Mukherjee, Bharati 1940–

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Mukherjee, Bharati 1940–

PERSONAL: Born July 27, 1940, in Calcutta, India; immigrated to United States, 1961; moved to Canada, 1966, naturalized Canadian citizen, 1972; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1987; daughter of Sudhir Lal (a chemist) and Bina (Banerjee) Mukherjee; married Clark Blaise (a writer and professor), September 19, 1963; children: Bart Anand, Bernard Sudhir. Ethnicity: "Indian." Education: University of Calcutta, B.A., 1959; University of Baroda, M.A., 1961; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1963, Ph.D., 1969.

ADDRESSES: OfficeUniversity of California, Berkeley, English Department, 334 Wheeler Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-1030. Agent—c/o Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit, 445 Park Ave., Fl. 13, New York, NY 10022.

CAREER: Writer and educator. Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, instructor in English, 1964–65; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, instructor, 1965; McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, lecturer, 1966–69, assistant professor, 1969–73, associate professor, 1973–78, professor of English, 1978; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, visiting associate professor of English, 1979–80, 1981–82; Emory University, visiting professor of English, 1983; Montclair State College, associate professor of English, 1984; City University of New York, professor of English, 1987–89; University of California, Berkeley, professor of English, 1987–.


AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from McGill University, 1968 and 1970, Canada Council, 1973–74 and 1977, Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, 1976–77, Guggenheim Foundation, 1978–79, and National Endowment for the Arts, 1982; first prize from Periodical Distribution Association, 1980, for short story "Isolated Incidents"; National Magazine Awards second prize, 1981, for essay "An Invisible Woman"; National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction, 1988, for The Middleman and Other Stories; Pushcart Prize, 1999.



The Tiger's Daughter, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1972.

Wife, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1975.

Jasmine, Grove & Weidenfeld, (New York, NY), 1989.

The Holder of the World, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.

Leave It to Me, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

Desirable Daughters, Thea/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.

The Tree Bride, Thea/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.


Darkness, Penguin (New York, NY), 1985

The Middleman and Other Stories, Grove (New York, NY),1988.


(With husband, Clark Blaise) Days and Nights in Calcutta (nonfiction), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1977.

(With husband, Clark Blaise) The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

Contributor to periodicals, including Mother Jones, New York Times Book Review, Village Voice Literary Supplement, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Des Moines Register, Financial Times, Book Forum, Salmagundi, and Saturday Night.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Bangalore by the Bay (third novel in trilogy), for Houghton-Mifflin.

SIDELIGHTS: In a variety of ways, all of Bharati Mukherjee's writings reflect her personal experiences in crossing cultural boundaries. In novels such as Jasmine, The Tiger's Daughter, The Holder of the World, and Desirable Daughters, as well as in her award-winning short stories, Indian-born Mukherjee supplements her multicultural heritage with "an acute sense of the violence and chaos, however restrained, which can lie beneath the surface of a society, old or new, or of a person," explained Ann Mandel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. A "request for recognition—the desire to be 'visible' … to be recognized as person rather than as ethnic stereotype—characterizes much of Mukherjee's writing," Mandel added. "Her characters sometimes cry out to be seen for who they really are; and sometimes, weak or tired, they surrender to taking on the identity of the 'type' that others see them to be." According to an essayist for Feminist Writers, "Mukherjee is perhaps one of the most well-known writers from the Indian diaspora in the United States. Her writing, both fictional and nonfictional, belongs to the growing category of immigrant literature that explores the complex cross-cultural forces which structure the diasporic experience." On the subject of why she writes, Mukherjee told Feminist Writers, "I write to discover ideal worlds; I live to repair ruined ones."

Born to wealthy parents in Calcutta, Mukherjee moved to the United States to pursue her studies in English at the University of Iowa. While at the university's writing workshop, she met and married American-born novelist Clark Blaise. Although the couple settled in Canada for several years, they eventually moved back to the United States because of the racism she experienced. As Mukherjee wrote in the introduction to her 1985 short-story collection Darkness: "If I may put it in its harshest terms, in Canada, I was frequently taken for a prostitute or shoplifter." Eventually, Mukherjee settled into a teaching career at the University of California at Berkeley.

In The Tiger's Daughter, published in 1972, Mukherjee creates a heroine, Tara, who, like herself, returns to India after several years in the West to discover a country quite unlike the one she remembered. Memories of a genteel Brahmin lifestyle are usurped by new impressions of poverty, hungry children, and political unrest. "In other words," a Times Literary Supplement reviewer noted, "Tara's westernization has opened her eyes to the gulf between two worlds that still makes India the despair of those who govern it."

"Mukherjee writes entertainingly and with a sort of fluid prose that is very good to read," critic Roger Baker wrote in his review of The Tiger's Daughter for Books and Bookmen."She can make her characters spring to life with a word and has what seems to be an acute ear for dialogue." The Times Literary Supplement critic added that Mukherjee's "elegant first novel" is skillfully wrought, with lively dialogue and full, descriptive passages. Yet he found the novel's heroine oddly lacking: "Because [Mukherjee] controls her emotions with such a skilled balance of irony and colorful nostalgia her novel is charming and intelligent—and curiously un-moving…. Tara herself remains so ineffectual a focus … it is hard to care whether or not she will be able to return."

Mukherjee's second novel, Wife, is the story of a young Indian woman, Dimple, who attempts to reconcile the Bengali ideal of the perfect passive wife with the demands of real life. Dimple's arranged marriage to an engineer is followed by the couple's immigration to a New York City neighborhood. There she "watches television, sleeps, studies Better Homes and Gardens, and timorously meets people," Rosanne Klass detailed in Ms."She is afraid to go out alone, and well she might be, since nobody—on TV or off—seems to talk about anything but murders and muggings." This alien environment, along with Dimple's inherent instability, prompts her to contemplate suicide or murder. "Underneath the passivity lives rage which the heroine is hardly conscious of until it fully extends itself from fantasy to reality," Willa Swanson remarked in the Antioch Review.

Swanson found Wife a moving study of an individual whom society sees as a trivial object. "There is much wit, a good ear for dialogue, and above all the creation of a character that gives an insight into the sudden, seemingly inexplicable, explosion of a docile, passive person into violence," Swanson related. Yet other reviewers have not been as comfortable with the motive behind Dimple's violent outburst. Klass noted that "possibly Dimple is supposed to be schizophrenic, but … it isn't indicated. The book seems to suggest that she goes bonkers from … a surfeit of … liberated women, Americanized men, and wilting houseplants. I have known a few Indian women in New York. Many had adjustment problems,… but none … felt that knifing their husbands would really help." Martin Levin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, reiterated this sentiment: "The title and the drift of the book imply that the protagonist is in some way a victim of her social status…. However oppressed Dimple may be, she is also very crazy, a fact about which the author is amusing but ambiguous. You could raise Dimple's consciousness by ninety degrees and still have a zombie."

The gradual merger of the First and Third worlds is the topic underlying Jasmine, Mukherjee's third novel. Jasmine, a poor but independent young Hindu woman, leaves her native country after her husband is killed in a terrorist bombing and gains passage to Florida via ship. Brutally raped by the ship's captain—whom she kills in self-defense—Jasmine travels to New York City to work as an au pair for a Yuppie couple and as a language tutor at Columbia University. After the couple's relationship goes sour, the Indian woman moves to Iowa, where she hopes to escape the flux of modern society. As Eric Larsen noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Jasmine "is devastating in Iowa. Her level voice delicately but relentlessly brings out the contradictions of a world trying in vain to resist or ignore the passing of its self-confidence." Reduced to the level of caregiver that she sought to escape in her native India, Jasmine has come full circle; the First and Third worlds travel the same course.

Mukherjee has proven her skill with short stories as well as novels. Darkness, published in 1985, contains a dozen tales, most of which were written shortly after the author moved from Canada to the United States. All of the stories feature immigrants—newcomers who attempt to transcend either their cultural past or the unpleasant circumstances of their present. "Mukherjee's characters encounter society in ways that are either marginal or confrontational," explained Books in Canada reviewer Neil Bissoondath. "They are challenged by its norms, often fail to understand its mechanics, misinterpret its values; their vision becomes twisted." Particularly in the stories that take place in Canada, racial oppression predominates. In "The World according to Hsu," for example, the title character becomes almost paranoid due to the overt contempt for Indians exhibited by those she seeks to call her fellow countrymen. As Mukherjee writes: "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." However, the effect of Darkness is not totally bleak; as Patricia Bradbury concluded in Quill & Quire, Mukherjee "is showing identities slowly breaking into pieces, cracked open by raw and totally alien dreams. But she always shows this with artistic grace and with the unstated promise that identities, in new and unimaginable moulds, will soon be rebuilt again."

Mukherjee's second story collection, 1988's The Middleman and Other Stories, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction. Focusing on the its author's characteristic theme of Third-World immigrant experiences in North America, The Middleman and Other Stories continues to examine the intimate commingling of East and West. Through narrators that include a Smyrnan mercenary, an investment banker based in Atlanta, and, particularly, Indian women attempting to redefine their traditional Hindu upbringing within a far more liberal American culture, Mukherjee's stories remain unsentimental yet affecting in their approach. "The stories in The Middleman are streets ahead of those in Darkness," contended New York Times Book Review critic Jonathan Raban. "Not only has Ms. Mukherjee vastly enlarged her geographical and social range …, but she has greatly sharpened her style. Her writing here is far quicker in tempo, more confident and more sly than it used to be." Joseph Coates maintained in Chicago's Tribune Books that in The Middleman the author illuminates not only the world of the immigrant to the great melting pot of culture promised by a move to North America, but also the "definitive measure of our collective character" as multigenerational Americans. "By focusing on the most authentic Americans, the ones who just got here," Coates wrote, "Mukherjee makes us see that the reason we persecute and then sentimentalize our newest compatriots is that they too accurately reflect us, the values, priorities and brutalities we'd rather not admit."

After a ten-year sojourn in Canada, Mukherjee returned to her native country in 1973, accompanied by her husband, who was visiting for the first time and eager to embrace his wife's former culture. Together they encountered an India neither anticipated: she found a world far less innocent than the one she remembered, and he met a people more enigmatic than he had imagined. The couple collaborated on Days and Nights in Calcutta, a journal of their visit. As James Sloan Allen wrote in the Saturday Review: "Blaise, at first blinded by the squalor and the terrors, discovers a magic that enfolds reality in myth and ennobles Bengali life through a love of culture. His journal glows with the enthusiasm of discovery … and he turns against 'the whole bloated, dropsical giant called the West.' Mukherjee, by contrast, becomes angry and sad. For her fondly recalled traditions now mask fear and oppression—especially of women." Rather than examine the culture broadly, as her foreign-born husband can, Mukherjee sees individuals, particularly those upper-class women with whom she grew up and whom she would have become. Her visit is filled with love and hate, sympathy and an unwillingness to forgive; she is in exile by choice but, in her words, "while changing citizenship is easy, swapping cultures is not." "It is that sort of honesty, turned by Mukherjee and Blaise upon themselves and their surroundings, that makes this book so distinctive and affecting a chronicle of voyages and discoveries," Margo Jefferson concluded in Newsweek.

Mukherjee produced another critically praised novel with The Holder of the World. Framed by the narrative of Beigh Masters, a self-styled "asset searcher" on a client-directed quest for a large diamond known as the Emperor's Tear, the novel takes readers three centuries into the past of both the United States and India. The novel's heroine, Hannah Easton, is a rebellious young woman born in Massachusetts in 1670. Mukherjee once told CA that, "in literary terms, she is the imagined daughter little 'Pearl Prynne,' the daughter of American literature's first great feminist icon, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The daughter of a Puritan and her Native-American lover, Hannah is abandoned by her mother, whose defiance of Western culture serves as an example to her daughter. Hannah's life progresses unconventionally, and she marries an East India Company trader and travels to India. There, after being abandoned by her husband, who has become a pirate, she takes Indian lovers, eventually becoming the wife of a prince. It is "told in Mukherjee's wonderful prose, whose economy allows for lyricism without clutter," noted Kathryn Harrison in Chicago's Tribune Books. "Hannah's life is the same sort of cross-cultural fairy tale that captivated" in Jasmine, Harrison concluded. Teri Ann Doerksen, a contributor to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, found a strong link between The Holder of the World and 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," Doerksen noted. "And in doing this Mukherjee has written herself … 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." The essayist found The Holder of the World to be Mukherjee's "most accomplished work to date."

Mukherjee's common themes of identity and dislocation are again a part of Leave It to Me, which was published in 1997. As in Jasmine, the central character passes through many earthly incarnations. Born in India to an American mother and a Eurasian father, she is abandoned and then placed in a home in Schenectady, New York. Eventually, "Debby" leaves her adopted Italian-American family to look for her birth mother in San Francisco. There, she finds the ex-flower-child who is her birth mother, has sexual intercourse with the man she believes is her biological father, abets her mother's murder, and flees the police when an earthquake diverts their attention from the crime scene. Debby reinvents herself as "Devi Dee," not realizing that this name of an Indian goddess is embedded in the name of the village of Devigaon, where Debby/Devi was born.

This is "Mukherjee's most American work," commented a Contemporary Novelists essayist, calling Leave It to Me "an enigmatic and alarming meditation on the consequences of America's recent past" in which "Mukher-jee's shift from immigrant diasporic writer to multicultural writer is complete." Still, the essayist had some qualms about the book, noting that "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." Others held the book in high esteem, including Ellen G. Friedman, who, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, called Debby/Devi "a female, post-Freudian, new-millennium Huckleberry Finn" and "one of a small but growing list of female protagonists who navigate through their plots mostly alone and under their own steam and emerge at the end triumphant to some degree, without parents or men deciding their fates." Leave It to Me is, concluded Friedman, "a novel of new realism, postfeminist and postcanonical American narratology." Writing in Maclean's, Marni Jackson noted that Leave It to Me "mischievously frames the American attitude towards history … with the Eastern concept of karma. The novel is a warning that what America sowed in the Sixties, it will eventually have to reap. In Mukherjee's view, this has led to a generation of adults with an inflated sense of entitlement and a shriveled sense of accountability. And it has bred kids like Devi, who have grown up hungry for their own apocalyptic role in history."

In Desirable Daughters, the author follows the lives of three Calcutta-born sisters: Tara, Padma, and Parvati. Each takes a different path as they come of age. Born into a family of wealthy, traditional Brahmins, the girls are intelligent, artistic, and doted on by their parents. Yet their opportunities are limited due to their culture. The three girls rebel and wind up on different continents, always struggling to keep their bonds strong. Tara, in California, uncovers a family secret that sets in motion a dangerous plot to kill and kidnap members of her family. Revelation upon revelation forces Tara to "reevaluate everything she ever thought she knew," commented Joanna M. Burkhardt in Library Journal. "Artfully conveying the complexities of Indian society, philosophy and religion in India and the United States, Mukherjee's writing is rich, deep, and compelling."

Tara's intelligent, curious character would serve well as a sleuth in a full-fledged mystery novel, in the opinion of Booklist reveiwer Donna Seaman, who in appraising Desirable Daughters praised the author's "humming power-line sentences," which "carry sparkling commentary on traditional Hindu marriages, caste prejudices, spiritual matters, and the dark side of America's striving Indian immigrant community." Seaman summarized: "Entertaining and intelligent, Mukherjee's graceful novel explores the continuum between tradition and change as it chips away at superficialities to reach the core of human experience." Calling Desirable Daughters Mukherjee's very best writing, a Publishers Weekly commentator stated, "Only a writer with mature vision, a sense of history and a long-nurtured observation of the Indo-American community could have created this absorbing tale of two rapidly changing cultures and the flash points where they intersect." Irene D'Souza, writ-ing in Herizons noted that with Desireable Daughters "Mukherjee has established her niche in fiction, writing eloquently of the self-inflicted Indian Diaspora."

Tara Lata's story continues in The Tree Bride, the second book of the trilogy that began with Desirable Daughters. After a bombing of the home she shares with her ex-husband, Tara becomes obsessed with discovering the truth of her family's history. Through a coincidence—though Tara says, "There are no coincidences, only convergences"—Tara's gynecologist is the granddaughter of a British colonialist named Vertie Treadwell, who knew Tara's great-great-aunt, Tara Lata Gangooly, the woman for whom Tara is named. This aunt, after her betrothed was killed by a snake-bite, was betrothed a second time, in this case to a tree, becoming the "Tree Bride" of the title. With no need now for marriage funds, Tara Lata Gangooly uses her dowry money to support the rising resistance to the British occupation of India. Some reviewers, such as Michiko Kakutani, writing in the International Herald Tribune, found The Tree Bride to be a "swollen, ungainly novel"; Moni Basu, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution warned that "Mukherjee sets out on uncharted paths, but, unfortunately, gets too tangled in the web of her own plot to make the book the kind of forceful literature she has delivered in the past." Others were impressed by the narrative style: Jyna Scheeren, writing in Library Journal, commented that the novel is "expertly written in olden dreamy and silky prose." A critic for Kirkus Reviews asserted that "there's almost too much information for a reader to absorb. Still, it's worth the effort." The critic noted that the novel is "filled with absorbing stuff, and really rather brilliantly worked out." In a review for the Denver Post, John Freeman commented that the trilogy, when completed, "just might be the Indian-American version of Roots." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman praised Mukherjee as "a virtuoso in the crafting of shrewd, hilarious, suspenseful, and significant cross-cultural dramas."

Writing of Mukherjee's contributions to literature, Manju Jaidka stated in MELUS: "As a writer who has moved from one geographical and cultural space to another, from India to the American continent … her writings speak of the inevitable changes involved in such transitions. There is a re-visioning of ideas and concepts which belong to two different worlds separated by vast oceanic distances. There is also a questioning of biases and prejudices, a deconstruction of social, cultural, and national stereotypes." Another MELUS contributor, John K. Hoppe, considered that Mukherjee, while a "postcolonial writer … is no multiculturalist…. She is plainly disinterested in the preservation of cultures, the hallowing of tradition, obligations of the past." Mukherjee commented on mulitculturalism herself in the Des Moines Register: "Multiculturalism emphasizes the difference between racial heritages. This emphasis on the differences has too often led to the dehumanization of the different…. Parents express rage or despair at their U.S.-born children's forgetting of, or indifference to, some aspects of Indian culture…. I would ask: What is it we have lost if our children are acculturating into the culture in which we are living?"



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Mukherjee, Bharati 1940–

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