plunged into the dark water and let it close quickly and tightly over her, the flow of the river, the current, drew her along (…) It was not fear she felt, or danger. Or rather, these were only what edged something much darker, wilder, more thrilling, a kind of exultation—it was exactly what she had always wanted, she realized.

Related Characters: Uma
Related Symbols: Water / River
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uma is at one of her lowest points: she's been humiliated in her marriage offers; she has some kind of optometric condition that will require her to see a doctor; her sister clearly despises her, etc. In her despair, Uma jumps into the river while she and her family go out to bathe. Instead of trying to swim, Uma allows herself to sink to the bottom of the river while her family calls her name and tries to rescue her.

The passage could be interpreted as a description of a suicide, or just a call for change. Uma, it seems, wants to escape from her family and her community altogether; the only way to accomplish such a feat, it would seem, is to die. And yet there's a kind of exhilaration and rebellion in Uma's bold act: it's as if she's ending her life and yet also beginning a liberating new one (notice the way Desai describes the Uma's "exultation").

Chapter 26 Quotes

Now that he is contributing to the din, he begins to feel pleased. Surprisingly, it is due to the water, an element that removes him from his normal self, and opens up another world of possibilities.

Related Characters: Arun
Related Symbols: Water / River
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Arun goes swimming in the ponds near the Patton's house, accompanied by Mrs. Patton and Melanie. Arun savors the feeling of jumping into the water and feeling weightless: he's so used to being bottled up and repressed that the slightest display of fun is a liberation.

There's a deeper meaning to Arun's experience in the passage: he's so used to pleasing other people, and being "swept along" in other people's visions (his parents, the Pattons, etc.) that he treats swimming as a rare case of living "for himself," and himself alone. Notice that the passage is meant to evoke an earlier passage, in which Uma jumps into the river, seemingly because she wants to end her own life. Arum and Uma suffer from a similar sense of overdetermination: they wish they could break free from their parents. Still, we should note that Arun's situation seems a little freer and happier than Uma's. He's depressed and repressed, but he wants to keep living--for him, the water is like a liberating baptism, one that is less desperate than Uma's.

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Water / River Symbol Timeline in Fasting, Feasting

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water / River appears in Fasting, Feasting. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4
Family Life and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West Theme Icon
Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Icon
...MamaPapa reluctantly allow Mira-Masi to take Uma, Aruna, and Arun with her down to the river for her religious bathing. While MamaPapa have warned their children about the filth of the... (full context)
Chapter 5
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
Family Life and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Icon
...on her religious rituals, giving Uma the chance to wander freely all day through the river paths around the ashram. Uma realizes, while falling asleep on the stone floor beside Mira-Masi,... (full context)
Chapter 9
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Icon
On one visit home, Aruna brings her in-laws to bathe in the holy river near the house. Uma visits the local optometrist, who says she has a bad condition... (full context)
Chapter 13
Family Life and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Icon
Lila Aunty and Bakul Uncle come to deposit Anamika’s ashes down the sacred river that runs alongside their town - the very one that Uma herself twice tried to... (full context)
Chapter 23
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon
Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West Theme Icon
That night, Melanie is in the bathtub, water running, with her cassette player. Arun is waiting outside because he needs to take a... (full context)
Chapter 26
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
Family Life and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Icon
...woods near their home. When they arrive, Arun feels very sweaty and overheated, and the water tempts him, but because of his timidity he hesitates. Melanie sits beside the pool, eating... (full context)