Throughout the novel, we see conflict between old ways, or ‘tradition’ running against new ways, or ‘modernity’. Most frequently, tradition is associated with India/Rural/Home/Extended Family/ Poverty/Fasting and modernity is associated with Western/Urban/Individuality/Commercialism/Feasting.
MamaPapa, from rural, humble roots, hold fast to traditional values, placing less value on daughters’ educations and more value on daughters’ obedience and preparation for marriage. The nuns at the convent and the Christian missionaries represent a western perspective in India that challenges MamaPapa’s traditionalism. Uma’s parents see no need for Uma to go into the city with Ramu or to visit Aruna in Bombay, as they also see the urban settings as threatening.
Yet, the ‘Old/India’ and the ‘New/Western’ paradigms are constantly shifting. Mira-masi dedicates her life to traditional Hindu Gods and Goddesses, yet to MamaPapa there is something very dangerous and progressive about Mira-Masi’s free-roaming, unmarried life. Arun’s desire to be a vegetarian appears so old-fashioned to MamaPapa that it is almost defiant.
While western ideas may seem more liberating, its people more liberated, western society and the urban setting do not offer freedom from gender roles or social expectations. Aruna feels so pressured by the ideals of the wealthy urban India that she becomes anxious and obsessed with perfection. Through commercialism, wealth and image have become the new constraint. American society places high expectations on women: while Melanie is not being pressured by her parents to marry as Uma and Aruna were, she is pressured by American ideals of beauty to achieve unhealthy thinness—at whatever cost. Mrs. Patton, trying to be the picture of motherhood, feels she cannot pursue vegetarianism because her husband won’t approve. For the old-fashioned Mr. Patton, vegetarianism represents a threat to the American way.
Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West ThemeTracker
Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West Quotes in Fasting, Feasting
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?’
‘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?’
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
But what is plenty? What is not? Can one tell the difference?