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Finding a voice to express a cross-cultural sensibility is the literary mission of Bharati Mukherjee, one of the major Indian writers in the United States. Dislocation, cultural alienation, survival, and adaptability are persistent themes in the fiction of this versatile author, whose own biographical trajectory spans India, Canada, and the United States. Through an array of vibrant, larger-than-life characters and their often extraordinary experiences, Mukherjee charts the lives of immigrants in North America: their trials and tribulations as well as their zest for survival. As a writer who straddles multiple cultures, combining history, myth, and philosophy, Mukherjee has carved a niche for herself in the burgeoning field of Indian writing in English.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Mukherjee was born in Calcutta (called Kolkata since 2001), India, on July 27, 1940. She was the second of three daughters. Her father, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, was of the elite Brahmin class, a respected chemist who had done advanced research in Germany and earned a doctorate from the University of London. His ancestral home was in Faridpur, East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Her mother, Bina (Bannerjee) Mukherjee, was from Dhaka. Both Faridpur and Dhaka became part of Pakistan when the region was partitioned in 1947, at the time of India’s independence. During the years preceding the partition, their families moved to Calcutta, where Mukherjee spent her early years.
Growing up in an ”extraordinarily close-knit family” (as she put it in Days and Nights in Calcutta, a 1977 memoir she wrote with her husband, Clark Blaise), Mukherjee was accustomed to having aunts, uncles, cousins, and other members of the extended family all around her, but the major influence on her life at this stage was her father. A vibrant, impressive personality, he encouraged his daughters to study and actively promoted Mukherjee’s interest in creative writing. Her mother, like many Bengali women of her time, was not highly educated. Though outwardly quiet, Bina Mukherjee nursed a lifelong craving for the education that had been denied her and did not want her daughters to be similarly deprived. She also wanted to protect her daughters from the constraints endured by many middle-class Indian women trapped in conventional arranged marriages.
At the age of three, Mukherjee was sent to a school run by Protestant missionaries. Though the instruction was bilingual, the school laid greater emphasis on fluency in English than did other similar institutions in Calcutta. This early exposure to an Anglicized education bred in Mukherjee a degree of detachment from Calcutta culture. Though orthodox and traditional in their approach to religion, her parents encouraged their daughters to pursue education, independent careers, and self-fulfillment. All three sisters rejected arranged marriages and chose instead to marry for love; all left home in pursuit of work and education. When she left India to settle abroad, Mukherjee carried with her deep ties to her native land and an abiding faith in the Hinduism she had learned from her parents.
After a successful start to his pharmaceuticals company in Calcutta, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee’s business floundered when he and his partner developed differences. In 1947, he moved with his wife and daughters to England, where he engaged in chemical research. His business partner pursued him to England to seek reconciliation and persuaded him to represent the company’s interests by continuing his research. The scientific work of Mukherjee’s father later took the family to Basel, Switzerland. Part of Mukherjee’s childhood was thus spent in London, where she attended a small private school and became proficient in English, and Basel, where she went to a German school. She and her sisters were successful, prizewinning students.
When the family returned to Calcutta in 1951, Sud-hir Lal Mukherjee’s business was flourishing. Instead of returning to the joint family home, he moved his wife and daughters into a luxury mansion within his factory compound. The house had all the comforts that money could buy—a lake, a swimming pool, and many servants—but the girls were now isolated from the world of middle-class Calcutta and no longer felt a sense of belonging to the city of their childhood.
Mukherjee attended the University of Calcutta, graduating with honors in English in 1959. She continued her studies at the University of Baroda in western India, earning an M.A. degree in English and ancient Indian culture in 1961. Her education at Baroda gave her a thorough grounding in Indian tradition and heritage, counterbalancing the influence of her earlier Anglicized education, and also enhanced her understanding of the Hindu religious beliefs she had received from her parents.
Mukherjee had displayed an interest in writing from an early age. While in London, she had begun writing a novel about English children. As a student at Loreto Convent, she published short stories based on European history in the school magazine. In college, she decided to become a writer, a decision her father encouraged. After consulting with a visiting American scholar, he wrote to the poet Paul Engle, who at that time was associated with the Creative Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In September 1961, Mukherjee was admitted to the Writers’ Workshop at the university. In 1963 she was awarded an M.F.A. Her thesis, a collection of short fiction, earned her admission to the doctoral program in English. She completed her doctorate in 1969.
At the Writers’ Workshop, Mukherjee met Clark Blaise, a Canadian American and fellow student, and the couple married during a lunch hour one day in September 1963. Mukherjee has described their relationship as ”an intensely literary marriage.” Not only do both have distinguished independent careers as writers and academics, but also, each has influenced the other’s work, and they have collaborated on more than one literary venture. Over the years, though sometimes forced to live separately for professional reasons, they have spent most of their time together, raising their two sons and simultaneously pursuing their literary vocations.
Publication and Success
Her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, was published in 1972, and the following year, Mukherjee went on a sabbatical with her husband, spending a year in India, where she began work on Wife (1975), her next novel. She received a grant from the Canada Arts Council to support her project. Though best known as a writer of fiction, Mukherjee has also published several works of nonfiction. Kautilya’s Concept of Diplomacy, the first of three books she has written on politics in India, appeared in 1976. The following year, she was awarded another Canada Arts Council grant and in 1978-1979 a Guggenheim Foundation Award.
In 1980 Mukherjee and Blaise gave up their tenured positions at McGill University, leaving Canada to move to New York. The following year, she published the essay ”An Invisible Woman” (Saturday Night, March 1981), in which she attacked the Canadian policy of multiculturalism and described the racism encountered by immigrants in Canada. She describes her own experience of racial discrimination— how she became ”a housebound, fearful, aggrieved, obsessive, and unforgiving queen of bitterness”—placing it in the context of the overall situation of Asians in Toronto. ”An Invisible Woman” received the second prize at the National Magazine Awards.
Awards and Recent Publications
The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1988, was recognized as the work of an artist developing her craft and enlarging her vision. Around that time, Mukherjee became an American citizen, and in 1989, the year she took a position as a distinguished professor at the University of California at Berkeley, she published her third novel, Jasmine, which was acclaimed by reviewers for its representation of cultural diversity in America. Her novel Desirable Daughters earned her further fame in 2002.
Works in Literary Context
The immigrant’s experience of the clash of cultures and the question of identity the immigrant must face continue to be Mukherjee’s major preoccupations. She draws upon multiple cultural traditions, combining ancient Indian philosophy with the modern mythology of the American Dream and the oral folktales of India with the speech rhythms and cultural iconography of contemporary California. She uses violence, a frequent feature of her fiction, as a metaphor for cultural conflict. Her immigrant protagonists frequently undergo changes of identity and metamorphoses.
”Finding the right voice,” as she told Iowa Review interviewers, remains the prime feature of Mukherjee’s aesthetic: ”The sense of voice being the way one controls fiction. Voice can be the sum total of every artistic trick in your bag. It’s how to use texture, how to use metaphor, how to choose the right point of view, character, and therefore the idioms, the language.” Although she deals with the lives of women who resist imposed destinies, Mukherjee does not think of herself as a feminist: ”For some non-white, Asian women, our ways of negotiating power are different. There is no reason why we should have to appropriate—wholesale and intact—the white, middle-class women’s tools and rhetoric.” Mukherjee seeks to give characters voices in the context of social and political realities to create a fuller representation of the immigrant experience.
Melding East and West
In Mukherjee’s first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter (1972), the central character, Tara, is a Vassar-educated expatriate who returns to India after several years abroad to find a different world from the one she has preserved in her memory. Instead of being comforted by middle-class Brahmin traditions, she is now struck by overwhelming impressions of poverty, hunger, and political turmoil. Tara’s awareness of change, and of sharp cultural difference between East and West, also parallels Mukherjee’s own perceptions about contemporary India. Mukherjee’s early fiction shows the influence of English literature, and the writer’s appreciation of the work of Jane Austen is apparent in her use of irony and the omniscient point of view in The Tiger’s Daughter. At the same time, the novel reveals a sense of self that is non-Western, especially in Tara’s belief in rebirth and reincarnation.
Although Bharati Mukherjee is not the first author to address the issue of immigration and dual identities, her importance as a writer of Indian background in the United States is enduring. Her courage and success have helped to inspire a generation of younger authors of South Asian origin, including Jhumpa Lahiri, Shauna Singh Baldwin, and Anita Rau Badami, who write today with confidence about the immigrant experience.
Works in Critical Context
In India Today (March 17, 2003), Geeta Doctor notes the ways that Mukherjee’s writing deliberately places an exotic aura around Indian culture:
It’s as if Mukherjee is asked to join an American quilting bee where each woman may contribute a small square in which she is permitted to embroider her own story within the fixed colors of the main design. Their skill is in stitching in pieces of folk wisdom and sequined fragments of exotic scenery that they have kept hidden in the treasure chest of their past life.
Wife Wife received a mixed reception from reviewers and critics, both in the United States and India. In her 1985 essay ”Foreignness of Spirit: The World of Bharati Mukherjee’s Novels” in Journal ofIndian Writing in English, Indian critic Jasbir Jain argues that the novel’s indictment of patriarchy in the Indian social system is undermined because the character Dimple’s mental instability makes her an unreliable point of reference. Others, however, praised Mukherjee’s novel for its representation of the plight of Indian expatriates in North America. In his essay on the author for International Literature in English: Essays on the Modern Writers (1991), Liew-Geok Leong approved her exploration of ”the psychology and geography of displacement.” Wife was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in Canada.
Desirable Daughters Reviewers found strengths as well as weaknesses in Desirable Daughters. Ken Forster of the San Francisco Chronicle chided Mukherjee for choosing melodrama when ”her prose is strong enough to carry subtler shades of storytelling,” but he still found the novel compelling: ”Readers are certain to pick up on the seismic, rumbling machinations of the plot, but even the most reluctant of them will find it hard to deny the result is compulsively entertaining.” Lee Siegel, in his review in the Washington Post, detects a pattern in Mukherjee’s cultural observations: ”The ‘desirable daughters’ of this novel represent three ways of relating, as South Asian women, to modernity and the West, three ways of understanding the manifold meanings of culture itself.”
- Alam, Fakrul. Bharati Mukherjee. New York: Twayne, 1996.
- Lal, Malashri. The Law of the Threshold: Women Writers in Indian English. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1995.
- Leong, Liew-Geok. ”Bharati Mukherjee,” in Ross, Robert L., ed., International Literature in English: Essays on the Modern Writers. New York: St.James, 1991.
- Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1993.
- Carb, Alison B. ”An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Massachusetts Review 29 (1988): 645-654.
- Connell, Michael, Jessie Grierson, and Tom Grimes. ”An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Iowa Review 20 (Spring 1990): 7-32.
- Doctor, Geeta. Review of Desirable Daughters. India Today (March 17, 2003).
- Forster, Ken. Review of Desirable Daughters. San Francisco Chronicle (April 28, 2002).
- Jain, Jasbir. ”Foreignness of Spirit: The World of Bharati Mukherjee’s Novels.” Journal of Indian Writing in English 13 (July 1985): 12-19.
- Siegel, Lee. Review of Desirable Daughters. Washington Post (April 28, 2002).
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