"Bharati Mukherjee, in this astonishing second book of short stories, zeroes in on uneasy terrain that no one has looked at with quite so clear an eye since. The Middleman and Other Stories book. Read 51 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Bharati Mukherjee's work illuminates a new world of. The Middleman and Other Stories () Bharati Mukherjee, ISBN- , ISBN ,, tutorials, pdf, ebook, torrent.
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The middleman -- A wife's story -- Loose ends -- Orbiting -- Fighting for urn: acs6:middlemanotherst00mukh:pdffde0f-9ad The middleman and other stories. [Bharati Mukherjee] -- Told by fictional immigrants, the tales of arrival and survival spun by Mukherjee's protagonists often. Bharati Mukherjee as a novelist and a short story writer deals with the stories Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories which will be discussed.
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. 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. Her father co-owned a pharmaceutical factory and later became director of research and development of a large chemical complex.
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 New York, Rhoda Koenig describes the stories as "sharp and resonant. People are last seen walking out through an open door, planning an escape, or suspended on the optimistic brink of a blissful sexual transport. These characters, Raban writes, again neatly describing Alfie Judah, "keep aloft on luck and grace. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 s 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.
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? 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 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 , Lahiri writes about the Indian American experience in all its variety.
Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America , 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.
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 , 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. 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 , were singled out for awards, and her second collection, The Middleman and Other Stories , 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.
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 mids.
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.
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 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. Soon after India gained its independence in , 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 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.
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.
After Mukherjee finished her M. She received an M. On 19 September —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 ; in she took a similar position at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Mukherjee received her Ph. While teaching at McGill, Mukherjee wrote her first novel. In The Tiger's Daughter 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 Mukherjee became an associate professor and went to India on sabbatical. 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. 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 Mukherjee became a full professor at McGill in She also served as the chair of the writing program and as director of graduate studies in English. In the interview with The Iowa Review Mukherjee noted that after the Canadian government allowed Ugandan Asians with British passports to enter the country in , "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 , 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 , 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 , 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 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. 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.
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. His self-congratulatory acceptance explodes into rage and violence, and he beats his daughter with a rolling pin until his wife calls the police.
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. Mahnaz Ispahani commented in The New Republic 14 April : "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. This work was interrupted by an event that led to another nonfiction book: the 23 June bombing off the Irish coast, apparently by Sikh terrorists, of Air India flight , en route from Toronto to New Delhi via London, in which people were killed.
In 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. 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 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. How dare he do this, I thought, how dare he make me a part of this? 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 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.
We see misunderstandings, and correct understandings, where least expected as the characters enact in miniature the ballet of complementary moves that is America. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
In return, she offers acute insights into the clashes that mark a nonwhite's entry into that culture.
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.
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, , 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 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 Since coming to the Writers' Workshop in , she has lived largely in the U.
Her teaching has limited her writing time. Nevertheless, she has produced three novels, Jasmine , Wife , and The Tiger's Daughter ; two story collections, The Middleman , and Darkness ; 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 Air India bombing in which 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.
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. 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?
I was unilingually Bengali for the first three years of my life. This was before Independence in , 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.
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. 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. 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? 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? 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.
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. It is that, certainly, but it is also much more. Although she is unaware of it, it is by acting in accordance with her dharma that Shaila comes through the ordeal. Her initial overriding impulse is to kill herself. Shaila and Kusum go back to India where they go their separate ways. The lamps hiss and sputter out. Hindu mythology teems with incidents where husbands and wives appear to each other and make love in different forms and guises.
In fact, in the orthodox Hindu tradition, a childless widow was allowed to choose a rishi or sage in order to have a child, nor was there any stigma attached to it 2 and it is only in this context that this particular episode can be interpreted. This succintly expresses the monistic Western world view of one self, one life, one death, which does not correspond to the Hindu perception of life, death and the self.
The Hindu self is, quite simply suspended between eternities. The realization and the comfort that the experience affords by reinforcing the mythic and suprapersonal overtones of her perception enables Shaila to go ahead and live out her svadharma. They would not see me as a model. I do not see myself as a model. Nevertheless, and in spite of her true feelings, Shaila, again agrees to accompany Judith on her visits to the relatives.
She will no longer go along with the falseness of grief management. It is at this point, when she gives up all outer pretences at being calm and rational that she regains her inner equanimity and peace. The day was not cold, but something in the bare trees caught my attention. I looked up from the gravel, into the branches and the clear blue sky beyond. I thought I heard the rustling of larger forms, and I waited a moment for voices. Your time has come, they said.
Go, be brave. I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking. This is highlighted by the setting of the story. It starts with Shaila indoors in her house, surrounded by friends and neighbours; it ends with Shaila alone and outdoors, prepared to face the unknown. She is her self, at home in the landscape of her mind.
We face Laksmanarekhas They have to be crossed The Ravannas confronted. The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization. Epel, Naomi. Writers Dreaming. Kakar, Sudhir. Mitter, Sara S.