Uma is the main character in the book and the author’s symbol for the grossly subservient role of women, especially in Indian society. The portrait painted of Uma is one of a not especially pretty girl who is clumsy, slow, and not academically inclined. Uma has an earnest desire to learn, despite her handicaps, because she seeks stimulation outside the confining world in the home of her parents. Uma’s world narrows even more when she is removed from the convent school in order to help care for her newborn brother, Arun. This act will destroy Uma’s source of joy and hope. In keeping with Indian customs, girls are raised to be married and boys to be educated, a premise which will ultimately destroy Uma’s spirit and opportunities for a fulfilling life. According to Indian tradition, the older daughter in the family must be married before a younger sister can marry. Attempts to arrange marriages for Uma end disastrously, leaving Uma to live the life of a spinster and to step aside so that her younger sister, Aruna, may marry. It is not only society that oppresses Uma, but her own parents as well. Papa has never considered education a necessity for girls. When Uma is of a marriageable age, it is Mama who tries to package Uma more attractively in order to get rid of her. With failed marriage attempts and no hope of outside employment, Uma retreats into her own world of simple pleasures: a Christmas card collection, a book of poems, and sitting on the veranda when Mama and Papa are out for the evening. As the novel progresses, Uma reaches her mid-forties yet lives the life of a subservient child trapped in a world she has no power to change.
Uma considers her parents to be one person because they are so inextricably intertwined in their thoughts and actions. In her mind, Uma even refers to them as one name: MamaPapa. To Uma, this combined source is the center of all power in her universe, because of their direct effect over her life every day. Papa works as a lawyer, a position he had worked hard to achieve.He feels that the proper image for someone in his position is critical. Although Papa is slightly untraditional in some of his approaches, he serves meat in his home and enjoys playing cricket and drinking whisky. Most of what Papa does is to maintain appearance and decorum. Mama is the perfect match for Papa because she completely sublimates herself to Papa’s needs in order to maintain an orderly household and to present the proper image to the community.
MamaPapa are so clear in their personal codes and their family mission that they seem an impenetrable force to their children. The household is one of rules, structure and not much joy. Papa’s life, as the father of two daughters, is quite unfulfilled until Mama has a son later in life. This gives Papa new meaning for living. Papa invests all his time and much money into achieving the best education and opportunities for his son, Arun, while the daughters are merely maintained until they become of marriageable age.
Most of Papa’s interactions with Uma are of frustration and impatience due to Uma’s plodding sensibilities and the drain on Papa’s funds to finance two dowries for marriages that end disastrously. Although Mama does not invest herself emotionally in any of her children, she is more taken with Aruna who has the potential to marry well and bestow some better fortune on the family. Mama is probably least vested in Arun because she does not understand the male world in which Arun is being schooled and in which he will live in the United States.
Although Arun is the favored child in the family and is the beneficiary of all the attention and opportunities, Arun is as equally unhappy with the state of his life as Uma is with hers. As the only male child in the family, Arun receives favored treatment from the day of his birth. Soon after Arun arrives, Uma is forced to quit school in order to help care for her new brother and Papa shows a pervasive joy he had never before exhibited. Throughout Arun’s indulged childhood, though, his sisters do not begrudge his privileges, accepting the way things are. Just as Uma has lost her childhood to care for Arun, Arun loses his childhood to studies strictly enforced by Papa. Papa defines Arun’s future without ever consulting Arun about his dreams or preferences. Arun produces and succeeds, but almost mechanically. After many years of exhausting study, Arun is unmoved to learn about his acceptance to the university in America, considering this event just the next step in Papa’s plan for his life. Arun receives a multi-leveled education in Massachusetts when he explores the human dynamics, particularly within the dysfunctional Patton family household. Arun does come to the realization that women are poorly mistreated in America as well as in his own country. Perhaps Arun will be changed by the experiences and conduct his interactions with women differently from the way they are conducted by Papa and male societies in general.
Mrs. Patton’s character serves as the American counterpart to Uma’s character in India. Although the women are vastly different in appearance and cultural backgrounds, there are many similarities that even Arun comes to realize by the end of the story. Mrs. Patton is also starved emotionally and feels powerless to alter her own circumstances. Just like Uma, Mrs. Patton has no career and attempts to vest herself in her family, which has tired of her superficial ministrations. Mrs. Patton is completely dependent upon Mr. Patton’s support and acquiesces to his needs, even sublimating her own desire to be a vegetarian in favor of Mr. Patton’s carnivorous diet. Mrs. Patton’s role in the household has been reduced to shopper and chauffeur. Even these levels, she fails because her husband is never pleased with her food selections and her daughter eats only junk food, which she ultimately binges and purges.
Mrs. Patton is not emotionally connected to her insensitive husband or their son, Rod, who is patterning his own behavior after his father. Probably the one who Mrs. Patton fails the most is Melanie, whose needs are overshadowed by the men in the household, and whose visible cries for help are unnoticed by Mrs. Patton until events reach a crisis point. Ironically, it is Arun, a slight, quiet boy from India, who helps Mrs. Patton understand her role as a woman, as the maternal guide in the family, and as someone who has rights and needs just as important as her husband’s or her son’s.
Aruna is the middle child of Mama and Papa. Aruna is so named because Papa had hoped for a boy to name Arun; and when Aruna arrived as a daughter, Papa adapted the name. When a male child is born later, Papa fixedly names the child Arun, in spite of Aruna’s name, indicating the importance Papa placed on the boy. Aruna has more redeeming qualities that Uma in that she is a little brighter, prettier, and more socially adapt. Aruna is ready to escape the restrictive childhood home when it comes time to marry. Her impatience increases her rudeness to the unmarriageable Uma, who cannot be removed as an impediment to Aruna’s plans quickly enough. Eventually, Aruna marries a successful man and Aruna creates a shallow, distant life in Bombay, far away from her family’s emotional and physical ties.
Mira-Masi is a widowed relative in Mama’s family who takes a special liking to Uma. Because Mira-Masi has no husband or children to take care of, she is free to explore her own interests, particularly those of a spiritual nature. Mira-Masi’s wanderings take her to holy places and ashrams around the area. Uma is always happy to see the older woman arrive because Mira-Masi will transport Uma to magical places through her stories. When it becomes clear that Uma will never marry, it is Mira-Masi who informs the family that the Lord did not approve of the selected bridegrooms, wanting to keep Uma for Himself. Mira-Masi attempts to lead Uma on a parallel spiritual journey which is cut short by Papa, who will not tolerate such rambling, pointless behavior from his own daughter.
Anamika is Ramu’s sister and cousin to Uma, Aruna, and Arun. Anamika’s arranged marriage is filled with physical abuse ultimately ending in her death either by suicide or murder by her husband and mother-in-law.
Mr. Patton is the stereotypical successful, white businessman living in suburban America. Mr. Patton provides handsomely for his family but does not attempt to address their emotional needs or try to connect with them in any meaningful way. Mr. Patton also embodies many of the male chauvinistic tendencies of strictly ruling his household and verbally abusing those who do not like to appreciate the same things he does. In his own way, Mr. Patton is also lacking understanding; but the family’s dynamic is so entrenched that they remain at an impasse on most issues.
Rod is Mr. and Mrs. Patton’s son and Melanie’s brother. As a high-school athlete, Rod’s life is consumed with training, eating, and little else that does not relate to sports. Ironically, Rod is the product of his own father’s ideals and expectations for athletic prowess, just as Arun is the result of his father’s idea of what a son’s life should be.
Melanie is Mr. and Mrs. Patton’s teen-aged daughter and Rod’s sister. Melanie’s typical teenage anxieties have reached a crisis mode exhibited by her bulimic behavior. Melanie feels invisible in the Patton household, overshadowed by her much more powerful father and brother; so she retreats into her self-abusive world and punishes herself for not being born a boy. Ironically, Melanie’s agony is partially illuminated by Arun, a male who understands the threat of being sublimated by a much more powerful and restrictive force.
Mother Agnes is the head administrator of St. Mary’s School, the convent attended by Uma and Aruna.
Ayah is a domestic worker who had cared for Uma and Aruna as children and who has come out of retirement and returned to the household to help care for Arun.
Ramu is Uma’s mischievous older cousin whose sense of adventure and threat of misbehavior infuriates Mama and Papa. They try to dissuade Uma from any further contact.
Mrs. Joshi lives with her husband in the house next to Mama and Papa’s. Mrs. Joshi is a delightful, happy person who befriends Uma and adds some joy to Uma’s dull existence.
Mrs. O’Henry is the Baptist missionary’s wife, who attempts to befriend Uma, but whose overtures are seen as threatening by Mama and Papa who ultimately force Uma to cut off communication.
Arvind is Aruna’s husband, a successful businessman in Bombay. Arvind is pleased to have successfully arranged a marriage with someone as lovely as Aruna and acquiesces to Aruna’s every whim in a life of privilege and sophistication.
Dr. Dutt is the female physician in the area who periodically sees Uma’s unconscious fits. Perhaps Dr. Dutt senses Uma’s deep frustrations. She offers Uma a job as a nurses’ dormitory manager; but Mama and Papa do not see the need for their daughter to work outside the home. Uma’s hopes are once again squelched.