Mukherjee, Bharati 1940-
Mukherjee, Bharati 1940-
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: Agent—c/o Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit, 445 Park Ave., Floor 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' …tobe 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 unmoving…. Tara herself remains so ineffectual a focus …itis 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 crosscultural 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 exflower-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 "Mukherjee'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, post-feminist 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, writing 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 DesirableDaughters. 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 …isno multiculturalist…. Sheis 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?"
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Bharati Mukherjee contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Autobiography is the hardest genre for me to write. I have never kept a diary, never started a journal. I gave up letter-writing years ago as a social grace (a full-time academic is never without letter-writing obligations). I can invent impassioned autobiographies for imaginary protagonists who share little of my background, but cannot record my personal experiences with any ease. I tell myself that this discomfort with writing directly about my life and feelings comes from my having been brought up in a religious tradition that equates salvation (nirvana) with egoextinction. Whatever the cause—and it may go back to the Enlightenment or Romanticism so far as I know—Indians have generally shied away from this central form of self-discovery, this twentieth-century obligation, it would seem, to their reading public.
In his memoir To Keep the Ball Rolling, Anthony Powell warned us that an autobiographical essay by "a professional novelist is bound to raise speculation as to how much direct experience has found a place in his fiction." I agree with Powell, but that's not the reason for my never having kept a diary, never having started a journal. For me autobiographical writing is the hardest undertaking. All the same I am willing to concede that the where and when of my birth and my cultural upbringing have shaped my fiction. Powell alerted us to art's magical transmogrification of real-life experience. "The images," Powell wrote, "that present themselves to the mind of any novelist of more than amateur talent take an entirely different form when the same writer attempts to describe 'real people' known to him; the former altogether more complex, free-wheeling, wide ranging."
To date—I'm writing this in the first quarter of 2005—I have published seven novels, two collections of short stories, co-authored (with Clark Blaise, my husband—incidentally, there's a man who relishes autobiography and can turn out in two days what takes me six months), two works of nonfiction, and scores of essays on the immigrant experience and the twoway transformation forced on host countries and on migrants. I tell myself that I knew from age three that I would be a writer. But I had no idea until I finished my first novel, The Tiger's Daughter, that my writerly imagination would be fired up by the people who leave rather than the people, like Joyce's Dubliners, who stay home. I was trained to believe that the inevitable consequence of emigration was tragic deracination. But my personal experience has proved that, at least for me, the loosening of original roots can be an empowering gain. In my case, an excess of desire or will has colluded with destiny and propelled me into voluntarily making my home on a continent oceans away from the one on which I was born.
I do not consider myself an autobiographical novelist, but all my writing—fiction and nonfiction—is inspired by my own need to understand the complex and contrary feelings unleashed by the acts of (to borrow vocabulary from Clark Blaise's Resident Alien) "unhousement" and "rehousement." In these times, when whole peoples are on the move chasing dreams or escaping wars and famines, and when national borders are too porous to be effectively policed, that trauma of dislocation and the rare hope of happy survival are being replicated million-fold. The narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.
I am of the first generation in my family to have been born in Kolkata, the state capital situated in western Bengal, and not in the family's ancestral desh, or homeland, Faridpur, a small town in eastern Bengal. I am also of the first generation of the Mukherjee clan to have been born in a hospital rather than in a birthing-hut in the family compound. I am told that I was born on July 27, 1940. I have to accept that date on faith. In my childhood middle-class families did not officially register births, weddings, and deaths. Relatives' and neighbors' bearing of witness served in place of government certification. The only document—now lost—that acknowledged the fact of my birth was my horoscope, cast by our family astrologer when I was a week old. To predict my destiny, the astrologer needed to calculate the position of constellations at the precise moment of my emergence into this world. My family must have misremembered the time of my birth or perhaps the time-keeper's watch
had been minutes or seconds off, because some of the astrologer's predictions, including the year of my death, have been proved wrong.
In 1940 Kolkata was known in the non-Banglaspeaking world by its British colonial mispronunciation, Calcutta. I spent the first eight years of my life on a comfortably middle-class block of Rash Behari Avenue in the Ballygunge area of south Kolkata, an area that included the Dhakuria Lakes for boating and grassy expanses for strolling. Rash Behari Avenue is still a wide, treed artery bisected longitudinally by tram tracks.
My father, the second of seven brothers who had survived into adulthood, was the sole financial support of our multi-generational household of forty-five to fifty relatives. We lived together because we were "family," though family was interpreted in flexible enough terms to include people of the same caste who came from our ancestral village and were deemed worthy enough of honorary kinship. We crowded into the ground floor of a two-story house on a block of one-, two-, and three-story stucco houses, many with storefronts. The rooms were arranged around a large inner courtyard, at one corner of which was a faucet and rusty drain. The live-in cook scaled and chopped fish, which we ate twice a day, under that faucet and afterwards the live-in maid swept the fish guts and debris into the drain with a stiff broom made of palm-leaf spines. Crouching under that same faucet, a part-time maid scrubbed clean the greasy piles of brass plates and brass tumblers and the sooty cooking utensils used to feed the large household. In the monsoon season the courtyard became a lake, and we children floated boats we'd made out of newspapers.
As in all traditional homes on our block, the rooms that opened on to the courtyard constituted the "inner chambers" inhabited by family members, and the two rooms and a bathroom that faced the long, narrow entry way to the front gate were the "outer chambers." Long-term houseguests not related to us—usually young men from our ancestral village in need of free room and board while they went to college or looked for jobs—installed themselves, dormitory-fashion, in the "outer chambers." A section of the verandah surrounding the inner courtyard was partitioned off with canvas sidings and designated the thakur ghar, or room of worship.
My parents and we three sisters had a small room to ourselves, as did my father's oldest brother, a married man and the father of two sons and two daughters. All other rooms and the verandah that wrapped around the inner courtyard were treated as fluid floor space for rolling out bamboo bed-mats at night and bamboo seat-mats at meal times. Our room was the most solidly furnished in the house, because my mother, the eldest daughter of a rich lawyer and landowner, had been required by the Mukherjee family to bring a heavy, ornately carved bedroom suite, consisting of a wide bridal four-poster, two ceiling-high almirahs and a dressing-table with an imported oval mirror and matching stool, as part of her dowry. Valuable dowry items, such as gold jewelry and silver vessels, plates and tumblers, were kept locked in a waist-high iron safe, the key to which was available only to the family elders. By the time I was born, my father had added a glass-fronted bookcase to hold a complete set of The Book of Knowledge and his scientific books, and as our nuclear family grew, a simple wooden chowki bed and a two-shelf pantry cabinet. The overflow of scientific journals and books were stacked in columns at the foot of the four-poster. During the day, we used the beds as sofas and desks. At night the servant put up a tent of mosquito netting, and we slept on the beds, huddled close together so as not to knock down the columns of scientific literature.
Seated on bamboo mats on the floor of the inner verandah, we ate our two main meals of the day off brass plates, in batches: first children; then adult males; finally women and servants. That order, standard in traditional Kolkata homes, irked me even when I was a child. All the same, I looked forward to the meal hours, especially to the evening one for that was when I had my overworked mother's total attention. She told me stories as she hand-fed me balls of rice and macerated fish from which she had extracted the finest, featheriest bones. She spun dramatic tales about historical figures in crisis situations: Helen in besieged Troy; Marie Antoinette in a jail cell; Napoleon in Elba; battle-widowed Rajput queens choosing self-immolation over capture and dishonor; Bengali teenaged freedom-fighters on penal ships on their way to brutal banishment in the penal island colony in the Andamans. My mother was an improviser (like jazz musicians, I think now) who could keep me tense, entranced, through each re-telling and make the tale's familiar ending come through as unpredictable. Her voice melted my physical surrounding and transported me to other places and other times.
My paternal grandmother, Thakuma, competed as story-teller. She launched into morality tale after morality tale from the Puranas and the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. She recited her favorite episodes from the Bangla version of the epics, and the Puranas. I listened enthralled: the Kauravas battled their cousins, the Pandavas, to death; lustful monsters kidnapped virtuous wives; princesses picked their bridegroom-to-be after exhibitions of male prowess; queens proved their chastity by public trials by fire; shape-changing demons preyed on innocent humans. The Ramayana was my all-time favorite romance. Handsome and virtuous Prince Ram, legal heir to the throne of his aged, polygamous father, is banished to the forest for fourteen years because of the intrigues of a scheming, seductive stepmother who hopes that she can get her own son appointed as crown prince. (Hadn't I heard of middle-class versions of such treachery pulled off by neighbors?) Ram is accompanied into the forest (a place where monsters roam and ascetics meditate) by his loyal younger brother (think "buddy narrative") and his beautiful devoted young wife (think potential victim of predators). Adventures ensue, as they must. Ravana, the fiercest of ogre-kings, spies Ram's guileless bride as she putters around in a simple forest-dweller's dress, and kidnaps her. Wife-rescue must follow wife-kidnapping; dishonor must be avenged. A Homeric-scale war and grand martial victory must take place before husband and wife can be reunited and the rightful heir be crowned king. But wait! There's more. All is not well in virtuous King Rama's kingdom. His subjects want proof that during her years of captivity, she did not allow herself to be violated. The subjects clamor for proof of her chastity. Dutiful (democratic?) king complies with his subjects' demand. The kidnap victim undergoes a public triaI by fire, proves her innocence, and is re-accepted by her relieved husband and his subjects. But wait, there's more! The kidnap victim has had enough of being a good wife and queen. She asks Mother Earth to swallow her. Mother Earth obliges. It's a good story, with its incorporation of shape-changing demons and deities into everyday reality; its narrative clutter, its muscular plot and its balancing of violence and tenderness. And beneath the narrative's showy surrealism involving shape-changers, talking birds and animals, magic roots and movable mountains, I recognized how true it was to the psychological tensions that surface within the extended family. I was already in training to be a novelist.
American critics sometimes take me to task for linking too many narratives, turning family stories into murder mysteries, indulging myself in violence, ramming ancient history into contemporary reality, dipping into voices and situations (the discredited charge of "appropriation") far beyond my personal experience. Well, blame the Ramayana.*
Among our immediate neighbors were the families of an actuary, two lawyers and a doctor, all of them Bangla-speaking Hindus. To our right, however, lived a wealthy, reclusive man of whom we were suspicious because he had installed the statue of a sitting Buddha on the roof of his carport. Our block was so homogenously
Hindu and Bangla-speaking that the only non-Hindus I encountered in those first eight years were an Afghan peddler who came by once a winter with his bags of dried fruits that couldn't be grown in our hot, wet climate; a Muslim holy alms-gatherer who called himself "The obstacle-buster"; and a well-spoken Muslim gentleman who owned a radios-and-electricalappliances store across the street from us.
The neighborhood we lived in constituted my entire world. The storefronts accommodated a homeopath's clinic, which I visited often with my widowed paternal grandmother who was a hypochondriac; a doctor's surgery where I had to have a sharp, long fishbone that I'd stepped on with bare feet extracted; a photographer's studio full of exotic props, peacock feathers, and painted backdrops of Greek columns; a variety store where we girl-children could pick out stylish hair ribbons, boys could gorge on boiled candies, toffees, and cookies, adults could stock up on jars of Horlicks and cans of Australian butter, toiletries, and medicine-cabinet staples such as laxatives, smelling salts, and antacids; a stall in which two sweaty, shirtless men sold many different varieties of rice and pulses out of gunny sacks; a popular sari shop; a chai shop where unemployed young men solved the world's problems over saucerfuls of steaming tea; a paan, bidi, and cigarette stall; the Muslim-owned store stocked with sleek modern radios and table fans we admired but couldn't afford to buy; and, under a tree during daylight hours, the portable ironing stand, brazier and coal-heated iron of a professional ironer who pressed starch-stiffened, sun-dried wrinkles out of men's shirts. The vegetables and the freshwater fish we ate twice a day came from nearby Gariahat Market. Our male cousins played vigorous boys' games in the muddy furrows of wartime trenches in the triangle-shaped park at the end of our block.
Ballygunge was the center of our world, but not the world of all Kolkata residents. We knew that ours was only one of many self-segregated ghettos. Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese, Muslims had laid claim to other parts of our native city. Invisible borders immured like-descended, like-speaking, like-believing people. Each group honored borders, though often for dishonorable reasons. Borders reinforced communal identity sometimes bordering on xenophobia. Multiculturalism reinforced identity politics. Britons and Europeans—whom we regarded as economic interlopers or political oppressors, and who openly treated us as their inferiors—isolated themselves in the center of the city and its choicest real estate, laying out vast parks dotted with imperial monuments, building a cathedral with Gothic spires and an indoor market with a Gothic church tower and red-brick walls. Between Ballygunge and "European town," Anglophilic Bengalis whose families had amassed fortunes lending money to, or trading with, employees of the British East India Company, and whose ancestors had later been rewarded with British peerages or baronetcies, lived in high-walled, large compounds in neighborhoods with alien English names, such as Manderville Gardens.
The scant knowledge of Europeans—a category in which we included Middle-Eastern Jews and Armenians—and Muslims I had as a child came from my father, whose work forced him to cross ghetto boundaries. He had founded a pharmaceutical company before I was born, and had as his partner a Jewish Iraqi immigrant who cultivated the wealthier members of Kolkata's European and Middle-Eastern Jewish community. The partner occasionally invited my parents to Sunday lunch at his home, where my father happily reminisced with the émigrés about his student days in England and Germany and where my mother ate little—not being used to knives and forks—and spoke not at all because she was diffident of her conversational English skills. The pharmaceutical manufacturing plant was situated in a low-income Muslim neighborhood zoned for industrial development as well as residence. There were no communal incidents until one morning, during the most violent phase of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946, the plant was besieged by Muslim rioters armed with knives, sticks, stones, and home-made explosives, and three factory workers were hacked to death before my father, his partner, and their employees could be rescued by Kolkata's equivalent of SWAT teams.
Though I have crossed many borders in my adult life and made my home outside Ballygunge, and though my novels and essays have been inspired by today's phenomenon of mass migrations, up to age eight my only trips out of my immediate neighborhood were to my maternal grandmother's home, which was also in the Ballygunge area of south Kolkata. On rare weekday afternoons while Thakuma—who, like most traditional Bengali Hindu mothers-in-law, disapproved of daughters-in-law visiting their biological families except for medical emergencies or religious festivals—was immobilized by siesta-hour slumber, my mother would persuade the maid to fetch a rickshaw from the corner stand. The maid must have had her favorite rickshaw-puller, because she always returned with the same one, a Bihari migrant who spoke a broken Bangla.
The rickshaw was the only mode of transportation available to sheltered married women like my mother, who made short and infrequent trips outside the home. Except for a well-off solicitor across the street, no neighbor owned an automobile. Taxis were too expensive to use for any occasion other than the rare medical emergency that could not be attended to by the neighborhood doctor or homeopath. Employed men went to work in dangerously overcrowded trams and buses; the elderly rode rickshaws. The unemployed didn't have anywhere to go.
Given the variety and the density of traffic in Kolkata, even in the siesta hour, to ride a rickshaw was to risk being maimed or killed in a collision. For girls to be disfigured was a fate worse than death. Girl children in my family were not allowed to learn to bicycle, because a fall could end in a permanent scar and a scar would make us less marriageable. For me the rickshaw trip had all the thrill of a roller coaster ride. Scrambling onto the sloping floor of the rickshaw at rest at an angle required strong calf muscles. My mother climbed aboard first, but she had to be helped up by the sturdy maid; then my baby sister had to be handed up to my mother's lap; then my older sister climbed on, and finally me. When we had managed to wedge ourselves into the rickshaw's narrow, lumpy seat, Mother would chant "Ma Durga! Ma Durga! Ma Durga!" so that Mother Goddess Durga would keep us safe; then, as extra precaution, she would instruct the
puller in broken Hindi, "Go slowly, slowly. You'll get us run over by a bus!"
For my mother these unauthorized afternoon trips to her baaper bari (father's home) were therapeutic getaways from the hostile Mukherjee household, where she was daily berated for having borne three daughters and no sons. In comparison to the reactionary Mukherjee family of my father, the Banerjee family of my mother was progressive. My mother's maternal grandfather had been a champion of literacy and, to the consternation of his peers, had taught his very young daughters to read and write. In an age when Brahmin girls were married off by age five, he had delayed the wedding of his older daughter—Didima, my mother's mother—until she was seven years old, a delay that had almost caused him to be declared an outcast by his local Brahmin community. Except for my father who was the only one for blocks around to hold a doctoral degree in biochemistry from England and to have done post-doctoral research in Europe, the Banerjee men were better educated than the Mukherjee men. They earned their living as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Again excepting my father who, in his undergraduate days, had written several poems which he could still recite by heart, the Mukherjee clan was dismissive of the arts, while the Banerjee clan was ardently supportive of literature, theater, and music. They encouraged my teenaged aunt (my mother's youngest sister) and us children to stage Tagore's dance dramas and tableaux based on Hindu mythological stories for the family's entertainment. The same aunt went on to become my first female relative to go to college, eventually to complete Calcutta University's graduate program in history, and to marry outside the Brahmin caste.
The patriarchal Mukherjee family was indifferent to education in general and adamantly opposed in particular to women's literacy. My mother, who had entered the Mukherjee household as a seventeen-yearold bride just out of high school where she had excelled in Sanskrit, was refused the elders' permission to continue her studies at home or at a women's college. Later, when it was time to enroll my older sister in elementary school, my mother was subjected to prolonged physical and verbal abuse because instead of following Thakuma's order that my sister be sent to the cheap and poorly staffed neighborhood school for girls, she had secretly and successfully filled out the application form to a distinguished girls' school run by Protestant missionaries from Britain.
Daily life in the extended Mukherjee family household had a theatricality that is inevitable when too many people live too close together in claustrophobic intimacy. Backbiting; gossip ranging from incest to impotence about neighbors and relatives not present in the room; screams of hurt and rage; threats of beatings with the leather sole of a shoe or with a sweeper's stiff-bristled broom: I couldn't distinguish between fact and fantasy. Relatives acted out their self-appointed roles of heroes, villains, and victims. A paternal aunt, who had come to us with her husband and four children as refugees from flooded areas of eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) and become more or less permanent houseguests, periodically chased her husband, a crude, nasty-tempered man, around the inner courtyard with a two-by-four. Two of my father's younger brothers broke into the iron safe that held my mother's dowry of silver vessels, and carried off armloads to sell to a fence. In the months before Indian Independence, the colonial police conducted a pre-dawn raid and dragged my second youngest uncle, a teenager, to jail, accusing him of seditious freedom-fighting activities because he belonged to a neighborhood athletic club.
Was ours a dysfunctional family? The concept of dysfunction and neurosis didn't exist in our middle-class circle. Those were maladies exclusive to beef-eating white people. Eccentricity, duplicity, helpless heroism: I was absorbing the epic of family drama and, from as early as age three, I was re-framing personal experience into fantasy in which, unlike my life, injustice was punished and endings were happy.*
In the opening lines of The Holder of the World, my fourth novel and eighth book, Beigh Masters, the first-person narrator, voices my vision when she confesses: "I live in three time zones simultaneously, and I don't mean Eastern, Central, and Pacific. I mean the past, the present, and the future."
There were no clocks in the Kolkata home of my early childhood. Of the forty-five to fifty relatives who made up our household, only my father wore a wristwatch. A watch was the prized dowry gift of married men, and was necessary for those male members of the family who had to go out of the home to work. My father was the only male in the household with the kind of job that required him to be aware of "real time," meaning commercial time, since he was the founder and head of a pharmaceutical company. The two married and unemployed or self-employed brothers of my father, who lived with us together with their wives and children, kept their dowry watches under lock and key, treating them as expensive and therefore irreplaceable possessions to be protected from thieves.
My mother, a woman with progressive ideas so ahead of her times that they always got her in trouble with family elders, tried to teach me to tell time by pointing to the minute and hour hands on a pendulum wall clock that hung, slightly askew, on our landlord's balcony one floor above us. The floors were high-ceilinged, the clock-face too small, my eyesight in one eye poor. I still have trouble reading time. But even for wearers of watches and affluent owners of pendulum clocks brought up in the Hindu tradition, psychologically the start and the end of a day was marked by the rising and the setting of the sun, and not at all by a clock's hands indicating midnight. Even now, when I travel to India to visit relatives on flights that arrive in the dark between midnight and sunrise, I find myself clarifying my arrival time as the "nighttime" of the previous day rather than the early morning of the calendar date.
For women, children, and servants in our Ballygunge home, time was measured in terms of the discharging of daily duties. At pre-dawn the servant lit the cooking chula (the portable hearth) in the inner courtyard; at dawn the maid stood stern guard at the front gate and made sure that the itinerant milkman milking his cow into our pail didn't adulterate the milk with water; at sundown we children trailed after Thakuma, my paternal grandmother, clanking cymbals, blowing conch shells and ringing holy bells, as she, an inflexible upholder of Hindu tradition, lit the cotton wicks of a multiheaded, cobra-shaped brass oil lamp and chased ghosts and evil spirits out of every room.
Though I was very deficient in time-reading skills, Hindu religious rituals and fasts and the celebration of seasonal festivals gave me a confident sense of time passing. For instance, I kept track of the lunar calendar
because different forms of the Godhead were worshipped, with prescribed food offerings, on full-moon nights and moonless nights. The dates, and the howto, of each religious observance were set down in religious almanacs, which we purchased from the religious stalls of Kalighat Market near Kolkata's famous Kali Temple.
Most of our annual festivals marking the change of seasons had religious associations. However, given India's history of successive conquests, especially by the Mughals in the sixteenth century and by the British in the nineteenth century, I learned to calculate dates on three simultaneously existing calendars: the Hindu, the Muslim and the colonial British. Tara Chatterjee, the narrator of my novel Desirable Daughters and partly my alter ego, echoes this routine balancing of multiple calendars when she gives in to her impulse to write a family biography: "And so my history begins with a family wedding on the coldest, darkest night in the Bengali month of Paush-December/January in a district of the Bengal Presidency that lies east of Calcutta—now Kolkata—and south of Dacca—now Dhaka—as the English year of 1879 is about to shed its two final digits, although the Hindu year of 1285 still has four months to run and the Muslim year of 1279 has barely begun."
My paternal grandmother held the most dramatic view of time's movements, which she had acquired from the two Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and from the scores of ancient Puranic tales she had had to learn in her childhood and which she forcefully passed on to us. She told us several different Hindu stories of Creation, the point of each which was that the Universe is without beginning and without end, and that we should focus on the big picture of Time's cosmic cycles rather than on individual lifespans. This is my summary of her favorite version of creation:
"Jolted awake from a sleep that had lasted a single night by his reckoning and 4,320,000 years by ours, Brahma found he was seated on a thousand-petalled lotus swayed by breezes. He leaned over the edges of the magnificent petals, letting his gaze slide down, down, down the entire length of the blossom's tall, sturdy stalk. His eyes came to rest at the base of the stalk, which seemed to have thrust itself out of a divine, dimpled navel. The god who had imagined him into existence, Vishnu by name, was at rest, stretched out on the lithe, wide hood of a thousand-headed serpent. The serpent, which went by the two names of What-Remains (shesha) and Without-End (ananta), floated on a vast and viscous ocean. Brahma, rocking high above the blackness of the ocean but feeling himself connected to god, serpent, and black ocean, concentrated on performing the task for which he had been created.
"Brahma concentrated on the performance of his task: creating the cosmos. God and demons issued from his body, as did ancestors and humans, hedonists and hermits, sinners and sages, nighttime and daylight, twilight and dawn, constellations of stars, suns, moons, glaciers, rivers, and lakes, mountains and valleys, jungles and deserts, swamps and sandbars, groves and ponds, birds and animals, fish and reptile, and ghosts and giants. He recalled the secrets of immortality and of death; he revealed sacred laws that keen-eared ascetics memorized and that poets wrote and preserved as sacred texts. He created lyrical turns of phrase and rhythm.
"For 1,728,000 years truth, bliss and virtue reigned. Then for the next 1,296,000 years vice infiltrated virtue and bliss thinned into happiness.
"His closing eyes shuttered out spectacles of wrath, malice and depravity loose in the tiny world of mortals, deities and demons. He breathed in, holding that breath for 4,320,000 years by the human calendar, and in that single inhalation, he sucked into himself the bright, finite world's suns, moons, stars, skies, mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, jungles, deserts, and all living creatures and inanimate earth was a smoking waste of embers and ashes, dampened here and there by shallow puddles of Life's Sap. The fluid, cool, life-reviving, re-awakened the sleeper's consciousness. 'I', the sleeper thought, 'I exist, I exist alone.' Then his mind stirred, and the cycle began again."
I am discovering that no matter how acculturated my immigrant Indian and naturalized American characters are, no matter how colloquial my use of American idiom in dialogue and how confident my allusions to American trivia and sports, I think Hindu-American. My way of apprehending the world of experience and then dramatizing scenes and structuring novels have been shaped by Hindu metaphors of cosmology and cyclic concepts of time.
In Desirable Daughters, Tara Chatterjee, the narrator, expresses this discovery as hers. Tara is a thirty-six-year-old Kolkata-born Indo-Californian. At age twenty, she was married off by her traditional Bengali Brahmin family to Bish Chatterjee, a proper Bengali Brahmin bridegroom, an engineer who comes as a graduate student to Stanford and becomes an IT billionaire in the Silicon Valley of the boom-time 1990s. After seven years of marriage, Tara divorces Bish and, taking their son with her, moves to the Haight area of San Francisco where she embarks on the very American twin quests of self-discovery and personal happiness. This is how Tara describes her entanglement in time: "Buried in the consciousness of every Hindu is a core belief. Bish had it and in him it is rising to the surface. My father had embraced it like cool water on a summer day. Even Loreto girls with their superficial Westernization and Catholic influence can tell the same story, and draw the same strength from it. It is strength, I've come to believe, although it can sound cruel, indifferent, fatalistic. We measure passing time on two clocks that co-exist: one that ticks in God Brahma's eye and one that hums on our wrists. Time moves in cycles when it belongs to gods; in straight lines when it belongs to mortals. In Brahma's eye-clock, four eons add up to one complete cycle. The cycles repeat themselves and will keep on doing so until Time itself is no more. Eon succeeds eon with the swiftness of a single godly blink. The eon of dissension precedes dissolution of the cosmos. But why fear dissolution
when you know for certain that Brahma-time moves in cycles? After wrecking will come the needed healing. After misery and meanness, an eon of pure bliss, purity and perfection."*
If Hindu mythology has trained me to seek nirvana by stepping outside Time, the where (Kolkata) and the when (1940) of my birth have forced me to live inside history and deal with that history's material and psychological consequences. 1940 was a cusp in India's social and political transformation. Even as a very young child I knew the Second World War was out there.
A poor relative we knew as "Mustache Uncle" had signed up, and been sent off to dangerous, distant lands. The colonial administration had built barracks for soldiers near the Dhakuria Lakes, installed a wartime siren system, and dug trenches in our neighborhood park to protect us in case of enemy bombings. The Japanese strafed the city with propaganda leaflets, and did indeed bomb the Kidderpore Docks once, killing (according to rumor) three dock workers. But, as fellow-Asians challenging the might of the imperial British, they also elicited whispered awe. Nationalist passion was at its most fervent. Freedom-fighting campaigns were at their most self-confident. And though India would have to wait until 1947 to become a sovereign nation, the end of the British Raj seemed to us residents of a middle-class to upper middle-class neighborhood inevitable and imminent.
As a novelist I concentrate on individual characters and their particularized crises. But knowing how my own communal and personal identities have been shaped by historical, social and political forces, I find it impossible, when I'm writing fiction, to exclude the larger social context within which my characters work through their conflicts.
The novelist in me is fascinated by individual, communal, national identity crises. But when I was growing up in Kolkata, "identity crisis" was an alien concept. One's identity was inalterably fixed, derived from religion, caste, patrimony, ancestral birthplace and mother tongue. A Hindu Indian's last name was designed to announce his or her forefather's caste, ethnic and linguistic origin. A Mukherjee could only be a Brahmin from Bengal. Bengali tradition forbade inter-caste, inter-ethnic, inter-language marriages. To break with that tradition or to move outside Bengal was to "pollute" the inherited Bengali identity. I was who I was because I was Dr. Sudhir Lal Mukherjee's daughter; because I was a Hindu and a Brahmin by caste, a Kulin Brahmin by sub-caste; because I was Bangla-speaking; because my ancestral homeland is Faridpur, an eastern Bengal village that is now a part of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh. Identity was viscerally connected with ancestral soil and family origins. I was first a Mukherjee, then a Bengali Brahmin, and only then an Indian.
Tradition required me to think of myself as indistinguishable from my dozen girl cousins. Tradition also required me to think of myself as less worthy than my boy cousins. Deep down, of course, I knew that, in those two respects, tradition was dead wrong. Deeper down, I was sure that pride in the purity of one's culture has a sinister underside. I'd witnessed bloody religious riots just before Indian Independence and violent language riots soon after. People kill for culture, die of hunger.
The first rupture with tradition occurred shortly after my eighth birthday. One night in the winter of 1948 my father came home from work later than usual, and bolting the door to our room, he spread out colorful brochures of an all-first-class steamship on the Anchor Line that was to carry us from Bombay to Southampton so that the five of us could start a new life in London. He did not divulge to us children why he wanted to start over in a foreign land, but we guessed from my mother's happy conspiratorial whispers that my father had quarreled with his business partner and, being an impulsive risk-taker as well as a visionary scientist, he had seized the occasion of the break to launch himself into unpredictable adventures. He would continue to financially support the extended family, but he didn't want word of our going-away leaked too early; this was so that Thakuma could neither bully nor coax us out of our plans.
We were happy in Britain and Switzerland where my father was associated with pharmaceutical companies and worked on research projects. My mother was the happiest of us all. For the first time in twelve years she was free of harassment for having borne daughters. She pursued her interests, working as an unpaid lab technician in Basel and taking night courses in crafts and gourmet cooking. We were put in school, and learned to read, write, and speak English as though we had been brought up in it, and could get ourselves understood in Swiss German. I didn't have to translate from Bangla to English in my head before speaking or writing in English. In fact, English became such a natural language for me that at age nine, when I (urged by my mother) began to write my first novel, I found myself choosing English over Bangla. My characters were three English children who stumble upon a mystery right in their neighborhood and go about solving it. Yes, we felt almost at home in an alien country.
But my father's partner, who needed my father's scientific expertise if the pharmaceutical company was to expand, pursued us to our hotel rooms in Montreux and our flats in London, Liverpool, and Basel, and after three years of wooing, finally persuaded my father to return to Kolkata and to the company he had founded and so obviously still loved. My mother would rather have stayed on in London, but she was a pliant enough wife to go along with my father's decision once he had heard her out. The one condition for return that she negotiated was that we would get a place of our own, not move back into the quarrelsome household in Ballygunge.
The three years abroad were transformative. My mother gained self-confidence, arranged to sublet a
furnished flat in fashionable Chowringhee (formerly "European Town") while our residence was being built within the pharmaceutical company's grounds, and to enroll us in Loreto House, the most renowned and hardest-to-get-into girls' school, run by Irish nuns who, out of nostalgia or perversity, treasured us for our British accents. For my mother, who had suffered physical and verbal abuse in the Ballygunge household for her attempts to put us into decent schools, sending us to Loreto House was a personal triumph. She blossomed in her new acquisition of independence and authority. She scouted auction houses for antiques, and furnished our home with Jacobean, Georgian, and Victorian furniture left behind by Europeans who had chosen to go back to homelands they vaguely remembered. She took charge of hiring cooks and servants, fearlessly hiring Muslims and Christians as well as Hindus, even though there were caste taboos against eating food prepared by non-Brahmins.
Our pharmaceutical company bought out the Cossipore garden house and estate of a Bengali family whose fortune had declined and converted the grounds into a high-walled, well-guarded, modern and efficient production plant. The previous owner's overgrown botanical garden was re-landscaped to accommodate the two partners' living quarters, swimming pool, tennis courts and a lake for boating.
If my father had rejected the offer to resume partnership of the pharmaceutical company, I would have grown up burdened or blessed with the sensitivities of a dark-skinned minority in a white-majority Britain. As it was, I grew up instead as a member of the new elite class in an optimistic decade of a sovereign nation. I thought of the factory's compound walls as the boundaries of a small constitutional monarchy in which my sisters and I were princesses. We presided dutifully at factory functions, such as handing out
trophies at sports events. We sisters and our golden cocker spaniel took evening walks under arches of red and purple bougainvillaea, watched over by factory guards and gawked at by neighbors from their rooftops. To our neighbors we were probably objects of envy. But we felt safe, inviolable. There were screening devices to protect us; a gate-office staffed with watchmen and equipped with an intercom so that we could be at home only to those visitors we wished to receive. Having been deprived of privacy in our Ballygunge household, we indulged in privacy to an extreme.
On weekdays we made the long, bumpy, traffic-clogged trip from Cossipore, outside Kolkata city limits, to the school compound on Middleton Row in the city's upscale center—and back—in a vintage grey Rover sold to us by a British corporate executive who had given up on India soon after Independence. Any front-window view we might have had on these trips was blocked by the burly backs of the chauffeur and a bodyguard who had been hired just so he could escort us to our destination by taxi should the aged Rover ever break down. We used our rides to go over math and French homework, re-memorize assigned passages from the Gospels or from Shakespeare, and fantasize aloud in English about the kind of bridegroom we hoped our father would choose for us to marry.*
The three years in Britain was the only time I felt perfectly bilingual. At school, in stores, in the neighborhood branch of the public library, I spoke British English; at home we spoke Bangla peppered with newly acquired English words for which I couldn't find an exact equivalent. In Ballygunge we had had drilled into us that we are the language we speak, but in London or Liverpool my growing fluency in the former colonizer's language didn't threaten my Bengali identity. I lost that bilingual equilibrium during my Loreto House years. The Loreto House curriculum was set by a board in Cambridge, England, and included no Indian history or culture. We studied British literature (especially Shakespeare) and European history. For self-edification we were encouraged to steep ourselves in the works of Austen, Dickens, Bennett and Galsworthy, and imitate Austen's style in essay writing. For pleasure we devoured Victorian para-literature from the Oxford Lending Library. We sat for Junior and Senior Overseas School Leaving Certificate examinations, which were set and graded in Cambridge University. We wrote weekly essays. Frequently the essay topics would require us to imagine that we were historical figures or to transport ourselves into another place in another time. My first publications grew out of these class-room exercises: I wrote first-person narratives about Julius Caesar, Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon.
Coming as a graduate student to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa introduced me to American English. As a novelist, I now melt down the cultural borders of my legacies. The fanciful realism of the Hindu epics and the mannered realism of Jane Austen merge as I write stories about immigrants in North American cities in a third language, American.
In my essay "The Way Back," published in The Genius of Language, I had written, "My mother tongue, Bangla, was a linguistic primer, a thin white-wash over all that is pre-conscious and pre-rational. It was in English that I began to analogize. Successive coats of French and American have faceted Bangla, but it still shines through. It is the odd fate of so many of us in the global community, not just those of us from India but from other homelands at ease with family-time and epic storytelling, that a second language, a school language, was necessary to liberate their minds from their bodies, their self from their community…. Fora writer, the melting of a mother tongue is the madeleine, the way back, and the way in, an early loss with the deepest memory, the mother of all plots."
Family lore remembers the seven years between our return to Kolkata and our permanent leaving of it as "the good old days." Confrontations between our new order and a newer one would come later. Coming home from school one afternoon in the late fifties, our Rover would be stopped at the factory gates by placard-carrying, slogan-screaming striking workers. We three sisters would be forced to walk through the crowd of demonstrators in order to enter the factory premises. The car would be rocked, and the chauffeur and the bodyguard roughed up in that incident. Another time, because of labor trouble, the city's special police force, the Lalbazar Flying Squad, would have to escort us three sisters to Loreto House so that we could comply with the wishes of Mother Superior, an intransigent opponent of all revolutions, and take part in the school performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Toward the close of the decade, the partners would have another—and this time, irreparable—falling out. There would be lawsuits, courtroom dramas reported in the local press, and finally a court-ordered settlement. And my father, always a risk-taker, would strike out for western India and start another career in the pharmaceutical industry.
My first novel, The Tiger's Daughter, has its genesis in my rethinking of "the good times," and the Chekhovian inevitability of their vanishing. I wanted to write a biography of a class aware of its imminent extinction. The setting for the novel is the Kolkata of the late sixties, a city violently unsettled by Naxalite insurgency and counter-insurgency. I chose to tell the story from the conflicted perspective of Tara, the only daughter of a Kolkata industrialist, who is an expatriate Indian married to a white American with liberal sympathies. Tara shares my social background, but not my personal history. She embodies the expatriate's sense of being caught between worlds, of feeling unmoored in both the home she has rejected and the alien one she has adopted.
My father sent all three of us sisters to study in the United States within a couple of years of leaving Kolkata. He offered us a choice: take your dowry money and invest it in an American education or trust me to find you the most suitable, dowry-worthy, bridegroom. All three of us opted for American education.
I applied to the master of fine arts program at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City because an American professor passing through
town informed my father that if I wanted to be a writer that was where I should study. The professor was right: in the early sixties the University of Iowa was the only educational institution in the world that had a graduate degree-awarding program for writers of fiction. It didn't matter that none of us knew where exactly in the United States Iowa was located. I knew I was a writer, knew I wanted to be a better one, knew I had to get to Iowa City. I sent off six handwritten stories—we didn't own a typewriter, and didn't know how to type—and was admitted to the program, even provided with a partial scholarship. In the early sixties, the Reserve Bank of India did not allow individual citizens to buy dollars to pay university fees in non-essential fields. Engineering and medicine were fields essential to India's development. I am convinced that art and literature are equally essential, but in order to accept the admission, I had to find another scholarship that would pay my room, board, and living expenses. My father bought a copy of Studies Abroad, a hefty directory of awards, scholarships, and fellowships. I applied for the only that seemed appropriate for what and where I wanted to study: the PEO International Peace Scholarship with headquarters in Iowa. With determination, research, and with the help of my father's grant-application-writing skills, I won the PEO scholarship.
In coming to Iowa in 1961 just after my twenty-first birthday I had, for the first time in my life, chosen to be away from home and from family. My parents had expected me to be homesick. Bengali women of my class and generation were reared to be sheltered, naïve, dependent on men. I shocked myself by the joy I felt at being alone and free of communal taboos and cultural constraints. And for the first time in my life, in the Writers Workshop I was among people who respected literature as much as my parents' friends and neighbors respected engineering and medicine, and who read and critiqued each other's works with passion and honesty and wrote all through the night as though they believed that works of fiction have the power to heal nations and save humanity.
Before Iowa City I had never seen such well-stocked libraries, never experienced such user-friendly library policies. At Loreto House an unwritten code of decency had kept authors like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, and Tennessee Williams off the library shelves. In class we had been taught Shakespearean tragedies out of expurgated editions. In Iowa City I read indiscriminately. Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Djuana Barnes, Frank Gould Cozzens, Richard Yates, John Hawkes, Doris Lessing, and Sylvia Plath were equally riveting. Among the Iowa Workshops' instructors of fiction my first year were Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily. I read Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Bourjaily's Confessions of a Spent Youth.
Though I had no experience of the affluent American-Jewish social circle that Roth dramatized, and didn't catch all the allusive nuances (who was Montovani?), I sensed similarities between his world and mine. I had not had a chance to try out "youth," let alone misspend it; all the same, instead of being shocked at confessions of lustful escapades, I felt freed of the prudery of my over-sheltered upbringing. And in "Form and Theory of Fiction" seminars conducted by the late author-teacher-editor R. V. Cassill, I learned to read more closely and cannily than I ever had, approaching the work from the inside out, seeing the work as process rather than product, stalking the author's aesthetic strategy for the work's embedded meaning.
At first the workshop discussions were intimidating. The majority of my fellow students were men, some on the GI bill. They were up on the latest issues of the "little magazines" to which they mailed their manuscripts regularly in self-addressed, stamped manila envelopes. They talked politics, baseball, and football; a few hunted on weekends; and all worked pop culture and sports allusions into their stories and comments. In the evenings they drank beer together at a bar where poets and fiction writers gathered; then they went back to their grungy rooms and wrote all night. They were supportive and simultaneously competitive as they raced to complete their versions of the Great American Novel. I lived in one of the women's dorms, ate my meals in the dorm cafeteria, didn't smoke or drink, and because of cultural habit, didn't date. It was my first experience of a coeducational classroom. Through the first semester, during workshops, I listened rather than participated. The others seemed to me so confident, so assertive and so worldly.
But I was absorbing and internalizing what I heard and read. From their feedback on each other's manuscripts, I began to understand that revision was as necessary as, and probably more important than, any initial burst of inspiration. They scrutinized the fictional effect of every word-choice and every placement of punctuation marks. By the second semester I had learned to trust my intellectual as well as gut responses to the weekly worksheet stories I read, even when these stories centered on high school sex in back seats of cars or binge-drinking on a levee in a Southern state I couldn't locate on a map or jaguar hunting in Mexico.
For my M.F.A. thesis, I intended to work on a series of stories set in Kolkata. Joyce's Dubliners was the inspiration for the series. The first one I wrote, "Bless This Day," was workshopped in Iowa and published in Kolkata's leading avant-garde magazine.
The workshop members were polite readers but little engaged by the unfamiliar ethnicity and psychology of my character. The protagonist, an Indian graduate student living with his Indian wife and infant son in married student housing on a Midwestern campus, puts up with domestic disappointment much as does Little Chandler in Joyce's "A Little Cloud." The hesitantly expressed consensus seemed to be: Why can't he just get a divorce?
Meanwhile I became increasingly fascinated by foreign-student life around me. I soon found myself writing rapidly, feverishly, of the world of Indians, Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Bulgarians, Sudanese. We met at social functions in the International House a block from my dormitory. Today's politically correct term for us would be "international students." We were graduate students, post-docs, student wives, refugees adrift in the U.S. Anecdotes overheard fused with imagined lives. Stories of uprooted lives became the focus of my M.F.A. thesis. From those years I evolved a credo: make the familiar exotic (Americans won't recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.*
During my second year in Iowa, my father informed me in a letter that he had located a Bengali Brahmin candidate for me, had interviewed the man and found
him so desirable as a son-in-law that he had started preliminary negotiations about when and where the candidate and I could meet and (in my father's words, "set up the wedding stool if things clicked"). He ticked off the candidate's assets: exceptionally educated and from an educated, motherless family; a professional who wouldn't suffer the ups and downs in income of businessmen; an unpretentious man who was not at all dowry-hungry. In his next letter, he disclosed the details of our assignation: On my way home from Iowa to India after I got my M.F.A. degree the next May, I was to stop off in Paris (where the bridegroom candidate would be conducting a research project that spring and summer), and meet him. The man had been shown a photograph of me and been told that I had "a gift of the pen."
My father's plan promised both romance and prescreened compatibility. But I was not ready to reembrace any version of the life of oppressive middle-class propriety that I had left behind. I had a Plan B of my own. I applied to the doctoral program in English literature at Bryn Mawr and won a full scholarship. But Destiny presented me with Plan C. Clark Blaise, a fellow student whose autobiographical stories of growing up in central Florida among moss-pickers spearing garfish I admired and whose lyrical sentences I envied, asked me out to a university performance of Death of a Salesman. On the way back we held hands. I forgot the cultural taboos of my Kolkata upbringing. Ours was a courtship of two weeks. We did not behave with the decorum of Jane Austen's characters. At the end of the two weeks, we got married during a lunch break in a lawyer's office above a coffee shop in downtown Iowa City. The marriage ceremony took no more than ten minutes, but it forced both Clark and me into sometimes wondrous, other times perilous, adventures in self-transformation. With marriage, I traded twenty years of caution and repression for forty years of reckless expansion.
Besides Clark, I count two other writers, equally "alien" to my experience, as mentors. John Clellon Holmes was known as "the philosopher of the Beat Generation," the soberly married, mild-mannered, scholarly companion of the whole raucous retinue. It was John who had preserved Kerouac's shelving paper rolls of On the Road, and John and his wife Shirley who offered shelter in Old Saybrook to their less-settled New York friends. He knew everyone outside the academy, and he'd read everything just slightly off the academic radar, bringing a distinctly "non-Workshop" sensibility to Iowa. I was attracted to his quiet manner, and chose to work with him in 1965-1966 while also completing my Ph.D. coursework. (Getting an academic Ph.D. was an acknowledgement of my mother's determination for her daughters.) From John I got the first strong indication that my work was more than merely charming or exotic. Thanks to John Clellon Holmes, I began thinking of myself as a dark and complicated writer (and person), although my darkest novel, Wife, would not appear for another ten years. It seemed possible to believe that my sheltered experiences in the Calcutta of the late 1940s and 1950s could be compared (not ludicrously), with the rebellious Americans of the same decade and a half.
The second great influence was a kind of wedding present from Clark. Before coming to Iowa, he had spent a summer session at Harvard, studying with Bernard Malamud. In 1963, Bern was certainly not an unknown, but he was a special taste, one almost exclusively celebrated by young writers from the same city and background. Bern and Clark and I remained close friends right up to the time of his death in 1986, and I am moved to remember the day, in 1983, at a low point in our financial and writing lives, when I picked up the just-issued Stories of Bernard Malamud and began reading him and seeing in his work an aspect I had missed all along. He was not just our dear friend, he was actually speaking to me as an immigrant, as someone with the same double-vision of
an idealized America and a community of fools and strivers and villains and saints, a community still close to its religious roots, but choking on family obligations. It was possible for me to work out my sense of isolation (I was just about the only Indian immigrant writing in America, especially writing of the immigrant experience) within the context of a larger literary destiny that embraced the same long march of Germans, Italians, Jews, and Scandinavians on their way from ancestral homelands to bland American acceptance.
There is no literary task I undertake with less enthusiasm than autobiography. I find that I've come to the end of my ten thousand words and have touched on very little. I have not said anything about how I write, why I write, my theories of literary composition—all subjects of forty years of literary lecturing. I haven't mentioned the fourteen years (1966-1980) spent in Montreal and Toronto, and how those years, which started with such promise, turned sour with anti-Indian racism that forced our return to the United States as forty-year-olds with shattered dreams. It toughened my political awareness, even activism, but our stellar ascent as a literary couple has never recovered. I haven't written of the ten years of part-time teaching, the commuting between jobs for Clark and me, and the harsh teaching-years in New Jersey and Queens before the unexpected offer, in 1989, of peace, security, and comfort, by the University of California-Berkeley, where I shall remain until retirement. Retirement can't be too far off; reviewers have started referring to me as "the grande dame" of diasporic Indian literature. My fortunes began to turn in 1985 with the publication of Darkness, my first book of stories; though published in Canada, it received an enthusiastic review in the New York Times Book Review. I've had no time to discuss the most anguished book we (Clark and I) ever wrote, The Sorrow and the Terror (1987), concerning the bombing of an Air-India flight and the killing of all 329 aboard. A fictional version of that ghastly event, "The Management of Grief" is probably my best-known, most anthologized story.
Acclaim, such as a literary novelist is likely to know it, reached a pinnacle in 1988 and 1989 with The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Jasmine, which seems to have found a permanent, even growing, place in college and high school curricula. The novels that have followed—The Holder of the World, Leave It to Me, Desirable Daughters, and The Tree Bride—have had their successes and critics, and while each of them explores new territory historically, thematically, and geographically, I know that the book industry would like to see more Jasmines, or even a return to the dying days of the Raj, such as I described so long ago in The Tiger's Daughter.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alam, Fakrul, Bharati Mukherjee, Twayne (New York, NY), 1996.
Asian American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 53, 1989, Volume 115, 1999.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dhawan, R. K., The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige (New Delhi, India), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, 1986, Volume 218: American Short Story Writers since World War II, Second Series, 1999.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Lesser, W., editor, The Genius of Language, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2004.
Mukherjee, Bharati, The Tiger's Daughter, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1972.
Mukherjee, Bharati, Desirable Daughters, Thea/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.
Nelson, Emmanuel S., editor, Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, Garland (New York, NY), 1993.
Notable Asian Americans, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Powell, Anthony, To Keep the Ball Rolling, Penguin (London, England), 1983.
Amerasia Journal, fall, 1993, p. 103; winter, 1994, p. 188.
American Studies International, June, 1999, S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal, review of Leave It to Me, p. 99.
Antioch Review, spring, 1976.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Moni Basu, "Rich Writing Overshadowed by Tangled Plot," p. L8.
Bestsellers 89, Issue 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Booklist, April 15, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Leave It to Me, p. 1365; February 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 907; June 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Tree Bride, p. 1671.
Books and Bookmen, November, 1973.
Books in Canada, August, 1985, pp. 21-22.
Boston Herald, April 16, 2002, Stephanie Schorow, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 43.
Canadian Fiction, May, 1987, Geoff Hancock, interview with Mukherjee, pp. 30-44.
Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1977.
Connoisseur, August, 1990, p. 84.
Contemporary Literature, spring, 1999, Jennifer Drake, "Looting American Culture: Bharati Mukherjee's Immigrant Narratives," p. 60.
Denver Post, August 22, 2004, John Freeman, "Second in Mukherjee Trilogy Points to Lush Sweep of 'Roots'," p. F11.
Explicator, winter, 1997, pp. 114-117.
Herizons, spring, 2004, Irene D'Souza, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 34.
International Herald Tribune, August 21, 2004, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Tree Bride, p. 9.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2004, review of The Tree Bride, p. 554.
Library Journal, June 15, 1997, Rebecca A. Stuhr, review of Leave It to Me, p. 98; April 1, 2002, Joanna M. Burkhardt, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 141; August, 2004, Jyna Scheeren, review of The Tree Bride, p. 69.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 17, 1989, pp. 3, 10; October 10, 1993, pp. 3, 11.
Maclean's, August 19, 1985, p. 51; October 23, 1989, p. 72; July 21, 1997, Marni Jackson, review of Leave It to Me, p. 55.
MELUS, winter, 1995, pp. 91-101; winter, 1999, John K. Hoppe, "The Technological Hybrid as Post-American," pp. 137-155, Manju Jaidka, review of Leave It to Me, p. 202.
Mother Jones, December, 1989, p. 43.
Ms., October, 1975.
New Statesman, November 19, 1993, p. 45.
Newsweek, February 7, 1977.
New York, September 25, 1989, p. 132.
New Yorker, November 15, 1993, p. 127.
New York Times, January 25, 1977; November 12, 1993, p. C31.
New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1975; January 12, 1986, p. 14; June 19, 1988, pp. 1, 22; September 10, 1989, p. 9; October 10, 1993, p. 7; January 8, 1995, p. 12; December 3, 1995, p. 49; July 20, 1997, Lorna Sage, review of Leave It to Me, p. 33; April 28, 2002, Deborah Mason, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 11; May 12, 2002, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 26; June 2, 2002, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 22; March 23, 2003, Scott Veale, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 24.
People, October 25, 1993, p. 51; September 8, 1997, Lan N. Nguyen, review of Leave It to Me, p. 36.
Publishers Weekly, January 21, 2002, review of Desirable Daughters, p. 62.
Quill & Quire, August, 1985, p. 43.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1997, Ellen G. Friedman, review of Leave It to Me, p. 232.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 1, 1997, Mary Mackey, review of Leave It to Me, p. 1.
Saturday Review, February 5, 1977.
Seattle Times, August 13, 2004, Robert Allen Papinchak, "Past, Present, and Future Intertwine in 'The Tree Bride,'" p. H41.
Time, September 11, 1989, p. 84.
Times Literary Supplement, June 29, 1973.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 17, 1988, p. 14; October 24, 1993, p. 5.
Washington Post Book World, August 27, 1989, p. 2; October 24, 1993, pp. 1, 11.
World Literature Today, summer, 1986, pp. 520-521.
Beatrice.com, http://www.beatrice.com/ (1997), Ron Hogan, interview with Mukherjee.
California Alumni Association at UC Berkeley Web site, http://www.alumni.berkeley.edu/ (February, 2003), Russell Schoch, "A Conversation with Bharati Mukherjee."
Jouvert Online, Columbia University, http://188.8.131.52/jouvert/ (Volume 1, issue 1, 1997), Tina Chen and S. X. Goudie, "Holders of the Word: An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee."
Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (April 4, 2002), Dave Weich, interview with Mukherjee.