American life

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In the second part of the novel, Desai introduces an essence of middle class American life that is completely dysfunctional to the readers. In this part, author talks about the realities through the eyes of a third party, Arun, who is not from America. American culture was built on the concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But a lot of Americans now take the pursuit of happiness to mean tangible, consumable things, and the Patton family is an example of that.

A nuclear family is a family group consisting of a father and mother and their children. It is considered as the traditional family. A father who worked outside the home and a mother who stayed home and cared for the children and the household. The Patton family is an example of this family structure. Mr. Patton is a laconic type. He doesn’t speak a lot and uses little words to express his emotions. As shown in this quote: ‘He reacted by not reacting, as if he had simply not heard, or understood.’

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This quotation refers to Mr. Patton’s reaction when Mrs. Patton told him she decided to give vegetarianism a try, while Mr. Patton was grilling his meat. He doesn’t even acknowledge Mrs. Patton’s decision. This conveys that Mr. Patton thinks it is not important and doesn’t require his attention. This could also mean that meat is so important to him, he considers Mrs. Patton as a distraction and would ruin his good piece of meat if he replied to her.

Mr. Patton can be seen as the man in the house, he maintains control by appearing tough, objective and emotionally inexpressive. The only time he trys to bond with the kids is when he grills his meat, however he gets rejected by them and soon stops trying. Mrs. Patton is incarcerated to her house and plays the dutiful wife. She lives an uneventful life and is quite unappreciated like Uma. Mrs. Patton is quite clueless and as a suburban housewife feeding and caring for her family, Mrs. Patton is the perfect example of an American consumer. Nervous in the home and around her children and husband, it is only the supermarket, with its “chilled air and controlled atmosphere” and aisle upon aisle of products,that puts Mrs. Patton at ease, where she becomes suddenly independent and confident. Controlled atmosphere represents that the place is controlled and that nothing out of the ordinary would happen.

“Her joy lay in carrying home this hoard she had won from the maze of the supermarket, storing it away in her kitchen cupboards, her refrigerator and freezer” The word ‘hoard’ was used to signify that the grocery she buys are considered as very important because ‘hoard’ is usually used to describe something valuable and that is secret and carefully guarded. Listing was used to list the kitchen cupboards, refrigerator and freezer. This creates an image in our minds of three different places which can contain food, making it seem like Mrs. Patton is buying a lot. With her buying and stocking grocery it shows her position as a wife and a mother, despite that nobody eats what she buys.

She is a shopaholic for food, and makes Arun accompany her to the overpowering supermarkets and stocks up her overflowing freezers. She takes extra efforts to make Arun feel at home, and one can say to the extent of turning herself into a vegetarian for his sake. We could paint Mrs. Patton as the submissive wife, who has made compromises over every small matter, she is not even free to choose what she wants to eat. She tells Arun ‘I’ve always hated eating meat- oh, that red, raw stuff, the smell of it! I’ve always, always disliked it- but never could- never knew how- you know, my family wouldn’t have liked it.’

This tells us that although she wants to be a vegetarian, she eats meat because Mr. Patton believes that it’s the only kind of food. Mrs. Patton yearns to be a vegetarian but she probably afraid of turning the peace upside down in her home, and that she hates meat she pretends to enjoy the meat cooked by Mr. Patton to maintain the little balance within her family. Desai uses metaphors such as ‘lipsticked smile’ to describe how unnatural and artificial Mrs. Patton is. Mrs. Patton is also describes with a “bright plastic copy of a mother-smile”, this could signify that although she is trying her hardest she still cannot be considered as a real mother. ‘Plastic’ could mean that it’s fake or artificial. This shows that Mrs. Patton is quite conscious of her beauty, and to improve it, she takes part in sunbathing.

She also asked Melanie: ‘You have such a bad colour. You’re not sick, are you, dear?’ This is quite ironic, because she desperately tries to become a perfect housewife, and yet she can’t even see what was going on in front of her. It shows that she is quite dense to the atmosphere in the family. Arun’s presence seems necessary for Mrs Patton to discover finally the destructive consequences of Melanie’s condition. As her mother she is capable to act, there are many obvious signs and it’s really bizarre how she can’t see it, however she ignores the true character of her daughter’s suffering.

Melanie suffers from bulimia-a disorder in which overeating following with self-induced vomiting and fasting Her disorder, along with her mother’s excitement for buying grocery to fill the kitchen, signifies the consumerist culture that she comes from, where too much becomes the sickness. She is a slave to a male-generated concept of female perfection. She yearns for a slim figure which ultimately results in a disaster of health. She is a victim of parental indifference. She wants a little love and attention. Her alienation from her family points out the hollowness of the so called developed world. Despite all the effort on the part of Mrs Patton, Melanie remains hungry biologically and emotionally.

Her pain is something only Arun realizes and recognizes. When he sees her vomiting, he realizes that “This is no plastic mock-up, no cartoon representation such as he has been seeing all summer; this is a real pain and a real hunger” Throughout the summer, Arun has seen Melanie quite a few times. Most of the time, Melanie would be throwing up in the toilet, however when they go swimming, he finds Melanie in the woods vomiting. He sees the true character of Melanie’s bulimia, and that it’s a big deal and not some teenager issue.

‘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 protest. How strange to encounter it here, Arun thinks, where so much is given, where there is both licence and plenty.’

Melanie bears a resemblance to Uma. Uma’s intellectual, and emotional starvation finds its physical counterpart in the inexpressible hunger underlying Melanie’s eating disorder. It is mentioned that in America, where so much is given and there is both licence and plenty, Arun can find something or some feeling that is the same as the ones in India. Melanie is allowed to eat what she wants and do what she wants, and yet she can’t find happiness like Uma.


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