Bharati Mukherjee 1988Introduction
"The Middleman" is the title story in Bharati Mukherjee's collection, The Middleman and Other Stories (1988). Told by an Iraqi Jew who is a naturalized American citizen, it is set in an unnamed Central American country in the throes of a guerrilla insurgency. The idea for the story came to Mukherjee when she was writing an incomplete novel about a Vietnam veteran who becomes a mercenary soldier in Afghanistan and Central America. The novel featured a minor character named Alfie Judah, a Jew who had relocated from Baghdad to New York, via Bombay, India. Alfie became such a strong presence in the writer's mind that, as she reported in an interview with Alison B. Carb in Massachusetts Review, he "took control and wrote his own story." "The Middleman," then, is the story of Alfie, a cynical man who "travels around the world, providing people with what they need—guns, narcotics, automobiles." It is a story of lust, betrayal, and murder, featuring American expatriates, a beautiful woman, and ruthless guerrillas.
American novelist and short-story writer Bharati Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940, in Calcutta, West Bengal, India, to wealthy parents, Sudhir Lal and Bina Mukherjee. Her father co-owned a pharmaceutical factory and later became director of research and development of a large chemical complex.
Even as a child, Mukherjee knew she was going to be a writer. She learned to read and write at the age of three, and she later reported that as a child, the fictional worlds she discovered in stories were more real to her than the world around her. She started her first novel when she was nine or ten, and at high school in Calcutta, she started writing short stories for school magazines.
Mukherjee received her bachelor of arts from the University of Calcutta in 1959, and a master of arts from the University of Baroda in 1961. Wanting to pursue a career as a writer and encouraged by her father to do so, Mukherjee then left India to attend the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. She received a master of fine arts in 1963, and a Ph.D. in comparative literature, also from the University of Iowa, in 1970.
While studying at the Writers' Workshop, Mukherjee met the Canadian, Clark Blaise, who was also a student on the same program. The couple married in 1963, and from 1966 to 1980, they lived in Canada, first in Toronto and then Montreal, where they both held teaching positions.
Mukherjee became a Canadian citizen but was unhappy living in that country because of the racial prejudice she encountered. She was refused service in stores and was sometimes followed by detectives in department stores who assumed she was a shoplifter. It was in Canada that Mukherjee wrote her first two novels, The Tiger's Daughter (1972) and Wife (1975), but her work received little attention from critics or the public.
In 1980, Mukherjee resigned her professorship at McGill University and moved with her husband and two sons to the United States, where she became first a permanent resident and then a U.S. citizen. Living in New York, she taught at Skidmore College, Mountain State College, Queen's College of the City University of New York, and Columbia University. In 1984, she was writer in residence at Emory University. She felt that being in the United States was a great relief after the discrimination she had suffered in Canada. In New York City, she was able to blend in with people on the street, and she believes that attitudes toward Indian immigration are healthier in the United States than in Canada. Mukherjee chose to identify fully with her new country of choice, and she regards herself as an American, not an Indian-American or an Indian in exile.
Mukherjee's first short story collection, Darkness, was published in 1985. This was followed by a second collection, The Middleman and OtherStories (1988), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Fiction. Like much of Mukherjee's work, the stories deal with the experience of new immigrants to the United States. This is also the theme of one of her most popular novels, Jasmine, which was published the following year. The title character, Jasmine, is a young Indian woman who comes to the United States as an illegal immigrant.
Mukherjee has also written The Holder of the World (1993) and The Tree Bride: A Novel (2004), as well as several nonfiction works, including some co-authored with her husband. As of 2006, Mukherjee was a professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley.
"The Middleman" is told in the first person by Alfie Judah, a Jew who is a newly naturalized American citizen originally from Baghdad, Iraq. He has temporarily left the United States because he has been involved in some shady financial dealing and is fighting extradition. He is currently living in an unnamed Central American country, where he has just started employment on the ranch of an expatriate American named Clovis T. Ransome. Ransome fled the United States with fifteen million dollars in cash that he appears to have appropriated illegally in some kind of financial scam. Alfie has attached himself to Ransome in the hope that he can gain some advantage from the situation. He is the "middleman" of the title; he manages to make a living "from things that fall." There appears to be plenty of opportunity for such graft; an insurgency is going on in the country, and the president, a corrupt man named Gutiérrez, pays retainers to various armed groups, and also to Ransome, to protect him.
Alfie sits at the side of the swimming pool and confesses that he has a weakness for women. He mentions that a young woman named Maria, Ransome's wife, lives on the ranch. At the pool, Alfie chats briefly with Ransome, who is waiting for his crony Bud Wilkins to drive over in his pickup. They plan to go on a deep-sea fishing trip. Ransome invites Alfie to go with them, but Alfie declines. Maria, who has been swimming in the ocean, comes to join Alfie, while Ransome loads up the jeep with beer.
Bud arrives, and he and Ransome drink beer together. Eduardo, the houseboy, loads up Bud's pickup with crates which Alfie suspects contain rifles, ammunition, and possibly medicine. Then Bud and Ransome drive off into the jungle in Ransome's jeep.
Eduardo kills two ocean crabs that have found their way into the kitchen. He is upset over something, and Maria and Alfie take him to his room. Eduardo has crates under his bed, and Alfie wonders what is in them. But Maria replies that she respects Eduardo's privacy, and Alfie should, too.
Alfie sets the table, and Maria brings a tray of cheese and biscuits. She says she is hoping he will drive her to San Vincente, a small market town, in Bud's pickup. Alfie does not want to, but he agrees. He does not want to know what is in the crates that are piled up in the pickup. The crates are labeled "fruits," but Alfie knows he has been recruited for a gunrunning operation, when all he wanted to be was a bystander.
They drive the rough road through the jungle to San Vincente. After about forty minutes, Maria tells Alfie to turn off and head for a village called Santa Simona. She says she was born there. Alfie knows Santa Simona is not a village; it is a guerrilla camp.
Alfie and Maria get out of the truck and make their way to some shacks. Alfie knows that this is not the intended destination for Bud's arms shipment; the load has been hijacked. He would have preferred that Maria had not involved him in this little adventure.
A tall guerrilla soldier comes toward them; he and Maria embrace. Maria then introduces Alfie to the guerrilla soldier, whose name is Andreas. The three of them go inside one of the shacks, which is the command post for the guerrillas. Maria offers Alfie a beer, and then she and Andreas leave. Alfie opens his beer and takes it with him to the back porch. There is a caged bird by the laundry tub, and a boy of ten is teasing it. The boy, who later turns out to be Andreas's son, asks him for gum. Alfie gives him a cheap pen to keep him quiet and returns inside to drink his beer.
About an hour later, Maria returns and wakes him up. She says they have finished unloading the guns and it is time to go. Alfie, Maria, and Andreas, who is carrying the bird cage, go to the truck. On the drive back to Ransome's ranch, Maria explains what is going on. She indicates that Bud has been killed because he refused to let Ransome in on his illicit arms-dealing business.
They arrive back at the ranch, where Ransome is sitting on the love seat on the porch. Alfie asks him where Bud is, and Ransome replies that a gang of guerrillas shot him only half a mile down the road. He wonders how he got away, but Alfie knows that the guerrillas were in Ransome's pay. Alfie observes that Ransome notices the crates are gone from Bud's truck, so Ransome knows he has been betrayed.
Maria sits down on the love seat next to her husband while Alfie goes to the kitchen for a beer. When he returns, Ransome, who has been drinking heavily, is snoring. His hand is inside the bird cage, and the bird is pecking him, but this does not awaken him. Maria asks Alfie to kill the bird.
At eleven o'clock that night, Alfie carries Ransome up the stairs to the spare bedroom and leaves him fully clothed on the bed. Alfie then returns to his room. Maria comes to him and they make love, and Maria tells him of the beatings she received from Ransome.
At about three o'clock in the morning, a man rides up on a scooter. Maria thinks it is Andreas, but it is another man, a tall Indian, who enters Alfie's room. Maria says something to the man and he steps outside. She and Alfie quickly get dressed; the Indian comes back into the room with two more Indians. They demand to know where Ransome is, and Alfie tells them. A group of guerrillas, including Andreas, open Ransome's door. Ransome is awake; he keeps cool and tries to bargain with the men. He says they can take Maria, and he also offers them money. He says they can take Alfie, too.
Andreas has three Indians and Eduardo take a large stash of dollar bills from a trunk. He says he will take Maria as well, but he does not want Alfie. While Ransome remains politely defiant, Andreas hands his pistol to Maria. She shoots Ransome, killing him instantly. After aiming the gun at Alfie's genitals, she smiles and returns the gun to Andreas. Alfie is relieved. Maria and Andreas leave, and Alfie plans his next move. He decides that in a few days, he will walk to San Vincente and befriend the Indians there. He is sure that someone will be interested in the information he has to offer about the guerrilla camp and about Bud and Ransome. He thinks, "There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen."
Andreas is the guerrilla leader. A tall, handsome man, he is Maria's lover. When Alfie meets him, he realizes that Andreas is the man on the poster that Eduardo has placed on the wall of his room. It shows a man in beret, black boots, and bandolier who looks as if he might have "played Che Guevara in some B-budget Argentine melodrama."
Eduardo is the houseboy at Ransome's ranch. He seems rather nervous and overreacts when he has to kill two stray ocean crabs in the kitchen. It appears that he hates his employers and other gringos, or Americans. Maria and Alfie have to take him to his room to calm him down. Eduardo's sympathies are with Andreas and the other guerrillas, and he is present when they confront and kill Ransome.
Alfie Judah, the narrator of the story, is a Jew who is originally from Baghdad, Iraq, but is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. He appears to be a widely traveled man, having lived in Bombay, India, but he is also someone who does not really fit in wherever he goes. His American home is in Flushing, in the borough of Queens, New York, and he has an American wife. Alfie is a wheeler-dealer and a hustler who is not too fussy about how he makes his money. He gets people what they need, whether it is guns, drugs, or cars, and he knows how to survive in a rough world. He was forced to flee the United States, however, because the authorities discovered an illicit fund he was maintaining for New Jersey judges. "My dealings can't stand too much investigation," he says. So he ends up in Central America and attaches himself for the time being to Ransome, although he expects to be able to return to the United States eventually. Alfie is dark-skinned, which means that he is spared the hatred the local people have for Americans. No one knows how to place him; to some he is an Arab, to others an Indian. Alfie's weakness, he confesses, is women. He lusts after Maria and somehow manages to win her favors, if only for one night, and he suffers no consequences for this act of adultery. He also survives when the guerrillas come to kill Ransome. No one cares much about Alfie, so the guerrillas do not bother to kill him. As a result, he survives and seems to relish the prospect of walking in to San Vincente, the capital city, talking to people, and finding some other way of keeping himself afloat.
Clovis T. Ransome
Clovis T. Ransome is an expatriate American who, according to Alfie, has "spent his adult life in tropical paradises playing God." Ransome fled Waco, Texas, with fifteen million dollars in petty cash that he had obtained fraudulently. He just managed to escape the investigators from the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Ransome is a player in the ruthless political game that operates in the unnamed country. It appears that he runs a protection racket to shield President Gutiérrez from his many enemies. This may have been how he acquired the beautiful Maria as his wife, since Maria was formerly the president's mistress. Maria hates her husband and claims that he beats her. Ransome is a violent, amoral man who arranges for the guerrillas to kill his friend Bud Wilkins, because Bud had refused to allow Ransome to become part of his gun-running operation. But Ransome also falls foul of the guerrillas, for reasons unstated, and when they confront him in his room, Maria shoots and kills him with Andreas's pistol.
Maria Ransome is a beautiful young, dark-skinned woman, mostly Indian, who is married to Clovis T. Ransome. It is a loveless marriage, however. When she was a girl, Maria planned to marry Andreas, but Gutiérrez, now president but then minister of education, came to her school when she was fourteen and took her for himself. Later, Maria was, so the talk goes, "partially bought and partially seduced" by Ransome. There is a rumor that Maria comes from an aristocratic family and is a former beauty queen. She is the object of all men's lust, including that of Alfie and Bud Wilkins. She allows Alfie to spend the night with her when they return from the guerrilla camp and her husband is in a drunken sleep. However, her loyalty is to Andreas. She helps the guerrillas acquire the armaments that are loaded in Bud Wilkins's pickup, and when the guerrillas confront Ransome, Maria coolly shoots her husband.
Bud Wilkins is a Texan and possibly a former CIA agent who has built up a business in the Central American country. He owns a fleet of trucks, planes, and buses, which form the legitimate side of his business. But since he has the means of transportation, he also makes a fortune selling arms. He and Ransome appear to be friends, but Ransome arranges for Bud to be killed by the guerrillas because Bud refused to give him a cut of his profits in arms trading.
Amorality, Deceit, and Self-interest
The world depicted in the story is a brutal, violent, cynical one. With the possible exception of Andreas, the guerrilla leader, the characters are concerned only with how they can exploit the situation for their own benefit. The finer qualities of love and friendship and behavior guided by moral standards are absent. It is a dog-eat-dog world, in which ruthlessness and selfishness are rewarded. Cynical betrayal is the order of the day, and loyalty has no place. No one has any ideals that they are prepared to live by. Clovis T. Ransome, for example, is nothing more than a swindler who likes to live in luxury with his trophy wife, whom he abuses. It also appears that he cynically tries to play one group off against another, a strategy that eventually costs him his life. Ransome will not be mourned, though; it is clear that the indigenous Indians whom he employs to clear the jungle hate him, as they do all Americans.
The other American in the story, Bud Wilkins, is no better. He makes a profit from dealing in arms; he will, no doubt, supply the arms to the highest bidder, weapons that will be used to bring further devastation on this poor country. He cares nothing for peace. Bud's violent nature is shown in the small incident when he first arrives at the ranch. He backs his pickup truck hard against a tree and disturbs a bird, at which he "lines it up with an imaginary pistol and curls his finger twice in its direction." The incident shows the thoughtless violence that lurks everywhere in this environment. Life is cheap, whether human or wildlife. Another example occurs at the guerrilla camp, when the one-armed guerrilla asks Maria, indirectly, if he should kill Alfie. For men such as these, the killing of a man (even one who has done them no harm) is of no more consequence than the killing of a bird or a rat.
Of course, it is Alfie who is the embodiment of the cynicism that is at the heart of the story. Like Bud, he is only concerned with "outfitting the participants" in the civil war. He knows the "rules of survival," and it is these that govern his life, not any moral code about how to behave. In fact, Alfie has no concept of right and wrong and does not even acknowledge that such things exist; in his world, "There's just supply and demand running the universe." This must be a chilling world in which to live, in which there is neither God nor moral law in charge, but only an economic principle that Alfie is determined to exploit. Nonetheless, it is a world to which Alfie, even though he is an outsider, is well attuned. He is a shrewd operator. "I calculate margins," he says, as he speculates about whether a night with Maria would be worth any consequences that might result. Everything for Alfie is a profit-and-loss calculation, even when it comes to lust and adultery.
The theme of lust centers on the alluring Maria. She is at once the object of lust and lustful herself. Sexual tension is injected into the story on Maria's first appearance, when she emerges from the ocean in her pink bikini. Alfie watches as the water beads on her shoulders, and he thinks "how cool her flesh will be for just a few more minutes." Alfie is constantly aware of Maria's body and its sexual power: "She shrugs, and her breasts are slower than her shoulders in coming down." Later, he observes that "The way her bottom bounces inside those cutoffs could drive a man crazy." He admits that he would kill for her. This is not really a surprise, since Alfie confessed earlier that his dominant passion is lust, and he described the sexual frustrations of his youth in Baghdad.
At one point, Alfie elevates Maria to an importance similar to that of Helen of Troy in ancient Greek mythology, over whom supposedly the Trojan War was fought. He suggests that the entire civil war in the country is due to a quarrel between men over who should possess Maria: "It's all a family plot in countries like this; revolutions fought for a schoolgirl in white with blunted toes." If lust is at the root of what moves men to war, Alfie is also aware, from his childhood in Baghdad, of the extent to which a society—a male-dominated one—may go in order to punish the expression of lust outside approved channels. This is apparent from his graphic description of an incident he witnessed as a child, in which a beautiful young woman was stoned to death in the village for adultery.
The unnamed Central American country is evoked in full sensory detail. The weather is hot and soon the rains will come, but at the moment it is "so dry it could scratch your lungs." The wildlife is exotic: "Bright feathered birds screech, snake-skins glitter, as the jungle peels away. Iguanas the size of wallabies leap from behind macheted bushes."
The Spanish-speaking society depicted is strongly Catholic. Maria went to a convent school. The houseboy, Eduardo, has posters of saints on his bedroom walls. At the guerrilla camp, above the cot in the main shack, is a "sad, dark, plaster crucified Jesus."
Topics For Further Study
- Research historical patterns of immigration to the United States. How did those patterns change during the twentieth century, in terms of which countries the majority of immigrants came from? What effect did the change in immigration policy in 1965 have? Where do the majority of immigrants come from today? What effect does that have on the racial and ethnic composition of the United States? Write an essay in which you present your findings.
- Write a short story in which the protagonist is a second-generation teenage immigrant whose parents are foreign-born. Your protagonist was born and raised in the United States and is attuned to American values. Bring out in the story the cultural conflict between the two generations. What is the conflict about? The way the young person speaks or dresses or behaves? Why does this create conflict with the person's parents?
- Tape record an interview with some immigrants in your school or town. Find out their story. Why did they come to the United States? What are their dreams? Have they experienced prejudice here? Make a class presentation, playing portions of the tape, and putting their experiences in a social context. For example, how many immigrants from that country come to the United States? What sort of occupations do they take up?
- Think of another character, from a television show, book, or movie, like Alfie Judah in the sense that the reader/viewer likes him in spite of the fact that he does not behave well, lacks conscience or morality, or other virtues. Why do characters such as this sometimes appeal to us more than the virtuous or good characters? Try and be specific about the appeal of the character(s) you select. What qualities do they embody and why do we like them? Write an essay which explains how immoral characters can be more attractive than moral ones.
In addition to being religious, the local people are strongly anti-American. They hate Americans even more than they hate the president of their own country. Paradoxically, however, the Indian population seems saturated with American popular culture. They know all the Hollywood names and the names of the automakers in Detroit; they imitate the signs they see American baseball fans making on television, and they wear their Braves baseball caps. At the guerrillas' rundown camp—a mere clearing in the jungle—sits a 1957 two-tone Plymouth with fins and chrome. It seems that the reach of American culture is ubiquitous. But the effects of the American presence are not presented as benign. In this respect, Ransome's swimming pool is symbolic. He fills it with chemicals so toxic that if a toad falls into it, the water blisters its skin. Ed-uardo's hysterical complaint about his employer, "He kills everything," can be seen as a comment on the effects of the presence of the Americans.
East Asian Immigration to the United States
Immigration to the United States from India and other South Asian countries greatly increased following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. By the mid-1970s, there were over 175,000 Indian immigrants in the United States, with four states, California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, developing sizable Indian American populations. The majority of these new immigrants already spoke fluent English and adjusted well to life in the United States, becoming one of the most prosperous of immigrant groups. Many were of professional status, such as doctors, engineers, and experts in the emerging information technology. However, Indian Americans also faced incidents of racism. In New Jersey in the 1980s, a number of Indians were murdered by young white men, who deliberately targeted them because of their race and the fact that as professionals they had attained material success.
Indian Americans, as well as those Indians who settled in Canada, soon produced a generation of writers who documented their experience as immigrants. Such writers included Mukherjee, Ved Mehta, A. K. Ramanujan, Suniti Namjoshi, Michael Ondaatji, and Rohinton Mistry. These writers explored issues such as racism, nostalgia for home, and the question of identity. Should they attempt to preserve their distinct Indian identity or assimilate with mainstream U.S. culture? In "Two Ways to Belong to America," an article published in the New York Times in 1996, Mukherjee described how she had made the decision to become an American citizen and wholeheartedly embrace her new identity, whereas her sister, Mira, who had been in the United States since 1960 as a permanent resident alien, still identified strongly with India and planned to return to her native country on retirement. Mukherjee believed that the majority of Indian immigrants had attitudes closer to those of her sister than her own.
Civil War in Central America in the 1980s
Although the country in which "The Middleman" is set is not named, it clearly alludes to the situation in the Central American countries of El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.
In El Salvador, a country marked by great social inequalities, there was a civil war in which a leftist guerrilla insurgency attempted to overthrow the government. The government was dominated by the wealthy elite, while the majority of citizens lived in poverty. Supported by billions of dollars in aid from the United States, the El Salvadoran government was ruthless in attempting to suppress the insurgency, establishing death squads that carried out assassinations of prominent individuals who spoke out against the government. Many atrocities were committed. In 1980, the archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romeroy Galdámez, was celebrating mass in a chapel when he was shot dead by a professional assassin. In another incident in the same year, three U.S. Roman Catholic nuns and a lay worker were raped and killed by El Salvadoran National Guard troops. During 1982 and 1983, approximately eight thousand civilians a year were being killed by government forces. In another infamous incident, in 1989, El Salvadoran soldiers murdered six Jesuit brothers and two female co-workers. By 1992, when a peace was brokered by the United Nations, the civil war had taken approximately seventy thousand lives.
In Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the world, the leftist Sandinista Party government faced an insurgency from guerrillas known as the contras. The Sandinistas took power in 1979, when a revolution overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Sandinistas legitimately won a national election in 1984, but they faced hostility from the United States and turned to the Soviet Union and Cuba for support. The United States offered aid to the rebel contras, enabling them to attack the Sandinistas from bases in Honduras. The United States also imposed trade sanctions and mined Nicaraguan harbors. In 1987, a U.S. plane carrying guns for the contras was shot down in Nicaragua. The only survivor was an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) named Eugene Hassenfuss who was captured by the Sandinistas and later released. This incident may have been what inspired Mukherjee's creation of the character Bud Wilkins in "The Middleman," since Wilkins is rumored to be a former CIA agent and is involved in arms dealing. There were also allegations at the time that the CIA was involved in drug-trafficking to aid the contras.
In 1990, as part of a peace agreement, the contras were disbanded in exchange for free elections in Nicaragua. In the election, the Sandinistas were unexpectedly defeated by a coalition of opposing forces. The eight-year civil war had badly damaged the country. Unemployment stood at 30 percent of the workforce, and Nicaragua's national debt was seven billion dollars, the highest per capita debt in Latin America.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Immigration to the United States from Asian countries continues to grow as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationalization Act. Immigrant communities from India, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, China, and other Asian countries all experience rapid growth.
Today: There are 1.7 million Indian immigrants in the United States, according to the 2000 census. This represents an increase of 106 percent since 1990, with an annual growth rate of 7.6 percent. Indian Americans are the third largest Asian minority in the United States, after Chinese and Filipinos. Indian Americans are above the national average in terms of education and income levels.
- 1980s: Immigration to the United States is higher than at any point since the early twentieth century. During the 1980s, ten million immigrants, both legal and illegal, arrive in the United States. Four million of these come from Mexico. The problem of illegal immigration, most of it across southern U.S. borders, also rises. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the country range from three million to twelve million.
Today: The problem of illegal immigration from Mexico and other Central American countries becomes a major political issue. Illegal immigrants mount large demonstrations for their rights in many American cities. President George W. Bush favors the creation of a new category of guest workers to address the problem. This arrangement would legalize the status of millions of illegal immigrants but would be for a limited time period, after which the guest worker would have to return to his or her country of origin.
- 1980s: Violent conflict occurs during much of the decade in the Central American countries of Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Nicaragua, the left-wing governing Sandinistas battle an insurgency by the U.S.-backed contras, while in El Salvador, the right-wing government, with financial aid from the United States, attempts to put down a guerrilla insurgency.
Today: Nicaragua is no longer governed by the Sandinistas, but it remains one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. It has high unemployment and large external debt and relies on international assistance. In 2005, Nicaragua ratifies the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which it believes will attract investment and create more jobs. El Salvador, at peace after a decade of war, tries to boost its sluggish economy by encouraging foreign investment and modernizing its tax and healthcare systems. In 2006, El Salvador implements CAFTA.
Mukherjee's collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, was well received by reviewers. In New York, Rhoda Koenig describes the stories as "sharp and resonant." She points out that "the displaced persons" who form the subjects of the stories "adapt surprisingly well to circumstances, though not all of them become model citizens." She had Alfie Judah of "The Middleman" in mind, commenting that "A foreign middleman—middlemen come out the winners in any revolution—stays with a Latin American dealer in dubious commodities."
In the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Raban notes that the immigrants depicted in the stories are dispersed over a huge territory, "from Toronto in the north down to a steamy Central American republic." Noting that Alfie Judah is a Jew, Raban comments that Mukherjee "hijacks the whole tradition of Jewish-American writing and flies it off to a destination undreamed of by its original practitioners." Raban also seems to be commenting on Alfie in his observation about Mukherjee's "new Americans—their guiltlessness, bounce, sexual freedom, their easy money and the lightness of their footsteps on the American landscape…. [They] are no more tormented by conscience than butterflies." As a final point, Raban notes that "Every story ends on a new point of departure. People are last seen walking out through an open door, planning an escape, or suspended on the optimistic brink of a blissful sexual transport." He quotes one of the closing lines of "The Middleman," "I will walk down the muddy road," in support of this observation. These characters, Raban writes, again neatly describing Alfie Judah, "keep aloft on luck and grace."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses "The Middleman" in the context of the experience of recent immigrants to the United States.
Bharati Mukherjee is known for her compelling stories about the experience of recent immigrants to the United States from the Third World. Although "The Middleman" takes place not in the United States but in an unnamed Central American country, it features the same theme. Alfie Judah is a naturalized American citizen who found his way to the United States via Baghdad and Bombay. He has learned many American ways, although he remains an outsider wherever he goes. In fact, the very term "middleman" is a metaphor of the immigrant experience, suggesting someone who is caught between two cultures, a full member of neither. Alfie, despite the American-style informality of the shortened version of his first name by which he introduces himself, is an outsider several times over. First, he is a Jew, and if there are any people in the world who have become familiar, over the course of many centuries, with what it means to be outsiders, it is the Jews. Alfie grew up as a Jew in Baghdad, an Arab city dominated by Muslims. He refers to the different, "lenient" nature of his upbringing in Baghdad when he recalls how he was taken as a child to "see something special from the old Iraqi culture," the stoning to death of a woman for adultery. As a member of a minority group, Alfie was clearly set apart from the dominant culture of his society.
Then when Alfie immigrated to the United States, he became a double outsider, so to speak. As a dark-skinned Iraqi Jew, he would have been regarded by many as a foreigner, and possibly a foreigner not to be trusted. Of course, given Alfie's chosen method of making money in his newly adopted homeland—he got involved in some kind of financial scam which landed him in trouble with the authorities—this mistrust might have been justified. But it is not quite as simple as that. An immigrant such as Alfie cannot come to the United States and straightaway become president of the local bank, join the country club, and volunteer at Little League. Yes, Alfie is the kind of man who makes no distinction between a moral and an immoral way to live, but in his defense, the path to success in the United States did not lie as wide open to him as it would have done to his WASP neighbors. (WASP is an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and refers to the American elite who occupy the vast majority of positions of power in the country.) Mukherjee herself came to the defense of Alfie, her character, in an interview she gave to Alison B. Carb in Massachusetts Review. "He [Alfie] attracted me because he was a cynical person and a hustler, as many immigrant survivors have to be." Her comment suggests that it is too easy to make moral judgments about Alfie and the way he chooses to survive in an alien environment. As an immigrant herself, Mukherjee has the ability to see things from the immigrant's point of view. Indeed, she once commented, in an interview with Beverley Byers-Pevitts, that "The Middleman" was the most "autobiographical" of her stories. She explained that the origin of the story lay in a trip she made to Costa Rica, where she was "stuck … among rather complicated, difficult people." She tried writing the story with a Bengali woman in it but realized that this was implausible. Switching from third-person to first-person point of view, she discovered the character of Alfie, who fitted the story perfectly. With that in mind, it is easy to see some common ground between Mukherjee and her character Alfie in the sense that they both gave up a rich cultural heritage in order to come to the new world. Mukherjee was raised in a Hindu Bengali Brahmin family. She wrote in "Two Ways to Belong in America" of "surrendering those thousands of years of 'pure culture,'" to become an "immigrant nobody." So it is with Alfie Judah, as he recalls the "once-illustrious" Judahs whose family heritage goes back to places such as Smyrna, in Turkey, where there has been a large Jewish population since the seventeenth century, and Aleppo, an ancient city in northern Syria which traditionally had a large Jewish population, one which shrank drastically during the mid-twentieth century. In those two allusions to cities known for their Jewish communities, Mukherjee creates a sense of a rich cultural identity extending back hundreds of years or more, which has been lost by Alfie Judah as the price he pays for his decision to come to the United States. (Although, it must be said, Alfie shows no regret at all about this. He has learned to adapt—and he did manage to land in the immigrant-rich city of Flushing, in the borough of Queens, New York City, which in the 1980s had a large Asian-American population.)
When from a legal point of view, life gets too hot for Alfie in Queens and he ends up in a strife-torn Central American country, he becomes even more of an outsider. Technically, he is an American citizen, but he is not American in the way that Clovis T. Ransome and Bud Wilkins, the two white Texans, are American. Although he has learned some "New World skill[s]" such as how to open a beer bottle by hitting the cap against a metal edge, he cannot share the easy camaraderie of Clovis and Bud—before the one betrays the other, that is. Alfie is forever outside their world. When he tries to explain Ransome's fanatical devotion to the Atlanta Braves baseball team, for example, Alfie says, "There are aspects of American life that I came too late for and will never understand." This is the puzzled statement of the immigrant everywhere. There are some things about every society that a person cannot understand unless he or she has been born and raised in it. Quasi-tribal allegiances to particular sports teams that go back generations and are rooted in local pride and sense of place are among the most noticeable examples. The immigrant may try hard to understand; he may learn all the rules of, say, baseball, and all the players' names and all the baseball statistics, but compared to the lifelong fan, his understanding will always be superficial, lacking in real emotional depth.
But Alfie Judah is no more at home with the indigenous population of this unnamed country than he is with the Americans. The Indians regard him with puzzlement. Because of his dark skin, he is spared the hostility extended to white Americans, but the locals cannot place him. When Maria introduces him to Andreas, the guerrilla leader, Andreas looks him over and says, "Yudah?" and frowns. Maria just shrugs, and Alfie is more or less left alone. When the guerrillas come looking for Ransome in order to kill him, Maria has to explain the presence of Alfie to one of them. Alfie hears her say, "Jew" and "Israel," which apparently is enough to make the guerrilla lose interest, since his target is the gringo, the American. Alfie, therefore, wins a kind of grudging tolerance born of indifference. He may be a middleman, but in this society, he is a kind of nowhere man, his origins, nationality, and allegiances unknown. Alfie, a born survivor if ever there was one, is used to this outsider status, and it does not disturb him. To some, he says, he is an Arab, to others an Indian. (Of course, he is neither.) For his part, he is content just to observe this new country from the outside and pick up whatever knowledge he needs that will serve his purposes. A cunning man, he knows more than he lets on, as when he understands some of the Spanish spoken around him but pretends he does not.
Denied the social connections provided by a shared culture, Alfie appears to seek only one connection to compensate for the lack, and that is the temporary, emotionally meaningless coupling provided by a woman's body in the heat of desire. The language of lust transcends all differences, if only for a short while. The fact that Alfie, himself a married man, has just seduced another man's wife, in the man's own home, does not trouble his conscience. He lives without morality or guilt, on the margins of society, picking up whatever scraps happen to fall his way.
What Do I Read Next?
- Mukherjee's novel Jasmine (1989) emerged out of the short story of the same title published in The Middleman and Other Stories. Jasmine follows the life of a courageous young woman who leaves her native India and learns how to survive in the alien environment of the United States.
- Jhumpa Lahiri was named by the New Yorker magazine as one of the twenty best young writers in the United States. In her first collection of nine stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), Lahiri writes about the Indian American experience in all its variety.
- Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America (1996), edited by Sunaina Maira and Rajini Srikanth, is an award-winning anthology of poems, stories, photographs, and essays that explores many aspects of the South Asian experience in North America. Many of the writers discover that they do not have to choose between identifying with South Asian or American cultures, but they can create their own culture that values heritage yet is also new.
- Living in America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian American Writers (1995), edited by Rustomji-Kerns, is an anthology of Asian American authors, some native-born, others immigrants and refugees. It contains poetry and short fiction by established and new writers. Many of the contributions reflect the concerns of a predominantly middle-class, educated South Asian community as it comes to terms with a new culture and defines its identity.
- Lan Samantha Chang's critically acclaimed Hunger (1998), consisting of the title novella and some short stories, explores the experience of Chinese immigrants in the United States, some of whom find that their offspring, raised in America, are more attuned to American values than traditional Chinese ones.
Despite all Alfie's faults, Mukherjee presents him in a sympathetic light, and the reader warms to this character. What is likable about Alfie is that he does not self-consciously play the role of expatriate; nor does he particularly care about embracing American culture and the American dream. There is insouciance about him, a kind of casual indifference to the things that seem so important to others. He does not cling to the past—and Alfie Ju-dah, one senses, has had many pasts—but is ready to reinvent himself, as the American expression goes, whenever the need arises. Wily to the last, he is a match for any situation.
In the interview in Massachusetts Review, Mukherjee identified Alfie as a character typical of her stories about immigrants. These are characters, she said, who
want to make it in the new world; they are filled with a hustlerish kind of energy … Although they are often hurt or depressed by setbacks in their new lives and occupations, they do not give up. They take risks they wouldn't have taken in their old, comfortable worlds to solve their problems. As they change citizenship, they are reborn.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "The Middleman," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Teri Ann Doerksen
In the following essay, Doerksen gives a critical analysis of Mukherjee's life and work.
Bharati Mukherjee has developed a reputation for exploring, through her writings, the meeting of the Third World and the First from the perspective of the immigrant to North America—to Canada and to the United States. Although she is well known for her novels, she has received critical acclaim for her two volumes of short stories, as well; several stories from her first collection, Darkness (1985), were singled out for awards, and her second collection, The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), earned a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories focus on the immigrant experience, but she resists attempts to categorize her as a "hyphenated" writer whose appeal is limited to certain ethnic groups; instead, she characterizes herself as an American writer in an established American tradition. She says in the introduction to Darkness:
I see my "immigrant" story replicated in a dozen American cities, and instead of seeing my Indianness as a fragile identity to be preserved against obliteration (or worse, a "visible" disfigurement to be hidden), I see it now as a set of fluid identities to be celebrated. I see myself as an American writer in the tradition of other American writers whose parents and grandparents had passed through Ellis Island.
Mukherjee is one of a growing number of authors who resist efforts to push to the sidelines literature featuring the richness of immigrant and ethnic communities and who redefine through their works what it means to be American. Along with the Native Americans Paula Gunn Allen and Leslie Marmon Silko and the Chinese American Amy Tan, Mukherjee depicts a United States that can no longer imagine itself in monolithic terms, that "is about diversity, not uniformity," as Allen was quoted as saying in an article in the Chicago Tribune (17 March 1991). In the same article Mukherjee said that "The ethnic voices were always there, but there wasn't a recognition of a community of writers until the de-Europeanization of our country became physically evident in the mid-80s." Mukherjee's short stories reflect her growing interest in representing a more and more inclusive view of what it means to be American. While most of the stories in both volumes are set in the United States or Canada, the first collection focuses primarily on Indian immigrants; the second presents a kaleidoscope of perspectives, including those of an Anglo Vietnam veteran, a newly arrived Ugandan American, and a third-generation Italian American introducing her family to her Afghanistani refugee boyfriend.
Mukherjee's renderings of interracial tensions, of the encounters between East and West, and of the experience of expatriation to Canada and immigration to the United States are drawn from her personal history. Mukherjee was born in Calcutta on 27 July 1940 to Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, a wealthy chemist who had traveled and studied in Germany and Britain, and Bina Barrejee Mukherjee. Both parents were Bengali Brahmins, members of the highest Hindu caste. Although Bina Mukherjee had not had an advanced education, she, like her husband, believed that their three daughters should be educated. In a 1987 interview with Geoff Hancock, Mukherjee said that her father "wanted the best for his daughters. And to him, the 'best' meant intellectually fulfilling lives…. My mother is one of those exceptional Third World women who 'burned' all her life for an education, which was denied to well-brought-up women of her generation. She made sure that my sisters and I never suffered the same wants."
Although Mukherjee's first language was Bengali, she was taught English at a bilingual Protestant missionary school in British-ruled Calcutta. Soon after India gained its independence in 1947, the Mukherjee sisters left with their parents for their first trip outside the country; Mukherjee attended boarding schools in England and Switzerland for three years before returning to Calcutta and enrolling at Loreto House, an English-speaking school run by Irish nuns. In a 1990 interview with The Iowa Review she recalled:
There was an instilling of value systems, cultural value systems, which now strikes me as so ironic. The nuns were Irish to begin with, but in the outpost, they became more British than the British. And during the schooldays we were taught to devalue … Bengali plays, Bengali literature, Bengali music, Bengali anything. And then we went home—I came from a very orthodox, traditional family—so we had to negotiate in both languages. But, as I'm sure happens with minority children who are being channeled into fancy prep schools and all, it created complications within the Hindi community, within the Indian upper-class community of my generation.
Tensions between Third World and First World values became the foundation for much of Mukherjee's writing.
After graduating from Loreto House, Mukherjee attended the University of Calcutta, where she received a B.A. in English, with honors, in 1959. At about that time her father had a dispute with a business partner and moved the family to Baroda in western India, where he worked for a large chemical firm. Mukherjee received an MA. in English and ancient Indian culture from the University of Baroda in 1961.
After Mukherjee finished her M.A., her father arranged for her to attend the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. She received an M.F.A. from Iowa in 1963. On 19 September 1963—during their lunch hour—she married Clark Blaise, a Canadian novelist, whom she had met at the university. They have two sons, Bart and Bernard.
Mukherjee became an instructor in the English department at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1964; in 1965 she took a similar position at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1966 she and Blaise accepted positions as lecturers at McGill University in Montreal. Mukherjee received her Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from the University of Iowa in 1969 and was promoted to assistant professor.
While teaching at McGill, Mukherjee wrote her first novel. In The Tiger's Daughter (1972) Tara Banerjee Cartwright returns to India to find that her childhood memories of wealth and Brahmin gentility do not jibe with the dirt, poverty, and political upheavals she encounters. Tara's father, "The Tiger," is closely based on Mukherjee's father. In 1973 Mukherjee became an associate professor and went to India on sabbatical. In her second novel, Wife (1975), Dimple Dasgupta, an Indian woman, moves with her Indian husband to New York City. The gap between her husband's expectations of her and those of the culture in which she finds herself are so large, and her mental state is so shaky, that she finds herself torn between killing herself and killing her husband; she chooses the latter alternative, stabbing him in the neck as he eats a bowl of cereal.
Mukherjee and Blaise spent 1976–1977 in India, where Mukherjee was directing the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute in New Delhi. They had contracted with a publisher to record their experiences independently, Blaise as a Westerner visiting the country for the first time and Mukherjee as a returnee whose perspective had been shifted by ten years in North America. The result was Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977). Mukherjee became a full professor at McGill in 1978. She also served as the chair of the writing program and as director of graduate studies in English.
In the 1990 interview with The Iowa Review Mukherjee noted that after the Canadian government allowed Ugandan Asians with British passports to enter the country in 1973, "I started to notice on a daily basis little incidents in my corner Woolworth's in Montreal, or in hotel lobbies, on buses, things just not being quite right. Then it ballooned into very vicious physical harassment by 1977, 1978." Soon after Days and Nights in Calcutta was published, Mukherjee and Blaise moved to Toronto, a hotbed of racist violence in Canada, and learned of people of color being thrown onto railroad tracks and run over intentionally on the streets. Paralyzed by anger over her encounters with racism in her adopted home, Mukherjee stopped writing for almost ten years, and she and Blaise decided to leave Canada permanently. They resigned their tenured positions and took part-time, temporary teaching jobs at colleges around New York City. When Mukherjee began to write again, she chose a new genre: the short story.
Mukherjee's first book of short stories, Darkness, published in 1985, reveals her outrage at the racism she had encountered in Canada and the optimism she associates with living in the United States. Most of the twelve stories in the collection were written while she was writer-in-residence at Emory University in Atlanta in the spring of 1984, although some had been written in Canada. The tone of the stories moves from bitterness about the difficulty of maintaining Indian identity in Canada to a cautious hopefulness about the potential for successful assimilation into the culture of the United States.
The stories in Darkness feature characters from Southern Asia and provide a mosaic of perspectives on this kind of immigrant experience. Several stories are either set in Canada or involve characters who live there and depict the overwhelming racism encountered there by people of Indian origin. "The World According to Hsü" is told from the point of view of Ratna Clayton, an Indian woman married to a white Canadian academic in Montreal. The couple is on vacation on an island off the coast of Africa; the uprising and coup that occur during their visit correspond to the internal upheaval Ratna feels at the news that her husband wants to take a position in Toronto: "In Montreal she was merely 'English,' a grim joke on generations of British segregationists. It was thought charming that her French was just slightly short of fluent. 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."
Other stories extend beyond the middle and upper classes to the experience of poor immigrants—who are almost always assumed by those in authority to be in Canada illegally. In "Tamurlane" a Toronto restaurant is raided by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who are looking for illegal immigrants. Gupta, a lame cook who has his papers, at first resists the unjust arrest in the only way he knows how—with his cleaver—then reaches for his passport; but one of the Mounties shoots him through the very document that proves that they should not have tried to arrest him in the first place. In the award-winning "Isolated Incidents" a young white Toronto social worker is made aware of the vast gap between classes when a visit to an old school friend, who is now a famous pop singer, coincides with an incident in which an Indian immigrant is pushed in front of a subway train and an encounter with a plaintive Hispanic client who wants her to save his sister from being deported.
In "Nostalgia" the reader is introduced to Dr. Manny Patel, who is proud of his white wife, Camille; his young son; and the money he has earned in the United States. At the same time, however, he longs for the familiarity of the culture he left behind in India. Patel's nostalgia takes on substance in his lust for an Indian girl he meets at the market and romances at an expensive restaurant. Patel ignores the waiter's plea for help in getting a visa for his nephew, because "he didn't want this night to fall under the pressure of other immigrants' woes," only to find, in an ironic twist, that the entire experience was engineered: the girl he is romancing is the waiter's niece, and he is blackmailed into helping with the visa and giving them money, as well. Patel, suddenly aware of his disconnected-ness from his Indian heritage, reacts in a way that proves that he is also disconnected from his family: as the story ends he is planning to bribe his wife with a cruise to make up for his infidelity and humiliation. A story later in the volume, "Saints," illustrates the long-term repercussions of Patel's detachment. Many years later Camille and Manny have divorced; their son, Shawn, cannot understand his father's coldness or his mother's attraction to men who cheat on her and batter her, and at the end he is walking the midwinter streets "like a Hindu saint," peering through the windows at Indian families and hoping for a glimpse of his own identity.
The most pervasive theme in the volume, appearing in some form in nearly all of the stories, is the tension between the changed cultural and sexual expectations confronting Indian women immigrants to North America and the unchanged values of their traditional Indian parents and husbands. "A Father" is a particularly vivid illustration of this theme. Mr. Bhowmick discovers that his daughter is pregnant and is overjoyed by his visions of a grandson and by the notion that his intelligent but awkward daughter is loved by a man. He is willing to forgive the fact that she is pregnant out of wedlock; after all, he reasons, "Girls like Babli were caught between the rules." He congratulates himself on his progressive ideas; but the brittleness of his position becomes apparent when he discovers that his daughter was impregnated by artificial insemination rather than by a boyfriend. His self-congratulatory acceptance explodes into rage and violence, and he beats his daughter with a rolling pin until his wife calls the police.
"Visitors" also plays on immigrant uncertainty about how much acceptance of Western culture is allowable. Vinita, a young immigrant bride, is receiving visitors on her first afternoon in her new home. She is faced with a difficult decision when a young man she has met comes to the door: in Calcutta it would be inappropriate to be with him un-chaperoned, but the rules are different in New Jersey. He, however, judges her by Calcutta rules, taking her invitation to tea as an acknowledgment of her desire for him. She repulses his attack, but the experience has made her long for something more than she has. She finds herself longing to "run off into the alien American night where only shame and disaster can await her."
Darkness received generally favorable reviews. Mahnaz Ispahani commented in The New Republic (14 April 1986): "Mukherjee has created some complicated inner lives, and evoked the sensations and the traditions and the combustion of two very different cultures. Unlike many writers about the immigrant experience, Mukherjee does not succumb to guilt or to maudlin memories about the past. Instead her work soberly celebrates resilience. Like most of her characters, she has no thoughts of turning back."
After Darkness was sent to the publisher, Mukherjee acquired a National Endowment for the Arts grant and took time off from teaching to begin writing another series of stories about Indian immigrants to the United States. This work was interrupted by an event that led to another nonfiction book: the 23 June 1985 bombing off the Irish coast, apparently by Sikh terrorists, of Air India flight 182, en route from Toronto to New Delhi via London, in which 329 people were killed. In 1987 Mukherjee and Blaise published The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, in which they argued that ultimate responsibility for the disaster lay with misguided Canadian government policies on immigration and multiculturalism.
After the completion of The Sorrow and the Terror Mukherjee returned to the stories she had begun earlier, but in a much different frame of mind. During the intervening years she had settled permanently in the United States, and as she wrote the last of the stories for her second collection she was preparing to become a citizen. She continued to be concerned with the racism facing Indian immigrants to Canada, but she began to approach the issue from a more hopeful perspective. Early in 1988 she took her citizenship oath in New York City; a few months later The Middleman and Other Stories was published.
The Middleman and Other Stories reflects an exuberance that contrasts with the uncertainty and sense of betrayal that pervades many of the pieces in Darkness; Mukherjee said in the 1990 interview that "by the time I came to write The Middleman, I was exhilarated, my vision was more optimistic. I knew that I was finally where I wanted to be." The stories also shift away from her earlier focus on Indian immigrants to include new arrivals from Uganda, the West Indies, and Afghanistan. Except for a few darker stories, the collection celebrates the kaleidoscopic nature of the new American population. Finally, Mukherjee adopts a new narrative perspective in the stories: while Darkness explored the immigrant experience from a third-person-omniscient standpoint, The Middleman and Other Stories allows many of these new American voices to speak for themselves; some of the narrators are native-born Americans who are learning to live with the changes brought to the country by the recent arrivals. All of the stories address the tensions and hopes produced when "new" Americans meet "old" ones.
As diverse as the stories are, they fall into definable categories. The first is a new one for Mukherjee: stories told from the point of view of white Americans who are seeking, with differing degrees of success, to make sense of the new America emerging around them. In "Loose Ends" the Vietnam veteran Jeb Marshall has become an assassin-for-hire in Florida. Bitter and unable to accept the changes that immigrants have brought to the United States, he sees people of Hispanic and East Indian descent as threats and views himself and his wife as "coolie labor in our own country." In Vietnam, he thinks, he sacrificed to "barricade the front door" and protect his country; now he wonders, "who left the back door open?" Checking into a cheap motel run by an East Indian family, he is enraged when he realizes that to them he is unimportant: "They've forgotten me. I feel left out, left behind. While we were nailing up that big front door, these guys were sneaking in around back. They got their money, their family networks, and their secretive languages." He rapes and murders the young Indian woman who shows him to his room, believing that by doing so he is taking back "his" America. In "Fathering" another veteran, Jason, faces a power struggle between his common-law wife, Sharon, and his daughter, Eng, whom he fathered in Vietnam and who has just arrived in the United States.
The largest group of stories consists of those that are told from the point of view of first- and second-generation Asian immigrants as they become acculturated in the West. In the title story, "The Middleman," Alfie Judah, an Iraqi who has just become a United States citizen, is employed by an arms-dealing syndicate in a Central American republic; the syndicate is secretly run by an American businessman and the president of the country. Alfie has an affair with the businessman's wife, who is also the president's mistress. When—to his surprise—he survives the discovery of the affair, he decides to see how much money he can make from his inside information about his former bosses. This jaundiced view of entrepreneurship in the Western world is echoed in "Danny's Girls." The unnamed narrator, a teenage Ugandan refugee, admires Danny Sahib, another boy in his building, whose business is "selling docile Indian girls to hard-up Americans for real bucks." But when he becomes infatuated with Rosie, a Nepalese mailorder bride, he realizes "what a strange, pimpish thing I was doing, putting up pictures of Danny's girls, or standing at the top of the subway stairs and passing them out to any lonely-looking American I saw—what kind of joke was this? How dare he do this, I thought, how dare he make me a part of this?"
Two stories explore meetings between new immigrants and families who are well established in the United States. In "Jasmine" an illegal emigrant from Trinidad finds a job in Michigan caring for the daughter of the Moffitts. The feminist Lara Hatch-Moffitt is blithely unaware of the hypocrisy of her exploitation of the teenage immigrant to further her own career; Bill Moffitt also exploits Jasmine by having an affair with her. (The explosive potential of the situation established in "Jasmine" led Mukherjee to expand it into a novel of the same title, which was published in 1989.) In "Orbiting," one of the strongest pieces in the collection, a second-generation Italian American family gathers for that most traditional of American holidays, Thanksgiving, at the home of the eldest daughter, Rindy. The dinner is complicated by the introduction of Rindy's new boyfriend, Ro, an Afghan refugee. Ro's presence changes the way the more-established Americans see the holiday they are celebrating, and the assumptions they have about what it means to be an American. When Ro explains the politics that forced him to leave his country and the torture he suffered in jail, Rindy's father and brother are shocked out of their complacent belief that "only Americans had informed political opinions—other people staged coups out of spite and misery." As Ro's story continues, Rindy observes that her father is beginning to look ill; she notes with acerbity that "The meaning of Thanksgiving should not be so explicit." Victoria Carchidi calls the story "a comedy of manners worthy of Jane Austen, whom Mukherjee has acknowledged as an influence on her work. We see misunderstandings, and correct understandings, where least expected as the characters enact in miniature the ballet of complementary moves that is America."
The last group of stories encompasses a category that is familiar from Mukherjee's previous work: stories of Indian women who have immigrated to the United States or Canada and are struggling with the distance between their cultural background and the new society in which they find themselves. In "A Wife's Story" Panna Bhatt is studying for a doctorate in special education in New York City. When her husband, who manages a cotton mill north of Bombay, arrives for a visit, he asks why she has not worn his mother's gold and ruby ring to the airport. She explains that it is not safe to do so: "He looks disconcerted. He's used to a different role. He's the knowing, suspicious one in the family…. I handle the money, buy the tickets. I don't know if this makes me unhappy." By the end of the story she knows that she will not return to India with him. The final image is of a woman discovering a new sense of herself: "I watch my naked body turn, the breasts, the thighs glow. The body's beauty amazes. I stand here shameless, in ways he has never seen me. I am free, afloat, watching somebody else." In "The Tenant" a young professor from India is torn between her desire for a connection with her Indian heritage and her desire for independence. She has dinner with the family of an Indian colleague; afterward, he drives her home and then masturbates at the wheel of the car while she watches, aghast. She turns to personal advertisements for Indian companionship, then to her armless landlord, and, finally, back to the man she had met through the personals. It is a story of searching without finding, but without the bleakness that might have pervaded a similar story in Darkness.
The most powerful work in the collection, "The Management of Grief," grew out of Mukherjee's experience researching the Air India crash. Mrs. Bhave's husband and two sons are killed in the disaster, and in the following weeks she becomes a focal point for misunderstandings between the Canadian government and the grieving families. She is disappointed in herself for being unable to show the emotion she should, for not wailing for the dead; others in her community wonder if she really loved her family, since she can take their loss so silently. The Canadian authorities, on the other hand, try to use her to inspire a similar stoicism in the other bereaved Indian families. The authorities also assume that the survivors will be comforted by the identification of the bodies of their loved ones, while Mrs. Bhave and the others take their only solace in the belief that somehow their families might have survived: "In our culture, it is a parent's duty to hope." When Judith Templeton, a social worker, asks for Mrs. Bhave's help with the other families, she reluctantly agrees; but Templeton's ignorance is too much to bear. Not only does Templeton want Mrs. Bhave to talk with a Sikh family—members of the ethnic group responsible for bombing the plane in which Mrs. Bhave's family died—but she also confides that the "stubbornness and ignorance" of two survivors "are driving me crazy." Finding herself more in sympathy with her traditional enemies than with the Canadian social worker, Mrs. Bhave asks to be let out of the car at a subway stop. This strong declaration of self is followed by eventual release from grief: after many months, she hears her family's voices telling her to "Go, be brave," and she begins a new life, a new "voyage."
The Middleman and Other Stories was a commercial and critical success, garnering the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Eleanor Wachtel noted in Maclean's (29 August 1988): "In The Middleman, Mukherjee has plunged herself into the throes of American society. In return, she offers acute insights into the clashes that mark a nonwhite's entry into that culture."
At the time of the publication of Jasmine Mukherjee was invited to become a distinguished professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Since then she has published two nonfiction books, Political Culture and Leadership in India: A Study of West Bengal (1991) and Regionalism in Indian Perspective (1992), and two novels, The Holder of the World (1993) and Leave It to Me (1996). Critics have found Mukherjee's work to be a shaping force in a new American literature that reimagines the United States as a multifaceted rather than a monolithic entity, and her work is beginning to be the focus of scholarly inquiry. She speaks to an America that is culturally rich and diverse; while she acknowledges that such diversity comes with discomfort and sacrifice, she shows that it also provides tremendous rewards.
Source: Teri Ann Doerksen, "Bharati Mukherjee," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 218, American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Second Series, edited by Patrick Meanor and Gwen Crane, Gale Group, 1999, pp. 228-234.
Bharati Mukherjee, Michael Connell, Jessie Grearson and Tom Grimes
In the following interview, Mukherjee discusses her upbringing, how she incorporates metaphysics in her work, where she draws inspiration for her characters, the violence and the love that appear in her later work, the feminist response to her work, and the writing process.
This interview took place over a two day period just after Thanksgiving, 1989, in Iowa City, where Bharati Mukherjee had come to read from her latest novel, Jasmine, and also to spend the weekend with her husband, Clark Blaise, who was teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It was a hectic period for her. The Middleman and Other Stories had recently won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction; Berkeley had offered her a Distinguished Professorship, which she accepted; and she was promoting the new book, which was critically praised when it appeared earlier that fall …
Bharati Mukherjee was born into a well-to-do Indian family—her father was a prize-winning chemist—in 1940. Since coming to the Writers' Workshop in 1962, she has lived largely in the U.S. and Canada, returning home to India every summer for a visit. After earning her MFA, she completed a PhD in English Literature, taught at McGill for several years following their move to Canada, and recently has taught in New York at Queens College and Columbia University. Her teaching has limited her writing time. Nevertheless, she has produced three novels, Jasmine (1989), Wife (1975), and The Tiger's Daughter (1972); two story collections, The Middleman (1988), and Darkness (1985); as well as two works of nonfiction, Days and Nights in Calcutta, about her return to India, and The Sorrow and the Terror, an investigative report into the 1985 Air India bombing in which 323 people were killed. The nonfiction books were written in collaboration with Clark Blaise, who is the author of A North American Education (stories), Lust, Lunar Attractions (both novels), and Resident Alien, a recent collection of short stories and autobiographical essays. Days and Nights in Calcutta is currently being made into a movie, and the two of them were working on the screenplay and on a piece about Salman Rushdie, when we met.
For all the incarnations Bharati Mukherjee has gone through—from Bengali Brahmin to workshop student, from working mother to celebrated author—she is a woman who seems unshakably sure of who she is. But the idea of transformation, of life being a process of almost constant and radical evolution, has been one of the major themes of her work.
[The Iowa Review:] You said at one point, "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake one's self … we murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of our dreams." Do you see violence as necessary to a transformation of character?
[Bharati Mukherjee:] Yes. And I can see that in my own life it's been psychic violence. In my character Jasmine's case it's been physical violence because she's from a poor farming family. Plus terrorism is a virus of the '80s, so there is the initial violence of the village, where her husband dies in a fire bombing. Because she is an undocumented, poor alien, she necessarily goes through a kind of physical harassment that someone like me was exempt from. But just growing up in my Calcutta, the daughter of a very rich factory owner in a time when West Bengal, and especially Calcutta, was becoming Communist, I had to personally experience a great deal of labor violence and unrest. There were many times when I went to school with what we used to call "flying squads." Military policemen in vans in front, special policemen in vans in back, our car, with chauffeur and bodyguard in between so we could, the three sisters, take part as pretty maidens in gondoliers. Gilbert and Sullivan light operas, etc. I'm coming out of a 19th-century world, and have witnessed a lot of violence for myself which didn't physically scar me—I mean, no one threw acid on my face as was feared. But Jasmine actually encountered it, because it's not a realistic novel. It's meant to be a fable.
Can we talk about your upbringing for a bit?
Is Bengali your native language?
You spoke it before you spoke English?
Yes. I was unilingually Bengali for the first three years of my life. This was before Independence in 1947, the tail end of the British Raj, when the Raj already knew it was crumbling and there were a lot of nationalistic struggles in and around Calcutta.
I went at age three to a school run by Protestant missionaries and that was a sort of bilingual school for elementary schoolchildren. The courses were taught in Bengali, but they introduced English. That's how I knew mat, bat, cat—more complicated sentences, actually—by the time I went to school in England at age eight. And that was the three years in England and Switzerland when I felt I was totally bilingual. I could operate in both languages equally well. And I could speak English like a Cockney when necessary, or establishment English because it was a fancy Sloane Square school that I was sent to. When I came back to India, to Calcutta, to a very special girls' school called Loretto House run by Irish nuns in independent Calcutta, I became less Bengali-speaking.
Your English had taken over?
Was this a matter of choice, or had you just lost the Bengali by then?
I hadn't lost it, but there was an instilling of value systems, cultural value systems, which now strikes me as so ironic. The nuns were Irish to begin with, but in the outpost, they became more British than the British. And during the schooldays we were taught to devalue—I was going to say sneer at, but that's putting it a little too strongly—Bengali plays, Bengali literature, Bengali music, Bengali anything. And then we went home—I came from a very orthodox, very traditional family—so we had to negotiate in both languages. But, as I'm sure happens with minority children who are being channeled into fancy prep schools and all, it created complications within the Hindi community, within the Indian upper-class community of my generation. It wasn't until I became a graduate student at Baroda (where, if I wanted to get a Master's degree in English, I also had to take either a regional Master's in a regional Indian language, or in ancient Indian culture) that I really came to know the marvels of Hinduism. No, I knew Bengali, but the culture itself I hadn't really studied formally until then. I just imbibed it by osmosis…
That sense of the metaphysical and the literal seems to run through your work. Do you see immigration as an experience of reincarnation?
Absolutely! I have been murdered and reborn at least three times; the very correct young woman I was trained to be, and was very happy being, is very different from the politicized, shrill, civil rights activist I was in Canada, and from the urgent writer that I have become in the last few years in the United States. I can't stop. It's compulsive act for me. It's a kind of salvation, and the only thing that prevents me from being a Joyce Carol Oates, and I'm not talking about quality, but just that need to create, is schedule.
You seem to write about similar characters leading different lives. Does this tie into your idea of reincarnation?
I must be interested in certain types of characters (Maya/Angela/Jasmine) and so they keep recurring to me in different ways. Or what she thinks is the right thing to do has changed as I have changed, as a person….
The kinds of women I write about, and I'm not generalizing about women in the South Asian community here, but the kinds of women who attract me, who intrigue me, are those who are adaptable. We've all been trained to please, been trained to be adaptable as wives, and that adaptability is working to the women's advantage when we come over as immigrants. The males function very well as engineers or doctors or whatever, and they earn good money, but they have locked their hearts against mainstream culture. They seem to be afraid of pollution. Their notion of India seems to have frozen in the year in which they left India and they don't want to change. Change is frightening; they are like mini-Ayatollahs in some way. They don't want to be part of history and flux. Whereas the women are forced to deal with Americans in the small daily business of life. They have to go to the grocery store and actually interact with real Americans, so they have to attend PTA meetings, be in car pools, and so on. For an Indian woman to learn to drive, put on pants, cash checks, is a big leap. They are, as Clark was saying, exhilarated by the change. They are no longer having to do what mother-in-law tyrannically forced them to do. And they are free to set up businesses, which they are doing throughout the country. And these new Indian wives are apparently heavy duty users of day care centers, so they can run their boutiques and businesses.
The men always seem to be translating dollars into rupees, and thinking, "Well, I can always go back and buy this condominium and I'll be safe." But the women seem to be going further and further into America. From Darkness through Middleman and into Jasmine, there seems to be this flight into the American experience.
I don't know if all my women characters make that flight into American successfully though. I think of Maya as a very lost, sad character, who really went out and married a white man and is so well attuned to women intellectuals, her colleagues, but at the same time there is that desire for a wholeness, nostalgia, that India and Indian traditions promised. And so, she's the one who is going out and seeking an advertised, perfect Indian groom, and it works out in strange ways for her. For her, the turn comes when the guy without arms, the lover without arms, calls her May. Suddenly, she snaps. No, I'm not May, I'm Maya, and people from the outside don't understand me. Whereas a Jasmine, in the short story, is someone who wants to make—is hurtling into an unknown America …
You were talking earlier about different forms of power, acquiring and expressing power, the different forms of power for women, and it struck me that in your work there is power even in the re-straining and pouring of tea.
Well, certainly all my life, I realize now, all my writing life, I've been interested in the ways people acquire power, exercise power, and even more importantly, I realize, relinquish power or are forced to relinquish power. One of the novels I started but never finished, is about an Idi Amin kind of figure. The title of this unfinished manuscript is The Father of His Country. I guess in different ways I am always trying to find a metaphor, the right character to tell the story, or variants of the story of how to acquire power, exercise it and then have it taken away from you, or voluntarily give it up. For some of the women characters in my stories, fasting is a way of exercising that power. When you have nothing really, withholding food can become the only way to exercise power. What is regarded as passivity, or was regarded in Wife as passivity, by feminist Ms. magazine-type readers in 1975, was meant to be read very differently. My women are utilizing the tools at hand. I did not build, deliberately build into the center of Wife, the Ms. magazine way as the "right" way with everyone else defective in their ways of fighting domination, whether it is male or class or poverty. I want to think that power is my central obsession….
There seems to be a resistance to a Western idea of feminist thought or philosophy in your work.
Yes, I think a resistance does run through my work. For some nonwhite, Asian women, our ways of negotiating power are different. There is no reason why we should have to appropriate—wholesale and intact—the white, upper-middle-class women's tools and rhetoric. Especially rhetoric. I think that 1975 was a very dogmatic, prescriptive year in American feminism and they could not stand any deviations or any rebellions. There were a lot of run-ins. I had a lot of run-ins. I'll give you a small example of the kinds of misinterpretations, in terms of feminism, that my stories go through. "Jasmine," the story in The Middleman, ends with young Jasmine, this Caribbean-Indian girl, making love to her white boss on a Turkish rug in front of the fire, in a room which she cleans during the day. Reviewers loved that story generally and loved that scene, but they saw Jasmine as an exploited young woman, and the white male, her employer, as a sleazy boss who is taking advantage of this poor, innocent, put-upon, au-pair girl. Whereas I meant for Jasmine to know exactly what it is she wants and what she is willing to trade off in order to get what she wants. She is in charge of the situation there. The man has succumbed to lust and to her sexuality. Jasmine is a woman who knows the power, is discovering the power of her sexuality. If there is a villain in that story, it is Lara, the wife, whose feminism and professionalism are built on the backs of underemployed Caribbean or Hispanic au-pair girls. But no one got that, you see. It was meant to be a very political ending….
There seems to be a move toward an acceptance of the inevitability of violence in your later work. We go from hesitancy in Wife to the resolute action in Jasmine.
It's a natural part by then. Having written the book on the Air India terrorism, I realized how pervasive violence is in this country. It's just under the skin of real life. It doesn't seem exotic, or external, anymore. I was coy, or decorous, a person of great decorum, when I was writing The Tiger's Daughter. Should I allow the main character in the novel to be deflowered, I had to ask myself. I absolutely didn't want that. And Clark said, when I showed him my manuscript, "The novel demands it, and you have to go through with it." And I thought, Oh, my God. Even though it's not autobiographical, people are going to assume that the same thing happened to me. It's that kind of violence that I was reluctant to write of in the early books….
There is a sense of great love in your later works, for the characters and for the landscape, the New World.
That happened somewhere between Darkness and The Middleman. Darkness was a breakthrough book in the sense that I was writing about changes among the immigrants. It was still darkness, after all, and I was coming out of that whole Canadian mess. I want to think that writing that book was invigorating for me. But for many of the characters, things didn't work out when they transplanted themselves into a new culture. But by the time I came to write The Middleman, I was exhilarated, my vision was more optimistic. I knew that I was finally where I wanted to be. And though I was moving in degrees of acculturation, the overall authorial vision is, I hope, consistent….
How does your work begin to happen for you?
When the writing is going well, the characters take over, and they dictate what is going to happen to them in the scene. In "Buried Lives," for instance, I thought, when I started out, that the Sri Lankan, Tamil, was going to die off the coast of Nova Scotia. There had been two boatloads of refugees who had been put by unscrupulous captains into boats which sank there. They just deserted them when they saw the Coast Guard coming. So I assumed that this would be how this man would end in my story. But the guy wouldn't get on the boat. He found ways of hanging around, staying on in Germany. Then he found a girlfriend and she gave him his necessary visa papers. So I really do hear a voice when things are going well. Then I read something about athletes being "in the zone." And I said, "My God, that's really what's happening in the best of my work." I immediately identified with that idea. I find that I throw away the stuff I've written when I have not entered "the zone." I am like a medium. I am both inside and outside the character. I'm hearing this voice that's writing itself. The scenes work themselves out, and each project has its own momentum. I am forced to write so fast, and with such intensity, because it's always during vacations. I'm working twenty-one hour days with everything bubbling in my head. So in the middle of the night these things are working themselves out. Though I may have gotten up out of my chair.
During that time you're sensitive to absorbing things, like photographs?
Yes. Everything works its way in. And I don't waste, it seems. Any overheard conversations, any faces seen—I never know when they're going to work their way into my fiction. I don't keep notebooks, but these details just pop up in the work.
The book becomes like a magnet?
Yes. Maybe that's exactly what I've been saying about how scraps of conversation during certain periods will feed themselves into the book. It all seems appropriate; I know how to use it all. Or every face will suggest a compulsive story.
Earlier in your career you talked about "voice" being your prime aesthetic.
Finding the right voice, right. That's something that I came to as a result of talking to, or listening to, Clark. The sense of voice being the way one controls fiction. Voice can be the sum total of every artistic trick in your bag. It's how to use texture, how to use metaphor, how to choose the right point of view, the point of view character, and therefore the idioms, the language. Knowing when to withhold information, when to disclose, etc. Now I realize that in addition to that, voice, for me, is the physical, or actual, hearing of the main character speak. The rest happens automatically. It is all happening without my having to think about it.
What about essay writing? Is "the zone" involved in that kind of writing, too?
No. I know when I'm doing well, and when the ideas are simply not clear. But it's not the same physiological change that happens to me when I'm writing fiction that I'm really satisfied with. Essays seem to me to be coming out of a different part of my brain. It's not the same internal compulsion. I won't take on a subject that doesn't interest me. I will only do it if I feel I have a special angle on it, and the subject matter is sufficiently interesting to me. I don't come in with preconceived notions of what I'm going to find. But it's a very different kind of writing. It's Mukherjee writing, and Mukherjee assessing and analyzing, rather than something else. I don't have that intermediary. I haven't become someone else. I must not become someone else when I'm writing an essay….
Maxine Hong Kingston has talked about our needing a "global novel." Do you see your fiction going that way?
Maybe fiction is going that way, but I would never start out with an agenda that I must sit down and write a "global novel." A character has to come to me urgently—a scene, a sentence. The fiction itself must seem urgent to me. I don't like to have the social prescription, or the political prescription, that I am then trying to flesh out. I think there's a propaganda novel or thesis novel that can be important, but the concept strikes me as necessarily lacking life. It doesn't come from the guts, the heart, of the writer. And I don't see at all why good fiction has to be global fiction. It's the lot of some writers, who are—because of the accidents of history—forced to be on the move. Then there are the Richard Fords and the Russell Banks who may be writing of small town America, but with great gifts, and great compassion. It's making life important, making a single life important, rather than having to have a prescription for the global ills which afflict us.
Source: Bharati Mukherjee, Michael Connell, Jessie Grearson, and Tom Grimes, "An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee," in Iowa Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall 1990, pp. 7-32.
In the following review, Parameswaran discusses Mukherjee's exploration of the "celebration of being American" through the author's exaggerated characters, touch of cynicism, and "curious mix of voices and experiences."
Bharati Mukherjee's second volume of short fiction consists of eleven stories that are wide-ranging in both settings and themes. Following her self-proclaimed American identity stated in her first volume of stories, Darkness (1985; see WLT 60:3, p. 520), she explores the American experience through various personae or protagonists, four of whom are white American males and six of whom are females (only three of the women are of Indian origin). The result is a curious mix of voices and experiences that go to make up the celebration of being American (as she states in Darkness) as opposed to being Canadian.
Mukherjee's explorations of male attitudes and diction are interesting as experiments. Alfred Judah, the protagonist of the title story, is a macho operator in the rough-and-tumble world of smugglers: "Me? I make a living from things that fall. The big fat belly of Clovis T. Ransome bobs above me like whale shit at high tide." This image from the Florida scenery seems to have impressed her deeply, for in the next story we find "python turds, dozens of turds, light as cork and thick as a tree, riding high in the water." One is led to see a metaphorical streak that runs through the volume: these characters may be full-blooded Americans racing with both hands grabbing at all that life has to offer, but what they grasp is rather obnoxious all the way. More disturbing is the fact that Mukherjee's control of language is as devastating as ever, but now geared to a kind of cynicism that was absent in her earlier works. The characters who appear in the American stories, especially those from India, are stark caricatures of individuals: motel owners who use underpaid fellow Indians whenever possible; highly educated professionals whose linguistic idiosyncrasies are laughed at; a Vietnam veteran who brings home his daughter Eng and "rescues" her from "our enemies," the doctor and the hospital that terrify her; a ruffian who, we are asked to believe, is driven to auto theft and rape by his feeling of betrayal by some larger entity, the state.
The final story in the collection is "The Management of Grief." It has clearly come out of Mukherjee's scintillating and controversial documentary The Sorrow and the Terror (coauthored with Clark Blaise), on the crash of Air India flight 182 on 23 June 1985, which killed 329 passengers, most of whom were Canadians of Indian origin. There are minor questions that come to the reader's mind. Would the Stanley Cup have been played so late in June? Would the two young Sikhs have left for India within a month of having brought over their parents, who did not know the language and had no other family members? However, the story is very poignant and improves on E. M. Forster's idea of the failure of disparate cultures to connect. Though the families of the victims manage their grief in their own ways, the Canadian government finds itself in a quandary of communication, trying ineffectually to get paperwork done through translators. Shaila, who has lost her husband and two sons in the crash, is a volunteer interpreter; when the government agent Judith takes Shaila to the old Sikh couple who had been in Canada only a month before losing both their sons, we see their intractability clashing with Judith's impatience. No amount of explanation will persuade them to accept aid, because such acceptance might "end the company's or the country's obligations to them." Or, as Judith perceptively concludes, "They think signing a paper is signing their sons' death warrants." As Judith and Shaila leave, Judith talks about the next woman, "who is a real mess." At this, Shaila asks Judith to stop the car, gets out, and slams the door, leaving Judith to ask plaintively, "Is there anything I said? Anything I did … Shaila? Let's talk about it." The story would have been more effective if it had ended here, but Mukherjee follows her more traditional storytelling form of tying up loose ends.
The title of the volume goes beyond the title story to imply that many of Mukherjee's personae are middlemen, moving between cultures or events that pull others or themselves in opposite directions.
Source: Uma Parameswaran, Review of The Middleman and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring 1990, p. 363.
Byers-Pevitts, Beverley, "An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee," in Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, edited by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger and Maurice Lee, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, p. 190.
Carb, Alison B., "An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 1988–1989, pp. 648, 654.
Koenig, Rhoda, Review of The Middleman and Other Stories, in New York, Vol. 22, No. 27, July 3-10, 1989, p. 142.
Mukherjee, Bharati, "The Middleman," in The Middleman and Other Stories, Grove Press, 1988, pp. 3-21.
―――――――, "Two Ways to Belong in America," in Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, edited by Amitava Kumar, Routledge, 2004, p. 273, originally published in New York Times, September 22, 1996.
Raban, Jonathan, "Savage Boulevards, Easy Streets," in New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1988, pp. 1, 22.
Alam, Fakrul, Bharati Mukherjee, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 653, Twayne, 1996.
This is an analysis of Mukherjee's fiction and non-fiction. Alam's conclusion is that Mukherjee has created original and valuable fiction about the immigrant experience in North America; she has taken American fiction in new directions and can claim to be a major ethnic writer of contemporary America.
Chua, C. L., "Passages from India: Migrating to America in the Fiction of V. S. Naipaul and Bharati Mukherjee," in Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 51-61.
This essay discusses the work of Mukherjee and V. S. Naipaul, another expatriate Indian writer. Chua traces Mukherjee's evolution as a writer, from her early period when she used Naipaul as a model to the mature, self-confident writer who is firmly in the American immigrant tradition of writers such as Henry Roth and Bernard Malamud.
Drake, Jennifer, "Looting American Culture: Bharati Mukherjee's Immigrant Narratives," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 60-84.
Drake argues that Mukherjee's stories do not simply celebrate assimilation of the immigrant into U.S. culture but represent both the pleasure and the violence of cultural exchange. Mukherjee both discovers and creates multicultural myths and histories and rejects the expatriate's nostalgia for home.
Kalita, S. Mitra, Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage from India to America, Rutgers University Press, 2005.
This nonfiction work tells the story of three immigrant families from South Asia living in Middlesex County, New Jersey, which as of 2005 had a large Indian population. The book explores how immigration has altered the U.S. suburbs and how the suburbs have altered the immigrant.
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