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Mukherjee, Bharati

MUKHERJEE, Bharati

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Calcutta, India, 27 July 1940; became Canadian citizen, 1972. Education: Loreto Convent School, Calcutta; University of Calcutta, B.A. (honors) in English 1959; University of Baroda, Gujarat, M.A. 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1963; Ph.D. 1969. Family: Married Clark Blaise, q.v., in 1963; two sons. Career: Instructor in English, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1964-65, and University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1965; lecturer, 1966-69, assistant professor, 1969-73, associate professor, 1973-78, and professor, 1978, McGill University, Montreal. Professor, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York; associate professor, Montclair State College, New Jersey, 1984-87; Queen's College, City University of New York, Flushing, 1987-89; professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1990-95. Awards: Canada Arts Council grant, 1973, 1977; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; National Book Critics Circle award, 1989; Pushcart prize, 1999. Agent: Timothy Seldes, Russell and Volkening, 551 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

The Tiger's Daughter. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; London, Chatto and Windus, 1973.

Wife. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975; London, Penguin, 1987.

Jasmine. New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1989; London, Virago Press, 1990.

The Holder of the World. New York, Knopf, and Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Leave It to Me. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Short Stories

Darkness. Toronto, Penguin, 1985.

The Middleman and Other Stories. New York, Grove Press, 1988;London, Virago Press, 1989.

Play

Screenplay:

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Clark Blaise, 1991.

Other

Kautilya's Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation. Calcutta, Minerva, 1976.

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Clark Blaise. New York, Doubleday, 1977; London, Penguin, 1986.

The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, with Clark Blaise. Toronto, Viking, 1987.

Political Culture and Leadership in India: A Study of West Bengal. New Delhi, India, Mittal Publications, 1991.

*

Critical Studies:

Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, New York, Garland Press, 1993; Bharati Mukherjee by Fakrul Alam, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1996; The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, edited by R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Prestige, 1996.

* * *

Bharati Mukherjee is a versatile writer whose oeuvre includes five novels, two collections of short stories, some powerful essays, and two nonfiction books which she co-authored with her husband Clark Blaise. Her early work led to her being seen as a writer firmly enclosed in the bosom of Indian writing in English. But this was an embrace that Mukherjee herself sought to avoid. With the publication of Darkness, her third book of fiction, she convincingly declared her desire to be seen as a North American writer. In the hard-hitting introduction to this collection of stories Mukherjee explains this shift as "a movement away from the aloofness of expatriation, to the exuberance of immigration."

Mukherjee's early novels, The Tiger's Daughter and Wife, both published in the early 1970s, are novels about the isolation of Indian expatriates. A reading of Days and Nights in Calcutta reveals that there is a strong autobiographical element in A Tiger's Daughter. Tara Banerjee, like the Bharati Mukherjee of Days and Nights in Calcutta, is an outsider in India because of her decision to leave the subcontinent, to live in North America, and to marry an American, mleccha (outcaste) husband. On her return, Tara sees India through the eyes of a Western imagination rather than through her own childhood eyes. Her sense of alienation in Calcutta is symbolized by her regular visits to the Catelli-Continental Hotel, from where she views the turmoil of Calcutta from the safe heights of a tourist, cut off from the "real" India which seethes below her. Tara is no longer able to feel a part of her family, who belong to an old Bengal which is now lost to her, nor is she able to feel at ease with her old friends who, like her family, belong to a Calcutta which is rapidly fading, and who, in their different ways are as isolated as Tara from the beast beneath them. On another level, The Tiger's Daughter is an interesting response to E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.

The theme of expatriation and isolation which is handled with such assurance in The Tiger's Daughter is again treated in her second novel. In Wife, Dimple Dasgupta is married off to a young engineer, and soon finds herself emigrating to America. She finds her new life impossible to adjust to, and her attempts to become Americanto learn to speak American-English by watching the television, for examplecause her to question her own cultural values, and even her own happiness. These are questions she might never have asked herself in Calcutta, and had she done so and found herself equally disillusioned, her solution, the novel suggests, would probably have been suicide. The infidelity and the murder which brings the novel to its shocking close are the alternatives with which Dimple's American experience has provided her.

Darkness is an important landmark for Mukherjee. It is in this book, her first collection of stories, that she begins to exchange the robes of an Indian expatriate writer for the new, but not borrowed robes of a North American writer who is an immigrant. The specifically Canadian stories in this collection continue to explore the painful world of the expatriate she writes about in Wife indeed the story "Visitors" is a re-working of the essential elements of that novel. Other stories, though, explore North America through the alien voices of its various immigrant culturesItalian, Latin American, Sri Lankan, as well as Indian. With The Middleman and Other Stories Mukherjee's exchange of mantles is complete. In these stories, sometimes with anger, often with violence, sometimes with comedy, often with tenderness, Mukherjee gives voice to the "other" within North America. The result is a broader, more detailed portrait of the North American immigrant experience than Wife or even the impressive stories in Darkness provide. "The Management of Grief," which deals with the sorrow of the bereaved relatives of the victims of the 1985 Air India disaster, is perhaps the most moving story in the collection. The horror of that tragedy is dealt with in harrowing detail in Mukherjee's second nonfiction collaboration, The Sorrow and the Terror.

After a gap of fourteen years, Mukherjee made a welcome return to the novel form with the publication of Jasmine, which explores female identity through the story of an Indian peasant woman whose path takes her from the Punjab, to Florida, to New York, to Iowa, and as the novel draws to a close she is about to set off for California. With each new move the protagonist reinvents herself with a new nameJyoti, Jasmine, Jase, Janeand with each new name she moves closer to her dream of being an American, of belonging to the New World. Jasmine's ongoing journey is an effective device which highlights her rootless position and her search for identity. The move to California, which resonates with hope and invests her with the aspirations of America's early pioneers, suggests that Jasmine has finally found her identity in America, which, perhaps more than any other country, can contain her many identities without contradiction.

In The Holder of the World, her most accomplished work to date, Mukherjee turns her attention to one of the founding novels of the postcolonial American canonNathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Reversing the usual binary opposition between occidental and oriental texts, Mukherjee presents Hawthorne's novel as one which has been written out of a knowledge of India. And in doing this Mukherjee has written herself (as an American whose roots are in India) into her text perhaps more effectively even than in the seemingly autobiographical The Tiger's Daughter. The novel is also interesting for the way it very subtly parodies the Western construct of India as a nation and the perception of Indians as a homogenous group.

In Mukherjee's most recent novel, Leave It to Me, some of the themes of her earlier fictionnotably identity and dislocationare again important. And as in Jasmine, the central character of this novel goes through a series of incarnations as she is abandoned in India by her American hippie mother and Eurasian father, raised in Schenectady, New York, by her adoptive Italian-American parents, and then (in classic road movie style) moves to San Francisco to look for her birth mother. This novel is Mukherjee's most American work: an enigmatic and alarming meditation on the consequences of the America's recent pastthe hippie culture of the 1960s, Vietnamrather than a novel of dislocation in the diasporic sense of her earlier fiction. In this novel Mukherjee's shift from immigrant diasporic writer to multicultural writer is complete. However, it may be that Mukherjee has moved too far. Few of the characters are as convincing as those who populated her earlier works, and at times the level of coincidence works against this novelas when, in a moment of epiphany, Debby reinvents herself as Devi Dee, without realizing that she has taken the name of the goddess after whom the Indian village of Devigaon, where she was born, is named.

Bharati Mukherjee is a writer who is at her best when she draws on her experiences of the Old World while writing with insight about the New World to which she now belongs. Her more recent books, particularly The Holder of the World, confirm that hers is an original voice at the cutting edge of American immigrant/multicultural literature.

Ralph J. Crane

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Blaise, Clark (Lee)

BLAISE, Clark (Lee)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Fargo, North Dakota, United States, 10 April 1940; became Canadian citizen, 1973. Education: Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1957-61, A.B. 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1962-64, M.F.A. 1964. Family: Married Bharati Mukherjee, q.v., in 1963; two sons. Career: Acting instructor, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1964-65; teaching fellow, University of Iowa, 1965-66; lecturer, 1966-67, assistant professor, 1967-69, associate professor, 1969-72, and professor of English, 1973-78, Sir George Williams University, later Concordia University, Montreal; professor of Humanities, York University, Toronto, 1978-80; Professor of English, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1980-81, 1982-83. Visiting lecturer or writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, 1981-82, Saskatchewan School of the Arts, Saskatoon, Summer 1983, David Thompson University Centre, Nelson, British Columbia, Fall 1983, Emory University, Atlanta, 1985, Bennington College, Vermont, 1985, Columbia University, New York, Spring 1986, and New York State Writers Institute, Sarasota Springs, New York, Summer 1994 and 1995; exchange professor, Meiji University, Japan, 1994. Currently, adjunct professor, Columbia University, New York. Awards: University of Western Ontario President's medal, for short story, 1968; Great Lakes Colleges Association prize, 1973; Canada Council grant, 1973, 1977, and travel grant, 1985; St. Lawrence award, 1974; Fels award, for essay, 1975; Asia Week award, for non-fiction, 1977; Books in Canada prize, 1979; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1981; Guggenheim grant, 1983. D. Litt.: Denison University, 1979. Agent: Janklow and Nesbit, 598 Madison Ave., New York, New York 10022.

Publications

Novels

Lunar Attractions. New York, Doubleday, 1979.

Lusts. New York, Doubleday, 1983.

If I Were Me. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1997.

Short Stories

New Canadian Writing 1968, with Dave Godfrey and David LewisStein. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1969.

A North American Education. Toronto and New York, Doubleday, 1973.

Tribal Justice. Toronto and New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Personal Fictions, with others, edited by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto, Oxford Unversity Press, 1977.

Resident Alien. Toronto and New York, Penguin, 1986.

Man and His World. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1992.

Plays

Screenplays:

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with BharatiMukherjee, 1991.

Other

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Bharati Mukherjee. New York, Doubleday, 1977; London, Penguin, 1986.

The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, with Bharati Mukherjee. Toronto, Viking, 1987.

I Had a Father. New York, Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Editor, with John Metcalf, Here and Now. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1977.

Editor, with John Metcalf, 78 [ 79, 80 ]: Best Canadian Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 3 vols., 1978-1980.

*

Manuscript Collection:

Calgary University Library, Alberta.

Critical Studies:

On the Line, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1982, and Another I: The Fiction of Clark Blaise, ECW Press, 1988, both by Robert Lecker; article by Blaise in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 3 edited by Adele Sarkissian, Detroit, Gale, 1986.

Clark Blaise comments:

(1981) My fiction is an exploration of threatened space; the space has been geographically and historically defined as French-Canada and French-America (New England), as well as extremely isolated areas of the deep South. Most of my fiction has been concerned with the effects of strong and contrasting parents, with the memory of Europe and of Canada, and the very oppressive reality, rendered minutely, of America. I am concerned with nightmare, terror, violence, sexual obsession, and the various artistic transformations of those drives. The tone of the work is not gothic or grotesque, however; I am devoted to the close observation of the real world, and to hold the gaze long enough to make the real world seem distorted. My work is also involved with the growth of the mind, the coming on of ideas about itself and the outside world. I would agree with critics who see my work as courting solipsism, and much of my own energy is devoted to finding ways out of the vastness of the first person pronoun.

* * *

Clark Blaise's short stories and novels are marked by their preoccupation with the tensions between a host of metaphorical extremes. Blaise is attracted to raw experience, spontaneous impulse, grotesque realism, uncultured thought: simultaneously, he is a polymath who needs reason, order, intellect, and learning in order to survive. For Blaise, these two worlds can never coincide; yet his fiction is driven by the strategies he employs in his attempt to make them coincide. The most obvious strategy involves doubling and superimposition. Blaise's characters are often two-sided, and their stories detail, through extended use of archetype and symbol, a profound desire to discover an integrated and authentic self. A list of the authors who influenced Blaiseincluding Pascal, Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner, and Célinesuggests that his work is philosophical, realistic, epic, eschatological, and existential. It is important to note this range, if only because Blaise has been viewed as a purely realistic writer involved with the tragic implications of his age. This perspective seems curious when one considers the extent to which Blaise's stories become self-conscious explorations of their own mode of articulation. Their ultimate reality is internal, psychological, personal, and self-reflective. To trace Blaise's growing preoccupation with this self-reflective mode is to describe the evolution of his fiction.

A North American Education, Blaise's first collection of linked short stories, is marked by the multi-leveled revelation of the fears, obsessions, and aesthetic values informing its three central narrators. In the final group of tales"The Montreal Stories"Norma Dyer begins to comment on the cosmopolitan milieu he inhabits from the removed and condescending perspective of an intellectual elitist who appears to be in full, if arrogant, control. But as the three stories comprising this section develop, panic sets in; the distanced third-person perspective of the opening eventually gives way to a revealingly fragmented first-person mode that details Dyer's personal and narrative collapse as he confesses that "I who live in dreams have suffered something real, and reality hurts like nothing in the world." In the "Keeler Stories" we hear the confessions of "a writer, a creator" who "would learn to satisfy himself with that." But here, as in the closing "Thibidault Stories," Blaise makes it clear that his narrators will never be satisfied with their creations, or with themselves. Yet they continue to deceive themselves in the belief that "anything dreamt had to become real, eventually."

The dreams shared by Blaise's narrators are always highly symbolic and archetypal in form, a conclusion supported by even the most cursory reading of Blaise's second short story collection, Tribal Justice. Here, in some of his richest and most evocative fiction, Blaise returns again and again to his narrators' meditations on their art. If there is a paradigmatic Blaise storyone that reveals the various tensions I have describedit is surely "Grids and Doglegs." It begins with its narrator recalling his interest in creativity, maps, education, history, archaeology, and cultural life; but no sooner is this interest articulated than it is ruthlessly undercut by hints of isolation and impending doom. Other storiesI think particularly of "Notes Beyond a History" and "At the Lake"are framed by the same kind of divided opening, and by the same suggestion that the narrator who inhabits that opening is psychologically split.

Blaise's first two books established him as one of the finest short story writers in Canada at the very time he decided to explore a different genre. While Lunar Attractions proved that Blaise could master the novel form, it also demonstrated that his fundamental attraction to self-reflective writing remained central to his art. After all, Lunar Attractions is a semi-autobiographical account of a writer's development: David Greenwood insists on seeing himself in every aspect of his creation, so much so that his fiction becomes an intricate confession about his failure to get beyond himself. Yet Lunar Attractions is by no means purely solipsistic: it is a book about our times, about growing up in our times, and about the symbols and systems we use to explain our lives. Blaise has written that he wanted "to create the portrait of the authentically Jungian or even Freudian whole mind," which "sees every aspect of the natural and historical world being played out in its own imagination, and it literally creates the world that it sees."

These words suggest that for Blaise the writer can never be merely a recorder or even the interpreter of events. He must give form to experience and must be responsible to that form. The nature of this responsibility is the focus of Blaise's second novel, Lusts. Here the nature of writing is explored through Richard Durgin's struggle to understand the suicide of his wife, a successful poet who challenged Durgin's assumptions about the social and political implications of art.

If Rachel is Richard's "other self" then her death is doubly significant: it suggests that Blaise may have overcome the personal divisions that kept his successive narrators from becoming whole. Does this mean that he has found the integrated self he has sought throughout his work? A forthcoming volume of autobiographical essays may answer this question. But Blaise has written autobiography beforemost notably in Days and Nights in Calcutta only to return to the story of his personal and aesthetic search. The search is essential to his art, for the quality of his writingits permutations, obsessions, and complex use of voiceis tragically dependent on Blaise's constant inability to find himself or his final story.

Robert Lecker

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Blaise, Clark (Lee)

BLAISE, Clark (Lee)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Fargo, North Dakota, 10 April 1940 to Canadian parents; became Canadian citizen, 1973. Education: Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1957-61, A.B. 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1962-64, M.F.A. 1964. Family: Married the writer Bharati Mukherjee in 1963; two sons. Career: Acting instructor, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1964-65; teaching fellow, University of Iowa, 1965-66; lecturer, 1966-67, assistant professor, 1967-69, associate professor, 1969-72, and professor of English, 1973-78, Sir George Williams University (later Concordia University), Montreal; professor of humanities, York University, Toronto, 1978-80; professor of English, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1980-81, 1982-83; writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, 1981-82; Saskatchewan School of the Arts, Saskatoon, Summer 1983; David Thompson University Centre, Nelson, British Columbia, Fall 1983; Emory University, Atlanta, 1985; Bennington College, Vermont, 1985; Columbia University, New York, Spring 1986; director of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa, 1990-98. Awards: University of Western Ontario President's medal, for short story, 1968; Great Lakes Colleges Association prize, 1973; Canada Council grant, 1973, 1977, and travel grant, 1985; St. Lawrence award, 1974; Fels award, for essay, 1975; Asia Week award, for nonfiction, 1977; Books in Canada prize, 1979; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1981; Guggenheim grant, 1983; Canadian Booksellers Book of the Year award; New York Public Library "Lion." D.Litt.: Denison University, 1979.

Publications

Short Stories

New Canadian Writing 1968, with Dave Godfrey and David Lewis Stein. 1969.

A North American Education. 1973.

Tribal Justice. 1974.

Personal Fictions, with others, edited by Michael Ondaatje. 1977.

Resident Alien. 1986.

Man and His World. 1992.

Novels

Lunar Attractions. 1979.

Lusts. 1983.

If I Were Me. 1997.

Play

Screenplay:

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Bharati Mukherjee, 1991.

Other

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Bharati Mukherjee. 1977.

The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, with Bharati Mukherjee. 1987.

I Had a Father: A Postmodern Autobiography. 1993.

Editor, with John Metcalf, Here and Now. 1977.

Editor, with John Metcalf, 78 [79, 80]: Best Canadian Stories. 3 vols., 1978-80.

*

Critical Studies:

On the Line: Readings in the Short Fiction of Blaise, John Metcalf, and Hugh Hood, 1982, and Another I: The Fiction of Blaise, 1988, both by Robert Lecker; "Angles of Vision: An Interview with Clark Blaise" by Tim Struthers, in The New Quarterly: New Directions in Canadian Writing, Fall 1993, pp. 113-29.

* * *

Born in the United States of expatriate parents (a French Canadian father and English Canadian mother), Clark Blaise in many ways epitomizes the North American way of life: lacking in clearly defined national roots, living in a world of uncertainties and constant change. Because of his father's job as a salesman Blaise's family moved often, throughout the United States and Canada, and so as a child Blaise never felt at home anywhere, while paradoxically seeing the whole continent as his potential home. His very autobiographical fiction reflects this sense of rootlessness, and the major theme of his stories is the search for identity: his narrators are constantly looking for who they are and where they belong.

Few writers mine their personal experiences for their fiction as much as Blaise does; one can almost see his stories as forming a single exploration of his own self and then by extension an exploration of the sense of rootlessness we all share. His very personal fiction produces an emphasis on narrative voice rather than plot or character; in fact, he told Geoff Hancock in an interview, "Voice is finally all that [the writer] has." In a world without absolutes the author can only rely on imaginative vision, expressed through voice, to give meaning to experience.

To be a North American, as Blaise makes clear throughout his first two collections of stories, A North American Education and Tribal Justice, means to be without a defined home. We are all immigrants, exiles, economic or social migrants seeking a place. Blaise's strongest memories are of his constant need to adjust to new cities and new schools, and he has often remarked on his childhood fascination with maps and mapmaking. His narrators similarly lack national and social contexts and search frantically for them. Norman Dyer, the protagonist of the first group of stories in A North American Education, deludes himself into thinking that he has succeeded in assimilating into the language and culture of Montreal. In "A Class of New Canadians" he arrogantly believes that he can now introduce others to the country. But he cannot see that he and his immigrant students are very much alike. His recognition appears in one of Blaise's best-known stories, "Eyes," in which he struggles to cope with being observer and observed in a city where he simply does not fit. His environment is now full of possible threats, and his initial assumptions about easy integration are burst, his safe world violated by the foreignness of his new home.

Virtually all of Blaise's protagonists face a similar immersion in a strange culture, notably Paul Keeler in "Going to India." Frank Thibidault's father, a furniture salesman, flees to Canada in "The Salesman's Son Grows Older," and Frank wonders how foreign his Canadian relatives will prove to be. Like so many of Blaise's child narrators, Frank must adjust to a new culture, new schools, and new lifestyle. Philip Porter, the protagonist of the stories in Resident Alien, also must move constantly and relishes the one time he is able to return to the same school in the fall that he attended in the previous spring ("South"). "In Leesburg, Florida, in 1946," he says, "I had a small history."

Porter's difficulty with establishing an identity is exacerbated and symbolized by his lack of a definite name. He learns during his family's flight to Canada that their original name was Carrier and that he was really born in Montreal, not the United States as he had believed. At least Porter has a name (or two); so many of Blaise's narrators are left nameless to illustrate their lack of identity. Resident Alien portrays Porter's search for identity through his search for his parents. Like other fathers in Blaise's fiction, Porter's father is a salesman who disappears, and it is only when Porter/Carrier is able to find his father that he achieves some clear sense of who he is.

Blaise's dislocated characters seek something permanent and secure—a place or society they can call home. Gerald Gordon, of "How I Became a Jew" in Tribal Justice, has been moved from the American South to Cincinnati and learns to adjust to the tribal nature of his new school by identifying with the Jewish students in their ongoing competition with the African Americans. The word "Israel" becomes a source of hope for an end to exile as much for him as for his classmates. But this search for permanence in social structures or ideals is futile; as the narrator of "He Raises Me Up" in the same collection comments, "Some enormous frailty will be exposed: technology, wealth, politics, marriage, whatever organizing idiocy that binds us all together will come flying apart." And the sense of rootlessness and exile will become a legacy to be passed down to future generations, as we see at the end of "The Salesman's Son Grows Older." To be alive is to be in a world of flux, and so permanence can only be found in the irretrievable world of childhood innocence, or death.

What we see throughout Blaise's fictional universe is a dual vision: we want permanence and certainty but know that it does not exist except in our minds. Orderly appearances deceive us, because underlying it is a chaos we uncover, sometimes to our horror. Among the best symbols of this hidden world of the shocking and chaotic are the leeches that attack the overconfident writer in "At the Lake" and the population of cockroaches living unseen under Paul Keeler's rug in "Extractions and Contractions"—until he tries to scrub it. We may try to impose order on our chaotic world (the symbolic meaning of the title of "Grids and Doglegs") but will inevitably fail.

As a writer Blaise both embodies and explores these dualities. He, too, is observer and observed, voyeur and participant in what he portrays. Through imagination he can at least make some sense of his own past and the pasts of his characters by turning memory into art.

—Allan Weiss

BLIXEN, Karen. See DINESEN, Isak.

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Mukherjee, Bharati

MUKHERJEE, Bharati

Born 27 July 1940, Calcutta, India

Daughter of Sudhir Lal and Bina Barrerjee Mukherjee; married Clark Blaise, 1963; children: Bart, Bernard

Bharati Mukherjee, a native of India who was educated largely by the English and who has lived most of her life in North America, writes literary short stories and novels about life as an expatriate. Typically, the story revolves around a fairly naive Indian woman who experiences misery and frustration thanks to her traditional upbringing, although other nationalities and male protagonists are frequent. Violence and angry prejudice are featured in many of the narratives, while a few are surrealistic.

Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, the middle of three daughters, and a member of the Brahmins, the highest caste among Bengali Hindus. In her early years, she lived in an extended familial home until around the age of seven, when her father, a chemist, moved his pharmaceuticals business to London. Amongst the English schoolchildren, Mukherjee began a novel about their experiences, which she never completed. For a time she lived in Basel, Switzerland, returning to Calcutta when she was eleven. Residing on company property with no relatives or neighbors nearby, she attended a convent school run by Irish nuns. While there, she wrote short stories for the student magazine.

After attending the University of Calcutta and receiving a B.A. in English in 1959, Mukherjee then earned an M.A. in English and ancient Indian culture at the University of Baroda. Her father recommended her to the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, where she earned an M.F.A. in 1963 and Ph.D. in 1969. While in residence, she met Clark Blaise, a fellow student from Canada, and they were married during a lunch break in September of 1963. Together they were hired onto the faculty of McGill University in Montreal.

Mukherjee's first novel The Tiger's Daughter appeared in 1972. Quite autobiographical, the novel concerns the shock and horror experienced by a young Indian woman on her return to Calcutta from the United States. After her sheltered life, the poverty and class warfare she encounters are overwhelming. Wife (1975) portrays a young Indian woman traveling to America, only to become bored, lonely, and, eventually, murderous.

A sabbatical taken in 1973 led to the publication of Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), written with her husband, who accompanied her on a return trip to India. The book is interesting in that it records Mukherjee's sense of loss over seeing a Calcutta that had changed so much during her lifetime while at the same time showing Blaise's more positive reaction to an exotic, rich culture.

On her return to Montreal after her revelatory trip back home, Mukherjee began to notice blatant discrimination against Indians (derogatorily called "Pakis" in Canada) and began to write both fiction and nonfiction in protest. Her story "Isolated Incidents" won first prize from the Periodical Distribution Association in 1980. Not only does the story deal with white Canadians' reaction toward Indian immigrants, but it also portrays a white bureaucrat's lack of power to make a positive change in race relations. In 1981 the essay "An Invisible Woman" won the National Magazine Award's second prize. Again Mukherjee complained about Canadians' treatment of Indians, describing her feelings of humiliation and fear in public places. Believing whites saw her as a criminal, she said she became housebound to avoid the problem. In 1980 she chose to abandon her tenured position to reside in the United States.

On 23 June 1985, an Air India plane crashed off the coast of Ireland. With her husband, Mukherjee wrote The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987), an account of the event, which had resulted in hundreds of Canadians being killed. Mukherjee vividly portrayed the victims and the reactions of those close to them, while claiming that the disaster was partly the product of extreme prejudice against Indians.

In 1988 Mukherjee's second collection of short stories, The Middleman and Other Stories, won the National Book Critics Circle award for best fiction. While some of the stories portray Indians, Mukherjee was more interested in writing about the experiences of immigrants to the U.S. from many different countries. After many years of visiting professorships, she moved to the University of California at Berkeley in 1989, where she was named distinguished professor. In the late 1990s she began to write a book based on the depiction of an oppressed minority she had explored in "An Invisible Woman."

Other Works:

Kautilya's Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation (1976). Darkness (1985). Jasmine (1989). Political Culture and Leadership in India (1991). Regionalism in Indian Perspective (1992). The Holder of the World (1993). Leave it to Me (1997).

Bibliography:

Alam, F., Bharati Mukherjee (1996). Nelson, E. S., Writers of the Indian Diaspora (1992). Nelson, E. S., ed., Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives (1993).

Reference works:

CANR (1999). CLC (1989). DLB (1987). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

—ROSE SECREST

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Mukherjee, Bharati

MUKHERJEE, Bharati

Pseudonym: Bharati Blaise. Nationality: American (originally Indian; Canadian citizen, 1972-88; American citizen from 1988). Born: Calcutta, India, 27 July 1940. Education: Loreto Convent School, Calcutta; University of Calcutta, B.A. (honors) in English 1960; University of Baroda, Gujarat, M.A. 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1963, Ph.D. 1969. Family: Married Clark Blaise, q.v., in 1963; two sons. Career: Instructor in English, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1964-65; instructor in English, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, 1966-78; instructor in English, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1979-83; instructor in English, Montclair State College, Montclair, New Jersey, 1986-88; instructor in English, Queens College, New York City, 1988-90. Beginning 1990 professor, University of California, Berkeley. Visiting instructor, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, 1985. Awards: Canada Arts Council grant, 1973, 1977; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1977; National Book Critics Circle award, for fiction, 1988. Honorary degrees: Denison University, 1987;Williams College, 1989. Member: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995.

Publications

Short Stories

Darkness. 1984.

The Middleman and Other Stories. 1988.

Novels

The Tiger's Daughter. 1971.

Wife. 1975.

Jasmine. 1991.

The Holder of the World. 1994.

Leave It to Me. 1997.

Play

Screenplay:

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Clark Blaise, 1991.

Other

Kautilya's Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation. 1976.

Days and Nights in Calcutta, with Clark Blaise. 1977.

The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, with Clark Blaise. 1987.

Political Culture and Leadership in India: A Study of West Bengal. 1991.

*

Critical Study:

Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, New York, Garland Press, 1993.

* * *

One of the best among the host of distinguished writers of fiction in English from the Indian subcontinent, Bharati Mukherjee has carved out a distinctive niche for herself on the American literary scene through her sensitive explorations of the immigrant experience of South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis) in Canada and the United States. It is an experience that is wrenching, even harrowing, sometimes humorous, but always transforming. Mukherjee herself underwent three such emigrations: from India to the United States as a student in 1961, during which time she also married a Canadian fellow student, the writer Clark Blaise; from the United States to Canada in 1966 as an academic; and from Canada back to the United States in 1980 as an academic and established writer.

While the mainstream culture in both North American countries tends, in varying degrees, to marginalize South Asian immigrants, mostly through racial prejudice and stereotyping, these "new pioneers," as Mukherjee calls them, have persisted, as did innumerable earlier immigrants in their dogged pursuit of the American dream. Like previous immigrants, South Asians also bring with them their own cultural and emotional baggage. Their attempts to mesh the old and the new, East and West, into a meaningful, livable whole form the wellspring of Mukherjee's stories. In supple, nuanced prose, with dialogue that is remarkable for its variety and perfect pitch, and in narratives that are fast paced and often violent, she has produced two highly acclaimed short story collections: Darkness (1985) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988). The latter was cited as a Notable Book of the Year in The New York Times Book Review and won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

In the introduction to Darkness, a title aptly reflecting the timbre of most of its stories, Mukherjee speaks of "uneasy stories about expatriation" in Canada, tales "difficult to write and even more painful to live through." The stories possess an angry, somber quality, and they no doubt reflect Mukherjee's personal experiences, such as being taken for a prostitute, shoplifter, or domestic. Thus, in "The World According to Hsu," the racial prejudice experienced by the Indian-born protagonist Ratna Clayton, both in Montreal and on an unnamed French-speaking island off the African coast while vacationing with her Canadian husband, probably springs from the author's own experience.

Mukherjee describes her emigration from Canada to the United States as going from being "a 'visible minority,' against whom the nation had officially incited its less-visible citizens to react" to being "just another immigrant." Hence, the American stories contrast markedly with the Canadian. They are less strident and perhaps more conciliatory in modality and posture. A plethora of subcontinentals from South Asia's innumerable social strata inhabits Darkness. In "Angela" the teenage heroine, orphaned, mutilated, and raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Bangladeshi civil war, lives in Iowa with her loving adoptive family of two years. She seems to withdraw into herself as she attempts to process the trauma of inevitably losing her adoptive sister, hospitalized from a serious car accident, and tries to cope with the awkward amorous advances of an older and a lonely expatriate Indian doctor who is tending her sister. In "A Father" the passive, religious Mr. Bhowmick, an engineer living comfortably in Detroit, is racked by the cutting-edge American attitudes of his nagging wife and his equally outspoken American-born daughter. It is with considerable moral compromise that he justifies the unmarried daughter's pregnancy, but when he discovers that she has become pregnant through artificial insemination, he reacts with an unconscionable act of violence. In "Hindus," set in New York City, the reader is introduced to Pat, aka His Royal Highness Maharajah Patwant Singh of Gotlah. A sartorially splendid, precious twit, he complains flamboyantly about the deterioration of things back home. At the same time he furtively sells off family heirlooms illegally smuggled out of India to well-heeled Americans, who, he disingenuously claims, appreciate them more than anyone in his native country.

Mukherjee's remarkable descriptive powers are demonstrated to their fullest in the elegant "Courtly Vision," which reads like a mysterious tale of court intrigue. The story is centered on an unnamed ruler about to leave his palace as he revels in the skill of his chief artist, a queen or concubine—one is not quite sure which—at her toilette, perhaps preparing herself to meet her lover, a foppish Western courtier; Jesuits conniving to convert the ruler to Christianity; and a legion of servants, slaves, soldiers, thieves, noisy fauna, and lush flora. Only with the last few lines of the story does the reader realize that the drama just described is, in fact, a tour-de-force verbal rendering of a photograph of a miniature painting in an art auction catalogue. The caption accompanying the photograph reveals important information. Entitled Emperor onHorseback Leaves Walled City, the painting dates from 1584 and is priced at $750. The story provides clues to the identity of the personae in the painting, but the caption, especially the date of the painting, neatly identifies the monarch as the resplendent Akbar, who ruled India from 1556 to 1605. In addition to a surprise ending, the reader is also treated to a three-way instance of intertextuality: the original Mughal painting to be sold, its photograph in the catalogue, and Mukherjee's story. "Courtly Vision" seems to be one of the author's favorites, for she often presents it at public readings.

Stories in The Middleman and Other Stories boast a broader, more varied group of characters and venues than do those in Darkness. Mukherjee has moved beyond the ethos of South Asian immigrants and has incorporated a wider sampling of immigrants and expatriates from various areas of the world. In the title story, for example, the middleman is Alfie Judah, an Iraqi Jew who has settled in Queens. A cunning businessman, he finds himself in a Central American jungle hooked up with a couple of unscrupulous American arms smugglers whose shipment is stolen by equally unscrupulous local rebels.

These stories also amply demonstrate Mukherjee's flawless ear in reproducing many types of English spoken with a wide variety of cadences and idioms from four continents. In "A Wife's Story," one of Mukherjee's best-known works, Panna Bhatt, studying for a Ph.D. in New York City, has excised Britishisms such as "lorry" and "bloody" from her English for American equivalents, while her husband, who comes for a short visit, complains in his heavily accented speech about the way African American telephone operators talk. In "Loose Ends" the first-person narration of the Vietnam veteran Jeb Marshall is convincingly bloodied with drug-slurred profanity and redneck bravado as he kills and rapes his way along the East Coast. The idiom and texture are bull's-eye accurate. In "Fighting for the Rebound" the almost correct but slightly off-the-mark expostulations of the beautiful Filipina, Blanquita, to her American lover, Griff, reveal that she learned much of her English in U.S. Army bars around Manila. The cadences of the Haitian English patois spoken by Jasmine in the story of the same name dances to a different linguistic drum than that of her friends in Ann Arbor.

Regardless of their language or where they come from, all of Mukherjee's characters are seeking much the same thing: a better quality of life, not only financially but also emotionally, than the one left behind; a sense of personal freedom; dignity, fulfillment, and worth; and a desire to connect with the dominant culture while retaining what they feel is best in themselves from their own background. If they cannot connect, then at least they wish to compromise. Some come through the pressure-cooker process of Americanization better than others. Some do not make it at all.

Several of Mukherjee's stories are forerunners of larger works. "Jasmine," for example, is a precursor in theme and narrative features to the 1989 novel of the same name. The Jasmine of the short story is from the Caribbean; the character of the novel from India. In addition to sharing a name, they share similar ambitions, resourcefulness, and a positive sense of self. "Orbiting" centers on the bewildered reactions of a lower-middle-class Italian-American family to a highly educated, articulate Afghan freedom fighter with whom their daughter is in love. In the novel Leave It to Me (1997) Mukherjee returns to an Italian-American milieu as the background for her Indian-born, American-adopted heroine's youth. "The Management of Grief," a magisterial story about a group of Indians coping with the immediate aftermath of the blowing up of an Air India plane in 1985, finds its nonfictional counterpart in The Sorrow and the Terror (1987), which Mukherjee wrote with her husband. The story title suggests the taut emotional control that Shaila Bhave, the newly widowed protagonist, exhibits throughout the piece, a control that is found in the authors' reportage as well.

—Carlo Coppola

See the essay on "A Wife's Story."

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Mukherjee, Bharati

MUKHERJEE, Bharati

MUKHERJEE, Bharati. American (born India), b. 1940. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories. Career: McGill University, Montreal, assistant professor, 1969-73, associate professor, 1973-78, professor of English, 1978-80; Montclair State College, NJ, associate professor, 1984-87; City University of New York, professor, 1987-89; University of California, Berkeley, professor 1990-. Publications: Tiger's Daughter, 1972; Wife, 1975; (with C. Blaise) Days and Nights in Calcutta, 1977; Darkness, 1985; (with C. Blaise) The Sorrow and the Terror (non-fiction), 1987; The Middleman and Other Stories, 1988 (National Book Critics Circle Award); Jasmine, 1989; The Holder of the World (novel), 1993; Leave It to Me, 1997; Desirable Daughters, 2002. Address: c/o Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit, 445 Park Ave., Fl 13, New York, NY 10022, U.S.A.

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