In her story "The Rooftop Dwellers," Anita Desai depicts the stratified social structure of Delhi through her protagonist Moyna, a woman struggling to emerge as a self-reliant professional. This point of view allows the reader to identify with the adversity of an environment hostile to a single working woman. Any deviation from a traditional role is greeted with suspicion. Moyna bears the double stigma of being a working class single woman. This story takes place in a modern Delhi inundated in the social mores of the past: Delhi society is largely bourgeoisie and reserves contempt for the lower working class. In addition, women in general are regarded as second class citizens and therefore meant for a domestic role. Desai establishes Moyna as a strong feminist character through a number of literary devices, including such techniques as foil characters, symbolism, and metaphor.Moyna's character gains dimension through comparison to her peers, or foils: her co-worker, Tara, and her fellow rooftop dweller, Simona. Both Tara and Moyna are unable to defuse the attacks of an author angry over a book review he received from Books, while Mohan, a newly employed young man at the journal, handles the author rather easily. Tara marvels "Did you hear Mohan Did you see how he got him (the author) out" while her hands are shaking from the confrontation. This scene implies that while society still relegates women to positions of lesser authority, so to do women find it difficult to break from traditional modes of thought. Simona commiserates with Moyna, having also been robbed (and by a delivery boy she herself employed), but compliments Moyna on the beautiful tree growing next to Moyna's rooftop. Simona's thief is released repeatedly by the police, as he consistently lies that he is twelve years old and is therefore too young to prosecute (foreshadowing Moyna's discovery of her own thief). When the literary journal closes, Tara proves to be all too traditional: Tara has only worked to escape from her mother-in-law's house. She and her husband had been forced to live there, but now that they were looking for their own home, Tara proves eager to settle down as the head of a domestic household. On the other hand, Simona's compliment of Moyna's tree implies an understanding of Moyna's choice to remain in the Bhalla's barasati one must cling to the joys of a bad situation. However, when Simona brings the cat some fish heads, Moyna is dismayed to find out that Simona stays in Delhi because of a guru. This revelation indicates Moyna's opinion of a woman again being subservient to the traditional lead of a man.
Desai's text is rife with symbolism. Moyna's entire situation with the water at the Bhalla's barasati symbolizes her acquiescence to the demands of her society. There will be no special allowances made for her: if she wants water, she must follow the conditions of its availability by the government supply and by the Bhalla's refusal to install a storage tank. The solitary pipal tree represents Moyna. Its solitary beauty has thrived alone. Moyna's education and job have elevated her from the women's hostel, yet still she must be aware of her environment. This is further paralleled by the tree: it has grown high enough to provide shade to her rooftop, yet it's height has removed any protection it may have once provided from the prying eyes of the surrounding rooftops. A final example of Desai's symbolism is the use of song. Moyna is first exposed to what is described as a lewd suggestive song by a rooftop neighbor, which so affronts her she must rush into her room and close the door. The next occasion comes from the Bhalla's serving boy, who begins to sing a song thick with innuendo upon seeing Moyna. Both occurrences of these songs serve as reminders to Moyna that men are aware of unattached women. Both occasions make Moyna uncomfortable - which was no doubt their intent - but symbolize the casual dangers a single