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.
Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" Theme Icon

Access to resources play a large factor in determining the quality of life and opportunity available to individual characters in the novel. Plenty and want are not what they appear to be, and characters who seem to have much are often found wanting; likewise, those who seem to have little are rich in spiritual ways. India is contrasted with America, and Uma’s lower middle class parents are contrasted with wealthier families in India.

Seeking economic plenty is very important to characters in the novel. For example, MamaPapa are deeply interested in increasing their wealth and status by affording good marriages for their daughters, and a good education for their son. Even within the same family, male characters have greater resources and opportunities, particularly in the Indian context. While MamaPapa put a great deal of money, time, and attention into their son Arun’s education and physical care, Uma is not even allowed to finish her basic primary education or receive needed medial care for her painful eyesight.

For women, personal traits like charm, domestic capability and physical attractiveness allow them access to higher-status marriage partners, and therefore greater social status. Aruna, being prettier and more outwardly charming, is assigned a higher social value by her parents and by the community than her sister Uma. Yet, Uma has a different kind of plenty: she has a vast inner world. Her kindness, curiosity, and her desire for freedom and autonomy allow her to engage her mind and her heart. These make her richer, in many ways, than the other characters.

When Arun goes to the United States, he discovers a land of economic ‘plenty’, even excess, which he compares to the modest means of his own family in India. However, lacking the warmth and togetherness of Arun’s family in India, the American family seems hollow to him, having a deeper kind of poverty. This is obvious to Arun than when he witnesses Melanie suffering from hunger and malnourishment due to her eating disorder, while there is a fridge full of food.

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Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting" ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Fasting, Feasting related to the theme of Plenty/"Feasting" vs. Want/"Fasting".
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.


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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.

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 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 19 Quotes

No, he had not escaped. He had travelled and he had stumbled into what was like a plastic representation of what he had known at home; not the real thing—which was plain, unbeautiful, misshapen, fraught and compromised—but the unreal thing—clean, bright, gleaming, without taste, savour or nourishment.

Related Characters: Arun
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Arun is living in the United States and studying at the University of Massachusetts. He finds his new life in the U.S. unsatisfactory, however. One would think that Arun would embrace his new freedom and independence--for the first time in his life, he doesn't have parents looking over his shoulder, telling him what to do. And yet Arun finds that he's still being supervised by various people, such as Mrs. Patton, the gracious host who invites Arun to stay with her.

The passage shows that Arun thinks of his time in the U.S. as a kind of extravagant but ultimately superficial "echo" of his time in India. In some ways, he prefers his home life with Mama and Papa because his parents seem more "real" than a gracious but somewhat vapid host like Mrs. Patton. His life in India was harder, but richer, while he sees the Patton family's life as easy but ultimately empty.

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

Arun gets out of the way, quickly: one can’t tell what is more dangerous in this country, the pursuit of health or of sickness.

Related Characters: Arun
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

Arun realizes that Melanie, Mr. and Mrs. Patton's child, has bulimia: she eats candy bars and then makes herself throw up so that she doesn't gain any weight. Worse, the Pattons--or at least Rod, who tells Arun about his sister--seem to know full-well that Melanie is bulimic, and not care. Melanie is the dark side of the Patton family's emphasis on deeds, outward appearances, and health (in such a way, Melanie seems to symbolize Desai's critique of superficial American culture itself). She's so obsessed with seeming healthy and attractive that she pursues an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, in which she's constantly throwing up to avoid gaining the slightest amount of weight.

Arun gets at the contradictions in the Patton's worldview when he notes that he can't tell which is worse, pursuing health or pursuing sickness. Arun's point seems to be that an overzealous pursuit of health is unhealthy: it treats the body as a mere object, to be cynically tuned and distorted in the interest of appearances.

Chapter 24 Quotes

Why don’t you ask me what I want? Why can’t you make me what I want? What do you think we all are—garbage bags you keep stuffing and stuffing?

Related Characters: Melanie (speaker), Mrs. Patton
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chilling passage, Melanie has a fight with her mother, Mrs. Patton. Mrs. Patton sees Melanie walking into the kitchen, with her face looking oddly swollen (by this point in the novel, we know that Melanie is bulimic, and regularly makes herself throw up). Mrs. Patton gives Melanie some eggs and encourages her to eat them, prompting Melanie to yell at her mother for treating her like a "garbage bag."

Melanie's point, it would seem, is that in focusing so exclusively on health and outward appearances, Mrs. Patton (and, for that matter, American culture as a whole) neglects her loved ones' feelings and spiritual lives. One could say that Mrs. Patton treats her daughter like a mere object that Mrs. Patton must keep looking pretty and healthy at all times. She never asks Melanie what she feels like eating; instead, she gives Melanie food. Melanie has become obsessed with her own health because Mrs. Patton is, too.

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).

But what is plenty? What is not? Can one tell the difference?

Related Characters: Arun (speaker)
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Arun has just seen Melanie wolfing down a bowl of ice cream in her mother's absence: the sight of Melanie, a well-off child from a good family, abusing her body prompts Arun to realize that the Pattons, much like his own family, are spiritually "starved." Although the Pattons are a prosperous American family, and therefore taken care of in every material way (food, shelter, money, etc.), they lack a certain kind of "plenty."

What does Arun mean by "plenty?" Arun seems to realize that one can be physically nourished and yet starved for any kind of spiritual meaning. The Pattons live sad, meaningless lives, in which their money and social status win them no real pleasure. The Pattons, one could say, are the stereotypical suburban American family with a lot of money but no inner peace. Material possessions, Desai suggests, can't make up for loneliness or self-hatred: in short, man does not live by bread alone.

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.