Bharati Mukherjee Biography
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Calcutta, India, 1940; became Canadian citizen, 1972. Education: Loreto Convent School, Calcutta; University of Calcutta, B.A. (honors) in English 1959; University of Baroda, Gujarat, M.A. 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1963; Ph.D. 1969. Career: Instructor in English, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1964-65, and University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1965; lecturer, 1966-69, assistant professor, 1969-73, associate professor, 1973-78, and professor, 1978, McGill University, Montreal. Professor, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York; associate professor, Montclair State College, New Jersey, 1984-87; Queen's College, City University of New York, Flushing, 1987-89; professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1990-95. Awards: Canada Arts Council grant, 1973, 1977; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; National Book Critics Circle award, 1989; Pushcart prize, 1999. Agent: Timothy Seldes, Russell and Volkening, 551 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.
The Tiger's Daughter. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; London, Chatto and Windus, 1973.
Wife. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975; London, Penguin, 1987.
Jasmine. New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1989; London, Virago Press, 1990.
The Holder of the World. New York, Knopf, and Chatto and Windus, 1993.
Leave It to Me. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Darkness. Toronto, Penguin, 1985.
The Middleman and Other Stories. New York, Grove Press, 1988;London, Virago Press, 1989.
Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Clark Blaise, 1991.
Kautilya's Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation. Calcutta, Minerva, 1976.
Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Clark Blaise. New York, Doubleday, 1977; London, Penguin, 1986.
The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, with Clark Blaise. Toronto, Viking, 1987.
Political Culture and Leadership in India: A Study of West Bengal. New Delhi, India, Mittal Publications, 1991.
Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, New York, Garland Press, 1993; Bharati Mukherjee by Fakrul Alam, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1996; The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, edited by R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Prestige, 1996.
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Bharati Mukherjee is a versatile writer whose oeuvre includes five novels, two collections of short stories, some powerful essays, and two nonfiction books which she co-authored with her husband Clark Blaise. Her early work led to her being seen as a writer firmly enclosed in the bosom of Indian writing in English. But this was an embrace that Mukherjee herself sought to avoid. With the publication of Darkness, her third book of fiction, she convincingly declared her desire to be seen as a North American writer. In the hard-hitting introduction to this collection of stories Mukherjee explains this shift as "a movement away from the aloofness of expatriation, to the exuberance of immigration."
Mukherjee's early novels, The Tiger's Daughter and Wife, both published in the early 1970s, are novels about the isolation of Indian expatriates. A reading of Days and Nights in Calcutta reveals that there is a strong autobiographical element in A Tiger's Daughter. Tara Banerjee, like the Bharati Mukherjee of Days and Nights in Calcutta, is an outsider in India because of her decision to leave the subcontinent, to live in North America, and to marry an American, mleccha (outcaste) husband. On her return, Tara sees India through the eyes of a Western imagination rather than through her own childhood eyes. Her sense of alienation in Calcutta is symbolized by her regular visits to the Catelli-Continental Hotel, from where she views the turmoil of Calcutta from the safe heights of a tourist, cut off from the "real" India which seethes below her. Tara is no longer able to feel a part of her family, who belong to an old Bengal which is now lost to her, nor is she able to feel at ease with her old friends who, like her family, belong to a Calcutta which is rapidly fading, and who, in their different ways are as isolated as Tara from the beast beneath them. On another level, The Tiger's Daughter is an interesting response to E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.
The theme of expatriation and isolation which is handled with such assurance in The Tiger's Daughter is again treated in her second novel. In Wife, Dimple Dasgupta is married off to a young engineer, and soon finds herself emigrating to America. She finds her new life impossible to adjust to, and her attempts to become American—to learn to speak American-English by watching the television, for example—cause her to question her own cultural values, and even her own happiness. These are questions she might never have asked herself in Calcutta, and had she done so and found herself equally disillusioned, her solution, the novel suggests, would probably have been suicide. The infidelity and the murder which brings the novel to its shocking close are the alternatives with which Dimple's American experience has provided her.
Darkness is an important landmark for Mukherjee. It is in this book, her first collection of stories, that she begins to exchange the robes of an Indian expatriate writer for the new, but not borrowed robes of a North American writer who is an immigrant. The specifically Canadian stories in this collection continue to explore the painful world of the expatriate she writes about in Wife—indeed the story "Visitors" is a re-working of the essential elements of that novel. Other stories, though, explore North America through the alien voices of its various immigrant cultures—Italian, Latin American, Sri Lankan, as well as Indian. With The Middleman and Other Stories Mukherjee's exchange of mantles is complete. In these stories, sometimes with anger, often with violence, sometimes with comedy, often with tenderness, Mukherjee gives voice to the "other" within North America. The result is a broader, more detailed portrait of the North American immigrant experience than Wife or even the impressive stories in Darkness provide. "The Management of Grief," which deals with the sorrow of the bereaved relatives of the victims of the 1985 Air India disaster, is perhaps the most moving story in the collection. The horror of that tragedy is dealt with in harrowing detail in Mukherjee's second nonfiction collaboration, The Sorrow and the Terror.
After a gap of fourteen years, Mukherjee made a welcome return to the novel form with the publication of Jasmine, which explores female identity through the story of an Indian peasant woman whose path takes her from the Punjab, to Florida, to New York, to Iowa, and as the novel draws to a close she is about to set off for California. With each new move the protagonist reinvents herself with a new name—Jyoti, Jasmine, Jase, Jane—and with each new name she moves closer to her dream of being an American, of belonging to the New World. Jasmine's ongoing journey is an effective device which highlights her rootless position and her search for identity. The move to California, which resonates with hope and invests her with the aspirations of America's early pioneers, suggests that Jasmine has finally found her identity in America, which, perhaps more than any other country, can contain her many identities without contradiction.
In The Holder of the World, her most accomplished work to date, Mukherjee turns her attention to one of the founding novels of the postcolonial American canon—Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Reversing the usual binary opposition between occidental and oriental texts, Mukherjee presents Hawthorne's novel as one which has been written out of a knowledge of India. And in doing this Mukherjee has written herself (as an American whose roots are in India) into her text perhaps more effectively even than in the seemingly autobiographical The Tiger's Daughter. The novel is also interesting for the way it very subtly parodies the Western construct of India as a nation and the perception of Indians as a homogenous group.
In Mukherjee's most recent novel, Leave It to Me, some of the themes of her earlier fiction—notably identity and dislocation—are again important. And as in Jasmine, the central character of this novel goes through a series of incarnations as she is abandoned in India by her American hippie mother and Eurasian father, raised in Schenectady, New York, by her adoptive Italian-American parents, and then (in classic road movie style) moves to San Francisco to look for her birth mother. This novel is Mukherjee's most American work: an enigmatic and alarming meditation on the consequences of the America's recent past—the hippie culture of the 1960s, Vietnam—rather than a novel of dislocation in the diasporic sense of her earlier fiction. In this novel Mukherjee's shift from immigrant diasporic writer to multicultural writer is complete. However, it may be that Mukherjee has moved too far. Few of the characters are as convincing as those who populated her earlier works, and at times the level of coincidence works against this novel—as when, in a moment of epiphany, Debby reinvents herself as Devi Dee, without realizing that she has taken the name of the goddess after whom the Indian village of Devigaon, where she was born, is named.
Bharati Mukherjee is a writer who is at her best when she draws on her experiences of the Old World while writing with insight about the New World to which she now belongs. Her more recent books, particularly The Holder of the World, confirm that hers is an original voice at the cutting edge of American immigrant/multicultural literature.
Ralph J. Crane
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