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.
Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West Theme Icon

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.

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Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Fasting, Feasting related to the theme of Tradition/India vs. Modernity/West.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.


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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.

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 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.

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

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 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.