The novel opens in the modern day with Uma, middle-aged and still unmarried, at home in India in the summer, taking orders from Mama and Papa, (or MamaPapa, as she thinks of them). At first, they are instructing her with great importance about how they wish to have their afternoon tea. This leads to them barking orders at her, very specifically, about how to do many different household chores at once. They anxiously debate with each other about how best to instruct Uma to prepare a box of care goods to send to Arun, who is attending University in America. They worry that he has a warm enough sweater, and enough tea. Uma grows very flustered trying to meet their growing and changing demands. Her parents show no concern or even awareness for how their way of ordering Uma around is making her feel.
Mama and Papa treat Uma, their daughter, very differently than they treat Arun, their son. They put a lot of thought into their package for Arun. Meanwhile, MamaPapa expect a lot from Uma, and their way of piling demands onto her shows that they give little thought to whether or not Uma can actually meet those demands. They expect her to have no other needs, desires, or priorities other than meeting their needs. It's as if they see their daughter as an extension of themselves and their will, rather than as her own person. Uma's use of the term MamaPapa to think of her parents shows that she imagines them to be an inseparable unit, without individual wishes.
Uma struggles to remember a time when MamaPapa had 'separate existences'. She recalls that Mama and Papa have offered few memories of their childhoods before their young marriage. Mama's recollections focus on family and include remembering little transgressions, such as the women of her house sneaking sweets to their daughters and nieces, as sweets were only allowed to boys in her household. Papa's recollections focus on the struggles of his boyhood in poverty and his hard work to overcome those deprivations so that he could go to school and become a lawyer, such as studying under streetlamps late into the night.
This passage illustrates the importance of the collective family identity in rural India. Mama and Papa choose not to remember their past selves very much, because to do so may be challenging to their ideal of marriage and the family as the most important unit. Mama's recollections about sneaking the sweets betray the unequal treatment of girls and boys in her own family and the secret defiance of women against that inequality. Papa's recollections allow us insight into his own childhood poverty, and the values he places on education (at least for boys) and on very hard work.
Uma remembers the only example of Mama having a separate life from Papa as being when Uma was young and Papa was still working as an attorney, and Mama would sneak off to play cards with the women in her neighborhood. Mama would laugh loudly at the card games with the other women and would show a coy, playful side to herself. When Papa would return from work, Mama would pretend that she had not left the house that day.
Even Mama has a separate will and a separate self apart from Papa, but she only chooses to express it in small ways and only in the company of other women. At the card games, the women form a little secret world of their own. And even though a little card game might seem to be a fairly innocent transgression, it is the most rebellious that Mama can allow herself to be.
Uma recalls that in Papa's younger days when he played tennis, he made a very serious ceremony about having the family and the household servants facilitate his games and provide an audience. Mama would observe the games proudly, and she would get angry if his tennis suit hadn't been washed perfectly or if his lemonade wasn't ready when the game was over. Uma remembers that when her father was still a magistrate and the family had to make appearances at social gatherings, he would tolerate joking with colleagues and inferiors who jabbed at him—but always in a way that was harsh, establishing his superiority and social status.
Mama makes a big deal out of Papa's tennis games as if his success in tennis were some kind of reflection on her. There is a gender inequality in their marriage, which reflects on the standards of their society in general: Mama is not permitted to indulge her hobbies openly, while Papa not only indulges his interests but demands that everyone else serve as audience. Papa can never seem weak in front of anyone, and he isn't even free to enjoy social occasions, because every interaction must display his authority and superiority.