Fasting, Feasting

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Themes and Colors
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fasting, Feasting, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender and Social Roles Theme Icon

The pressures and expectations placed on the different characters in the novel show the contrast in the social roles men and women are expected to fulfill, both in India and in the United States. While men are expected to be hard working, academic, and successful, the social value of women is dependent on their submissiveness, domestic abilities, beauty and child bearing.

Aruna and Uma are raised, educated, and groomed only with marriage in mind. When the multiple attempts of MamaPapa to arrange a marriage for Uma fail, it becomes Uma’s job to take care of her baby brother, Arun, and later her aging parents. Mama’s identity is tied in with her role as the wife of an important man, and she seldom disagrees with him. Anamika meets the social expectations of female submission—yet, abused to death, Anamika experiences the ultimate loss of freedom that threatens all women who are forced to fulfill the feminine ideal. Dr. Dutt and Mira-masi both represent women who, independent of family and men, defy female social roles.

Men also lose their free will and individual expression to the social roles they must fill. As a child, Arun is showered with care and attention, unlike his neglected sister, Uma. Yet MamaPapa place high demands on Arun for him to work hard in school and achieve constantly, giving Arun no alternative path. While Papa has the most authority in Uma’s household, his ego and pride are bound to his social role as a male head of the household. He cannot appear vulnerable, and so never forms genuine human connections.

American society as portrayed in the novel also places gendered expectations onto its members, particularly in regards to male and female beauty. Mrs. Patton, like her daughter Melanie, is burdened by American ideals of female perfection and beauty, which are obsessed with dangerous degrees of thinness and over-tanning. Mr. Patton and Rod similarly fulfill the traditional Macho American stereotype of athleticism and hard work. Like Papa, Mr. Patton assumes passive control over the members of his household. Mrs. Patton, like Mama, appears to have no other identity beyond wife and mother.

Gender and Social Roles ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender and Social Roles appears in each chapter of Fasting, Feasting. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender and Social Roles Quotes in Fasting, Feasting

Below you will find the important quotes in Fasting, Feasting related to the theme of Gender and Social Roles.
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

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 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 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.

Chapter 16 Quotes

He had at last experienced the total freedom of anonymity, the total absence of relations, of demands, needs, requests, ties, responsibilities, commitments. He was Arun. He had no past, no family, and no country.

Related Characters: Arun
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Arun comes to college in the United States--he's truly a fish out of water. Arun has grown up in India, and in a very repressed and controlling family at that. In college, however, Arun finds himself in an entirely different kind of place. Both because college is more diverse and because American culture (the culture that dominates college life, in spite of its diversity) is more tolerant of independence, Arun feels isolated and lonely.

Arun has "freedom" from his family and his culture for the first time in his life--one would think that his freedom is a blessing (he doesn't have to worry about his parents hounding him to study harder, for example). And yet the passage makes it clear that Arun doesn't necessarily want this much freedom after all. After years of being pressured and bullied by his parents, he's internalized their values. Thus, when he comes to a place where, for once, he can breathe, he just wants to go home--he learns that freedom can also mean anonymity, and a stifling family is still a close family. The paradox of the novel is that Arun finds his own culture  harsh and repressive, but ultimately comes to feel nostalgic for it.

Chapter 19 Quotes

When she finally brought herself to tell him that Arun was a vegetarian and she herself had decided to give it a try (…) he reacted by not reacting, as if he had simply not heard, or understood. That, too was something Arun knew and had experience of (…)—his father’s very expression, walking off, denying any opposition, any challenge to his authority…

Related Characters: Arun, Papa, Mrs. Patton , Mr. Patton
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

The more things change for Arun, the more they stay the same. Arun is staying with an American woman named Mrs. Patton--a gracious host who makes every effort to make Arun feel comfortable, even buying him vegetarian food. When Mrs. Patton tries to convince Mr. Patton, her husband, to consider vegetarianism, too, Mr. Patton ignores her altogether. Arun is immediately reminded of the way his own father would ignore his mother--many American families, it's implied, are just like their Indian counterparts: the men are harsh and authoritative, and the women are meek and submissive. Thus Desai rebuts kind of racist critique of Indian society as "inferior" by showing how the same sins exist in all cultures--here Mr. Patton finds it inconceivable that someone could decide to not eat meat.

Arun chooses to focus on the similarities between his life in India and his life in America, instead of focusing on the myriad differences (too many to name). While Arun may be correct to notice that Mrs. Patton is timid around the harsh, brusque Mr. Patton, it's indicative of his cynicism and joylessness that he sees only misery in Mr. and Mrs. Patton's relationship.

Chapter 22 Quotes

We don’t sit down to meals like we used to. Everyone eats at different times and wants different meals. We just don’t get to eating together much now that they’re grown. So I just fill the freezer and let them take down what they like, when they like. Keeping the freezer full—that’s my job, Ahroon.

Related Characters: Mrs. Patton (speaker), Arun, Mr. Patton , Melanie , Rod
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Arun is spending time with the Patton family, an "all-American" clan that celebrates sports, success, and competition. The problem with the Patton family, it's suggested, is that they don't have any real sense of community. Mrs. Patton tells Arun (she can't even pronounce his name right, emphasizing the distance between her culture and his) that her family no longer eats together--a pretty good metaphor for the breakdown of the traditional American family over time. Mrs. Patton is a mother, but she's lost any real connection to her children apart from her literal, material duty to give them things to eat. Once again Desai compares ideas of plenty to scarcity--the Pattons have plenty to eat, but little real connection, and the Patton children have plenty of freedom, but little happiness.

Chapter 23 Quotes

Mr. Patton ignores her. He is getting a can of beer out of the refrigerator. Opening it with a shark jerk of his thumb, he demands, ‘Where are the kids? Are they going to be in for dinner tonight? What have they been doing all day? Are they doing any work around here?’

Related Characters: Mrs. Patton , Mr. Patton , Melanie , Rod
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Patton is a gruff, action-focused husband--a parody of the American masculine ideal. He's not a particularly considerate or kind man, either. When he returns from work, he doesn't seem to show any affection or love for his wife; he just asks her where his children are. By the same token. Mr. Patton doesn't really ask about how his children are doing; he just asks about what they've done all day (how many chores, etc.).

Mr. Patton is an unusually bullish, stern man, and yet Arun (who's witnessed the entire scene) seems to take him as a representative American husband. Based on Arun's earlier observations, it would seem, Arun thinks of Mr. Patton and Papa as similar kinds of people--basically dismissive of others' needs (particularly women), and too focused on actions. Arun notices that Mr. Patton ignores his family's feelings, and starts to dislike him for doing so.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Then Arun does see a resemblance to something he knows: a resemblance to the contorted face of an enraged sister who, failing to express her outrage against neglect, against misunderstanding, against inattention to her unique and singular being and its hungers, merely spits and froths in ineffectual protests.

Related Characters: Uma, Arun
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Arun walks into the Pattons' house to find Melanie eating an entire tub of ice cream when her parents aren't watching. Arun realizes that Melanie and his own sister, Uma, aren't all that different: they're both frustrated, repressed people who feel angry and misunderstood. Uma is repressed by her parents' emphasis on marriage and pleasing men; Melanie is repressed by her parents' emphasis on health and beauty. Both sets of parents, Arun seems to realize, err in focusing too exclusively on outward appearances, thereby neglecting their children's psychological stability and inner peace. (It's also no coincidence that Melanie and Uma are both women: in Indian and American culture, women are more harmed by the overemphasis on superficiality than men are).

Chapter 26 Quotes

They are not the stuff of dreams or even cinema: he is not the hero, nor she the heroine, and what she is crying for, he cannot tell (…) this is a real pain and a real hunger. But what hunger does a person so sated feel?

Related Characters: Arun, Melanie
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Arun--still by the ponds--finds Melanie in a pool of her own vomit, barely alive. Arun is shocked to see that Melanie continues to be addicted to purging her body in such an unhealthy way: she's so slavishly devoted to the ideal of seeming healthy and attractive that she's willing to cause herself incredible discomfort.

Arun's behavior--or lack of behavior, rather--is very telling. Arun puts his hand on Melanie's shoulder and imagines telling her "the perfect thing," just like in a movie. But Arun himself is so repressed and timid that he can't think of what to tell Melanie: in the grand scheme of things, Arun is just as devoted to his ideals (living for his parents, doing well in school, etc.), as Melanie is: they're in the same boat, really. Arun is insightful enough to understand Melanie's problem: she's spiritually malnourished, and lives in a bland, loveless household. And yet he's not wise enough to solve Melanie's problems for her: if he were, he'd have freed himself from his own sadness by now too. Note also that Desai once again frames personal issues in terms of hunger and "satedness"--Melanie literally has an excess of food available to her, but she still feels a spiritual and psychological "hunger" that, like Uma's similar hunger, is far from being satisfied.