Bharati Mukherjee (July 27, 1940 – January 28, 2017) has herself become one of the literary voices whose skillful depictions of the contemporary non-European immigrant experience in the United States she credits with “subverting the very notion of what the American novel is and of what American culture is.” In Canada she kept her “Indianness” smugly intact despite—or because of—a painful awareness of her displacement in the West. She consciously regarded other immigrants, as she notes in the introduction to Darkness, as “lost souls, put upon and pathetic,” in contrast to the more ironically sophisticated postcolonials with whom she identified: people “who knew all too well who and what they were, and what foul fate had befallen them,” and who therefore escaped the emotional turmoil of divided loyalties or assimilationist incongruities.
After arriving in the United States, Mukherjee found herself drawn toward those same immigrant “outcasts” she once pitied—and not just the ones from the subcontinent. In Mukherjee’s two critically acclaimed short-story collections she sets out to “present a full picture, a complicated picture of America,” one in which evil as well as good operates and where “we, the new pioneers, who are still thinking of America as a frontier country . . . are improvising morality as we go along.” Although she unblinkingly paints the bigotries that bedevil her protagonists, she resists casting them as victims
because they don’t think of themselves as victims. On the contrary, they think of themselves as conquerors. We have come not to passively accommodate ourselves to someone else’s dream of what we should be.We’ve come to America, in a way, to take over. To help build a new culture . . . with the same guts and energy and feistiness that the original American Pilgrims had.
Mukherjee’s first collection of short fiction is something of a transitional work in documenting the shift in sensibility that occurred when she left Canada for the United States. Three of its twelve stories reveal a lingering bitterness about Canadian prejudice toward its Indian citizens and concern themselves with the problems that such prejudice generates in the lives of individuals still wrestling with the question of whether they believe themselves to be in voluntary exile or hopeful selftransformation. The stories set in the United States, by way of contrast, regard the immigrant experience more dynamically and offer “a set of fluid identities to be celebrated” as a result of Mukherjee’s having personally “joined imaginative forces with an anonymous, driven underclass of semi-assimilated Indians with sentimental attachments to a distant homeland but no real desire for permanent return.” In this new context her own “Indianness” functions less “as a fragile identity to be preserved against obliteration” than as “a metaphor, a particular way of partially comprehending the world.” The U.S.-based Indian protagonists of Darkness generate stories “of broken identities and discarded languages, and the will to bond oneself to a new community, against the ever-present fear of failure or betrayal.”
In an interview published in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, Mukherjee stated, “My stories center on a new breed and generation of North American pioneers.” The “new pioneers” inhabiting her fictional world include a wide variety of immigrant characters—most of them India-born and others, increasingly, from Third World countries—who pull up their traditional roots and arrive in the New World with dreams of wealth, success, and freedom. Her first collection of short stories, Darkness, focuses on immigrant Indians in North America and deals primarily with the problems of expatriation, immigration, and cross-cultural assimilation. Of the twelve stories in this collection, three reflect on the Canadian situation and the rest are set in the United States. Mukherjee calls the Canadian stories “uneasy stories about expatriation,” as they stem from the author’s personal encounters with racial prejudice in Canada.
The World According to Hsü
Among the Canadian pieces in Darkness, a notably painful and uneasy story about expatriation and racial prejudice, “The World According to Hsü,” explores the diasporic consciousness of Ratna Clayton, an Indian woman married to a Canadian professor of psychology at McGill University, Montreal. Her husband, Graeme Clayton, has been offered the chair at the University of Toronto. Ratna dreads the thought of moving to Toronto: “In Toronto, she was not Canadian, not even Indian. She was something called, after the imported idiom of London, a Paki. And for Pakis, Toronto was hell.” Hoping that a vacation would be the ideal setting to persuade his wife to move, Graeme arranges a trip to a beautiful African island. Upon their arrival, they find themselves caught in the midst of a revolution and constrained by a night curfew. The threat of violence unleashes memories of Toronto in Ratna’s mind:
A week before their flight, a Bengali woman was beaten and nearly blinded on the street. And the week before that an eight-year-old Punjabi boy was struck by a car announcing on its bumper: KEEP CANADA GREEN. PAINT A PAKI.
At the dinner table, when her husband reads her an article by Kenneth J. Hsü about the geological collision of the continents, Ratna wonders why she had to move to Toronto to experience a different kind of collision—racial and cultural. Finally, she brings herself to accept her situation when she realizes that “no matter where she lived, she would never feel at home again.”
Another story in Darkness, “Tamurlane,” depicts the lives of Indian émigrés at the opposite end of the class hierarchy from the one Ratna occupies. It dramatizes the precarious situation of illegal aliens who, lured by the dream of a better life, are smuggled into Canada, where they are forced to lead an anonymous, subhuman, underground existence, sleeping in shifts and living in constant fear of being raided by immigration authorities. “Was this what I fled Ludhiana for?” poignantly asks the narrator, an illegal Indian working as a waiter at a dingy Indian restaurant in Toronto. The title of the story (alluding to Tamerlane, a lame Mongol warrior) refers to the restaurant’s chef Gupta, who had been maimed six years earlier when he was thrown on the subway tracks. During a raid on illegals at the restaurant, Gupta orders the Mounties to leave. When they refuse and threaten to use force against him, he picks up a cleaver and brings it down on the outstretched hand of one of the policemen. He then defiantly holds his Canadian passport in front of his face. “That way,” the story ends, “he never saw the drawn gun, nor did he try to dodge the single bullet.”
The immigrant experience dramatized in the American stories is less about the humiliations inflicted on the newcomer by New World intolerance than about the inner struggles of that newcomer in mediating between the pull of old cultural loyalties and the pressures to assimilate to the new context. Dr. Manny Patel, in “Nostalgia,” is an Indian psychiatrist working at a state hospital in Queens, New York. His American Dream has come true; he lives in an expensive home, drives a red Porsche sports car, is married to an American nurse, and sends his son to school at Andover. Counting his manifold acquisitions and blessings, he regards himself as “not an expatriate but a patriot.” Yet he knows that, despite becoming a U.S. citizen, he will forever continue to hover between the OldWorld and the New. Being the only child of his parents, he feels it is his duty to return to India and look after them in their old age. Caught in a mood of remorse and longing, he drives one day into Manhattan, is smitten by the beauty of an Indian saleswoman, Padma, and invites her on a date, which she readily accepts. They go to an Indian restaurant for dinner and then to bed at an expensive hotel. The whole experience makes him so nostalgic that he wishes “he had married an Indian woman” and “had any life but the one he had chosen.” At the end of their tryst, Padma’s uncle enters the hotel room with a passkey and accuses Dr. Manny of the rape of his minor niece. Shocked and humiliated, Dr. Manny discovers that “the goddess of his dreams” was nothing more than a common prostitute in collusion with her uncle-pimp to deceive him for profit. The uncle extorts not only seven hundred dollars but also a physician’s note on hospital stationery to secure immigration for a nephew.
Afterward Dr. Manny defecates into the bathroom sink, squatting as he had done in his father’s home, and writes “WHORE” on the bathroom mirror and floor with his excrement, now become “an artist’s medium.” Just before dawn he drives home, doubly chastened by having succumbed so foolishly to the siren’s song of a culture to which he no longer truly belongs and whose gilded memories he now sees for what they are. As he approaches his home he finds the porch light still on, “glow[ing] pale in the brightening light of morning,” and he decides to take his wife on a second honeymoon to the Caribbean, in effect repledging his troth to the tangible reality of America itself.
The conflict between OldWorld and NewWorld takes a different form in “A Father.” Mr. Bhowmick, a traditional Bengali, works as a metallurgist with General Motors and lives in Detroit with his Americanized wife and a twenty-six-year-old engineer daughter. He worships the goddess Kali in his home shrine, believes in the sanctity of Hindu superstitions, and lives in constant awe of the unseen powers he believes govern his destiny. Every day he finds himself making frequent compromises between his beliefs and the American pragmatism that surrounds him. When he discovers, to his horror, that his unmarried daughter is pregnant, his first reaction is that she should get an abortion to save the family honor. He blames his wife for this unhappy situation because coming to the United States was her idea. Then he tries to be reasonable. He pities the double life between conflicting values that his daughter must live; he hopes that maybe she has already married secretly; he prays that his hypothetical son-in-law turns out to be a white American. He even secretly enjoys the thought of having a grandson (for he is sure, in this rosier scenario, that the child must be a male).
Thus he reconciles himself to this new situation without resorting to the draconian measures a father in India would be expected to take, only to be confronted with an even more contemporary twist: His daughter reveals that she was impregnated by artificial insemination and with all the fury of Kali herself bluntly counters her parents’ revulsion at the “animality” of such calculated procreative behavior with assurances that she has secured a sperm donor who meets all the standard bourgeois criteria for a good mate, just as they would have done in arranging a “good” marriage for her were they still in India: “You should be happy—that’s what marriage is all about, isn’t it? Matching bloodlines, matching horoscopes, matching castes, matching, matching, matching.” Her caustic deflation of the traditions he still venerates defeats his effort to rise to the challenges of modernity, and he strikes out at her, hitting her swelling belly with the rolling pin he has just taken away from his wife. The story ends with Mrs. Bhowmick forced into an unthinkable violation of family honor: She calls the police, thus relying on outsiders to intervene publicly in the selfdestruction of her family. In the ways it pulls the reader’s sympathies back and forth inconclusively among its characters, “A Father” simulates the actual see-sawing of loyalties characteristic of the multigenerational acculturation process itself.
The Middleman, and Other Stories
Although Darkness focuses primarily on the experience of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, Mukherjee’s second collection, The Middleman, and Other Stories, is broader in range and scope, as it explores the American experience of immigrants from across the developing world, including India, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Uganda, and Vietnam. Moreover, four of the eleven stories in this volume have white American protagonists who offer another perspective on the contemporary immigrant situation. (It is worth noting, however, that the concluding piece, “The Management of Grief,” once more returns to Mukherjee’s deep animus toward the special form of bigotry suffered by Asians in Canada; it renders fictively the same subject with which she and Blaise have dealt in The Sorrow and the Terror.)
Virtually all of the stories examine the compromises, losses, and adjustments involved in the process of acculturating newcomers to American life and remaking American culture to reflect their presence: In fact, the volume virtually hums with the hustle of modern American cultural diversity played out across an equally various set of U.S. locations ranging from Atlanta to Detroit to Miami to Iowa. Most of the “new pioneers” in this collection are, in a metaphoric sense, middlemen and women caught between two worlds and cultures (and sometimes more), as even a brief sampling of the cast of characters suggests: an Amerasian child reunited with her veteran father; a Trinidadian “mother’s helper”; a fully assimilated third-generation Italian American and her Afghan lover; an Iraqi Jew being chased by police in Central America; a Filipino makeup girl. Such international pedigrees bespeak the widespread political breakdowns that on a shrinking planet increasingly link people who once inhabited completely different worlds. She consistently uses the cross-cultural romance as locus for the societal frictions and emotional barriers that exemplify and exacerbate the problems of communication across culturally constructed differences. The faith of the newest aspirants to the American Dream is frequently contrasted with the decadent malaise of “ugly Americans,” who no longer have to travel abroad to betray or defile peoples of other lands. The vigorous immediacy of the American vernacular (to which Mukherjee confesses a delighted addiction) penetrates the speech of these characters, many of whom speak directly to the reader in the first person, and conveys the volatile excitement of the dreams ignited in them by what Mukherjee calls “the idea of America.”
The volume’s title story is narrated by Alfred Judah from Baghdad, an individual regularly mistakenly for an Arab or an Indian. When not on the job, he lives in Flushing, Queens, and he was once married to an American, but he nonetheless feels like an eternal outsider, for “there are aspects of American life I came too late for and will never understand.” As such he remains on the margins by working for an illicit border-jumper, gun smuggler Clovis T. Ransome. In this story Judah’s job is as middleman delivering contraband weapons, when the armed uprising in the Central American country where they had been operating in callous indifference to the politics of their customers violently ends their exploitative enterprise and leaves Judah (through the casual intervention of Ransome’s bloodthirsty mistress and his own recent lover Maria) to negotiate his way back to “civilization” by drawing yet again upon his basic repertoire of survival in the New World: “There must be something worth trading in the troubles I’ve seen.”
The Middleman, and Other Stories, like Darkness before it, contains many melodramatic situations and a pronounced streak of violence. Mukherjee does not always provide sufficient context for the behaviors and attitudes of her characters. Nevertheless, she imparts a potent voice to these “new pioneers” and reveals the dynamic world of America’s newest wave of self-inventors—people often invisible to those in the mainstream. Many of them suffer from racism and prejudice; others seem wel- come only in the shady underworlds of sex, crime, and drugs; and some merely scramble for a living in their struggle for survival. To adapt to their new milieu, even professional men and women have to make compromises and trade-offs between their old belief systems and the NewWorld ethos. In the process, many suffer cultural disorientation and alienation and undergo traumatic changes—psychological, cultural, linguistic. Yet Mukherjee appears to have no doubt that such a break is desirable. As she has told journalist Bill Moyers,
America is a total and wondrous invention. Letting go of the old culture, allowing the roots to wither is natural; change is natural. But the unnatural thing is to hang on, to retain the old world . . . I think if you’ve made the decision to come to America, to be an American, you must be prepared to really, emotionally, become American and put down roots. . . . In doing that, we very painfully, sometimes violently, murder our old selves. . . . I want to think that it’s a freeing process. In spite of the pain, in spite of the violence, in spite of the bruising of the old self, to have that freedom to make mistakes, to choose a whole new history for oneself, is exciting.
Admittedly, the new selves that emerge from her stories are not always models of virtue, but “pioneering does not necessarily equate with virtue. . . . I like to think my characters have that vigor for possessing the land,” with all the mother wit, ruthlessness, and tenacity of their predecessors. Yes, she admits,
the immigrant’s soul is always at risk. . . . I have to make up the rules as I go along. No one has really experienced what the nonwhite, non-European immigrants are going through in the States.We can’t count on the wisdom and experience of the past of the old country; and we can’t quite fit into the traditional Eurocentric experiences of Americans.
In telling their stories, then, she regards herself as “writing a fable for the times. I’m trying to create a mythology that we can live by as we negotiate our daily lives.”
In “Danny’s Girls,” a young Ugandan boy living in Flushing works as a middleman for a hustler, Danny Sahib (originally “Dinesh,” a Hindu from northern India), whom the boy calls “a merchant of opportunity.” Danny started out selling tickets for Indian concerts at Madison Square Garden, then for fixed beauty contests, and eventually went into the business of arranging green cards through proxy marriages for Indians aspiring to become permanent U.S. residents. The latter launched a business of mail-order brides, with Danny in partnership with the African boy’s aunt, Lini, in selling Indian and other Asian girls to American men eager for reputedly “compliant” wives. The young narrator has always looked up to Danny and has wanted, like his hero, to attain financial independence in the big world of the United States. When he falls in love with a Nepali girl for whom Danny had arranged a green card, however, he determines to liberate both of them from Danny’s clutches, accepting the challenge of becoming his own man by resisting Danny’s commodifying ethic—surely American opportunity should mean more.
“Jasmine” is the story of an ambitious Trinidadian girl of that name, who, through a middleman, illegally enters Detroit over the Canadian border at Windsor. She finds a job cleaning and keeping the books at the Plantations Motel, a business run by the Daboo family, Trinidadian Indians also trying to remake their destinies in Michigan. In picaresque fashion Jasmine later goes to Ann Arbor and works as a live-in domestic with an easygoing American family: Bill Moffitt, a biology instructor, Lara Hatch-Moffitt, a performance artist, and their little girl, Muffin. When Lara goes on the road with her performing group, Jasmine is happily seduced by her boss, and as they make love on the Turkish carpet, she thinks of herself as literally reborn, “a bright, pretty girl with no visa, no papers, and no birth certificate. No nothing other than what she wanted to invent and tell. She was a girl rushing wildly into the future.” The story in many ways presages the improvisational Indian heroine of Mukherjee’s full-length novel Jasmine, published in 1989.
A Wife’s Story
Not all of The Middleman, and Other Stories deals with characters struggling to move from the margins into the mainstream of American opportunity: “AWife’s Story” and “The Tenant” focus on well-educated Indian women. In the first, Mrs. Panna Bhatt, married to the vice president of a textile mill in India, has come to New York on a two-year scholarship to get a doctoral degree in special education. Haunted by memories of the oppressive gender roles imposed on her mother and grandmother, she believes that she is making something new of her life; her choice of special education as a field of study provocatively mirrors the kind of intervention in her own constricted development that she is undertaking with her radical experiment abroad. She even develops a friendship with a married Hungarian man with whom she attends the theater. When an actor makes obscene jokes about Patel women, however, she feels insulted:
It’s the tyranny of the American dream that scares me. First, you don’t exist. Then you are invisible. Then you are funny. Then you are disgusting. Insult, my American friends will tell me, is a kind of acceptance. No instant dignity here.
Yet when her husband comes for a short visit, as a reminder of the more decorous world she misses, she must feign enthusiasm for him. She tries to make up to him for her years away, pretending that nothing has changed, but finally she refuses to return to India with him. When forced to choose between the vulgar freedoms of the United States and the repressive if “safe” institutions of her homeland, she realizes she has already crossed over to another country psychologically.
“The Tenant” goes to the other extreme by showing how an attractive, middle-class, young Bengali woman becomes vulnerable when she breaks with her traditional ways and tries to become part of mainstream America. Maya Sanyal from Calcutta came to the United States ten years earlier, at the age of nineteen. In smooth succession she received a doctoral degree, married an American, became a naturalized citizen, got divorced, and now teaches comparative literature in Cedar Falls, Iowa. During that time she has indiscriminately slept with all kinds of men, except Indians, in a seemingly ambivalent repudiation of the constrictive gender mores of her homeland. Now, afraid that her bachelor landlord might make sexual advances toward her, she calls the other Bengali professor on campus, Dr. Chatterji, and secures an invitation to tea. The traditional atmosphere of his life prompts a newly awakened longing for her homeland, even as his pathetic attempt at seduction leaves her embarrassed. Tired of the fact that her unattached status makes her vulnerable to the lust of every passing male and newly nostalgic for her homeland traditions, she responds to an India Abroad matrimonial advertisement from a countryman seeking “the new emancipated Indo-American woman” with “a zest for life,” “at ease in USA [sic],” but still holding on to values “rooted in Indian tradition.” To her surprise, as she meets Ashoke Mehta at the Chicago airport, she suddenly feels as if a “Hindu god” is descending to woo her—a handsome Indian man who has indeed merged his two cultures in ways that seem to make them destined for each other. Yet witnessing his seamless acculturation also erodes her own self-confidence:
She feels ugly and unworthy. Her adult life no longer seems miraculously rebellious; it is grim, it is perverse. She has accomplished nothing. She has changed her citizenship but she hasn’t broken through into the light, the vigor, the hustle of the New World. She is stuck in dead space.
More to the point is their mutual recognition that each carries a complicated romantic history to this moment—a history that makes each wary of the other and precludes Ashoke’s contacting her again for several months. During that time she resumes her life in Cedar Falls and, when her landlord abruptly marries, moves to a new room rented to her by an armless man named Fred, whose lover she soon becomes, “two wounded people” who “settle into companionship.” She also recognizes uncomfortably that this liaison speaks to some sense of her own deficiency as a rootless émigré in flight from her own past: “She knows she is strange, and lonely, but being Indian is not the same, she would have thought, as being a freak.” When at last Ashoke calls and obliquely concedes the entanglements that had kept him from committing to her, she knows she will accept his invitation to join him out East—each has made peace with the contradictory emotions about their shared legacy they arouse in each other.
Novels: The Tiger’s Daughter, 1972;Wife, 1975; Jasmine, 1989; The Holder of theWorld, 1993; Leave It to Me, 1997; Desirable Daughters, 2002; The Tree Bride, 2004.
Nonfiction: Kautilya’s Concept of Diplomacy, 1976; Days and Nights in Calcutta, 1977 (with Clark Blaise); The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, 1987 (with Blaise); Political Culture and Leadership in India: A Study of West Bengal, 1991; Regionalism in Indian Perspective, 1992.
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Ispahani, Mahnaz. “A Passage from India.” Review of Darkness, by Bharati Mukherjee. The New Republic 14 (April, 1986): 36-39.
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Mukherjee, Bharati. “American Dreamer.” Mother Jones, January/February, 1997.
____________. “Interview.” In Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, edited by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger, and Maurice Lee. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
____________. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Interview by Geoff Hancock. The Canadian Fiction Magazine 59 (1987): 30-44.
Nazareth, Peter. “Total Vision.” Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review 110 (1986): 184-191.
Sant-Wade, Arvindra, and Karen Marguerite Radell. “Refashioning the Self: Immigrant Women in Bharati Mukherjee’s New World.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Winter, 1992): 11-17.
Vignisson, Runar. “Bharati Mukherjee: An Interview.” Span 3-4 (1993).
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