Fasting, Feasting

by Anita Desai

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How does Uma's character in Fasting, Feasting relate to gender discrimination?

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The character of Uma shows how women in this deeply conservative society are treated, especially those who, for one reason or another, remain unmarried. Had Uma's family been successful in marrying her off when she was younger, then she would've been expected to act toward her husband the way that she now does toward her parents: as a glorified servant.

There are no gray areas here; in this society, women exist to serve the needs of their families, especially the menfolk, and Uma is no exception. Her life is narrow and confined, kept firmly within the boundaries of the traditional family unit as defined and constructed by the dominant patriarchy. Even some of the other women in the story—such as Anamika, for example—who are highly intelligent and could easily lead successful, independent lives, are held back by the prevailing value-system. Anamika's death deprives Uma of a female role model, someone she can look up to and aspire to emulate.

The portrait that Desai paints of a woman's role in Indian society is grim indeed, but it's no less true for that.

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Uma is a forty-three year old upper-middle-class unmarried Indian woman still living with her parents near Mumbay. Contrary to her younger brother Arun, who has had the opportunities to obtain an education, Uma has been denied the right to go to school and has remained in the paternal household to serve his parents. Uma's parents only concern for the future of their daughter seems to be how to arrange a respectable marriage for her. This process, however, is something Uma herself is not allowed to have a say and her parents' actions lead to repeated failures.

Desai's self-description as a writer who "feels about India as an Indian" but thinks about it as an outsider can be useful to frame the novel which, through the character of Uma, shows the oppression Indian women are still subjected to in a patriarchical society. Uma is not simply denied the right to attain an education; throughout the novel she is consistently denied the right to develop her own distinct personal identity, desires and ambitions.

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