The pressures and expectations placed on the different characters in the novel show the contrast in the social roles men and women are expected to fulfill, both in India and in the United States. While men are expected to be hard working, academic, and successful, the social value of women is dependent on their submissiveness, domestic abilities, beauty and child bearing.
Aruna and Uma are raised, educated, and groomed only with marriage in mind. When the multiple attempts of MamaPapa to arrange a marriage for Uma fail, it becomes Uma’s job to take care of her baby brother, Arun, and later her aging parents. Mama’s identity is tied in with her role as the wife of an important man, and she seldom disagrees with him. Anamika meets the social expectations of female submission—yet, abused to death, Anamika experiences the ultimate loss of freedom that threatens all women who are forced to fulfill the feminine ideal. Dr. Dutt and Mira-masi both represent women who, independent of family and men, defy female social roles.
Men also lose their free will and individual expression to the social roles they must fill. As a child, Arun is showered with care and attention, unlike his neglected sister, Uma. Yet MamaPapa place high demands on Arun for him to work hard in school and achieve constantly, giving Arun no alternative path. While Papa has the most authority in Uma’s household, his ego and pride are bound to his social role as a male head of the household. He cannot appear vulnerable, and so never forms genuine human connections.
American society as portrayed in the novel also places gendered expectations onto its members, particularly in regards to male and female beauty. Mrs. Patton, like her daughter Melanie, is burdened by American ideals of female perfection and beauty, which are obsessed with dangerous degrees of thinness and over-tanning. Mr. Patton and Rod similarly fulfill the traditional Macho American stereotype of athleticism and hard work. Like Papa, Mr. Patton assumes passive control over the members of his household. Mrs. Patton, like Mama, appears to have no other identity beyond wife and mother.
Gender and Social Roles ThemeTracker
Gender and Social Roles Quotes in Fasting, Feasting
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
Mr. Patton ignores her. He is getting a can of beer out of the refrigerator. Opening it with a shark jerk of his thumb, he demands, ‘Where are the kids? Are they going to be in for dinner tonight? What have they been doing all day? Are they doing any work around here?’
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.
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?