Fasting, Feasting

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Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Analysis

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.
Loneliness and Togetherness Theme Icon

The difference between loneliness and being alone is a tension that affects many characters throughout the novel. Loneliness affects many characters—yet, togetherness, especially within families, doesn’t always solve the loneliness of the individual. Balancing the needs for both community and solitude is a constant struggle, especially for Uma and Arun.

Within Indian society, individuals experience mental isolation within tight-knit families. The obligation to maintain a pretense of family harmony is isolating because individuals have no recourse for expressing their true desires without rebelling against the family. Uma is constantly in the company of her parents or other family members - yet she is lonely and isolated within those relationships, because true friendship is lacking: Uma, social and curious in nature, hungrily seeks any opportunity to make new friends and interact with people outside of her nuclear family home. Arun is similarly isolated within his family, as he too has no friends, and his obligation to study takes up all of his time and energy. Yet, unlike Uma, Arun develops a preference for being alone, resisting groups and people who try to include him.

Within American society, the breakup of the family manifests itself more obviously on a daily basis. The barbecue dinner featured in the Patton’s house within the novel is a total flop- neither of the Patton children are present, the father is angry, the mother must cover her unhappiness about being forced to eat steak, and the feeling that members of the household are disunited appears stark. Rather than spending time together, the family spends their meals as well as their leisure time apart. Melanie is isolated in her feelings and her struggle in the same way as Uma, except that in the American context, Melanie is openly defiant and individualistic as a way of covering her loneliness, while Uma appears obedient in comparison. Uma’s loneliness goes unnoticed by her parents, just as Melanie’s. The warmth of the Indian family, however, can be a safe haven during sad times. When Anamika dies, Uma and Mama hold hands in mourning. There is no such mutual consolation to be found among the Pattons.

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Loneliness and Togetherness ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Fasting, Feasting related to the theme of Loneliness and Togetherness.
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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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.

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 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 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 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 13 Quotes

She had been married for twenty-five years, the twenty-five that Uma had not. Now she is dead, a jar of grey ashes. Uma, clasping her knees, can feel that she is still flesh, not ashes. But she feels like ash—cold, colourless, motionless ash.

Related Characters: Uma, Anamika
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uma learns that her cousin, Anamika, has died a horrible death. Anamika is a symbol of her culture and faimly's repressiveness and sexism: in spite of her intelligence and potential, she was barred from studying at university, and ended up married to a brutal, cruel man. Now, Anamika is dead--whether from murder or suicide isn't clear (and there's no indication that anybody particularly cares about solving the crime, another symbol of the bias against women in Uma's society). No matter how Anamika died, her manner of her death could be said to symbolize the direction her life took: during her 25 years of marriage, she slowly lost her "color," her her warmth, her liveliness--she "burned out" under the weight of cruel oppression and abuse. And now Uma feels alone and depressed in a new way--she hasn't had to suffer under a husband like Amanika's, but she still feels just as "ashen" as Amanika herself.

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 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 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

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.