There was one all-American trait novelist Bharati Mukherjee never mastered. She never learned to drive. When she heard I had a car she asked me excitedly if I ever went to the Durga Puja in the San Francisco Bay Area. She said “Please let me know the next time you do. I’d love to come.” And so we did go. I have a photograph of Bharati Mukherjee standing in front of the Goddess in some suburban school outside San Francisco. She was absolutely delighted.
As I learn of Mukherjee’s death in Manhattan on January 28, I remember this story because there’s sometimes a perception that Mukherjee became an American writer by whittling her own Indian-ness away. In her famous novel Jasmine, Jyoti becomes Jasmine becomes Jane becomes Jase, stripping away layers of identity with each name as she journeys from India to Iowa. Bharati Mukherjee however, just stayed Bharati Mukherjee.
She did say “I am American, not Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called race treachery, but it is really a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all its citizens equally.” But her rejection of the hyphen was not a rejection of her roots at all. She loved going to Durga Puja celebrations. She wrote about the complexities of hyphenated lives. She just did not want to be in a special section of the bookshelf. She feared a “Balkanisation of ethnicity – minority groups pitted against each other for very small portions of the pie.”
“When you flutter between the two worlds”
One has to remember Bharati Mukherjee went to an America very different from the one many of those who followed her encountered. No one had seen saris on Main Street, America – certainly not in Iowa, where she attended the Writers’ Workshop. “Even in Manhattan we’d smile at another Indian if they walked by us,” she told me once. “You felt an affinity to other Indians that you might not have felt in India.”
In her book The Tree Bride, she wrote in the voice of her heroine Tara. “During the twenty years I’ve been in California, an immigrant fog of South Asians has crept into America.” And she wondered who would be its chronicler – a “twenty first century Fitzgerald to make it come alive. The Great Gupta, perhaps.”
Mukherjee was interested in documenting that story more than telling the story of homeland India. “When I read Bharati Mukherjee, it was one of the first times I had seen myself and my family on the page,” says Nina Swamidoss-McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians who grew up in Wyoming. The Middleman and Other Stories, which put Mukherjee on the literary map by winning the National Book Critics Circle Award way back in 1988, remains famous for her story “The Management of Grief”, about a woman who loses her family in the Air India bombing incident and must process her grief in a very foreign culture with alien creatures like grief counsellors.
Writer Joyce Carol Oates has called that story “an elegiac story of grief mourning and endurance.” McConigley says she still teaches it because it perfectly encapsulates how “ ‘when you flutter between two worlds’, it hard to know to which one you belong. That feeling of being here and there is something I aspire to capture, and she did it so well.”
But it’s also worth remembering that Mukherjee wrote about Afghans in New York, diasporan Indians in the Caribbean, and a Sri Lankan in Germany with equal flair. “The only criteria I demand is that it be persuasive on the imaginative realm,” she said, dismissing those social critics and turf-protectors who “want to reduce fiction to mere ethnography and sociology.”
America changed her as she changed America
Mukherjee was elegant in her sari with a glass of red wine, but you would be a fool to not see the steel behind those Calcutta convent school manners. She said that though she had led a sheltered life in Kolkata, where her father ran a pharmaceutical company, she resented the superiority of the Irish nuns at her school. “I had grown up as a small girl watching funeral processions of young Indians killed during the fight for Independence,” she said. “We revered the stories of freedom fighters from ancestral villages.”
For her, going to America rather than England was a relief because “the uncoupling of English from colonial history was liberating.” But that did not mean she was starry-eyed about North America. Her essay, An Invisible Woman, about the racism she experienced in Canada, was scathing. She disliked the Canadian model of the cultural mosaic because in practice she found it a hierarchy with Europeans at top and browner cultures at the bottom.
She also found the American melting pot inadequate because “it assumed a one-way transformation – an assimilation where all the non-Anglos were expected to scrub down.” She was interested in the two-way process where America changed her even as she changed America.
“She was one of the first to intuit the new mongrel cultures that were forming across the world in the age of collapsing borders and cross-cultural unions” says Pico Iyer. If her book The Tiger’s Daughter, about an Indian woman feeling out of place in India after years in America, felt familiarly autobiographical, in her book The Holder of the World, her heroine Hannah Masters is displaced many times over – a New England Puritan woman coming to terms with the fledgling British society in India under Aurangzeb.
In her trilogy Desirable Daughters, The Tree Bride and Miss New India, she marvels at the Silicon Valley Indian Americans, some of whom return to India to Dollar colonies with McMansions and claim they have the best of both worlds – children who can ace their SATs and still be custodians of kathak and bharatanatyam. “In the light of the new anti-globalism current we now see and feel worldwide, she thus becomes more essential than ever, as a seminal, essential and ventriloqual 20th century voice for what has become our dominant 21st century reality,” says Iyer.
Turning on the lights
But of course none of this would matter if the prose did not move her readers. Not all her books worked equally. Sometimes in the later books she struggled to make a brash and unfamiliar Bengaluru ring entirely true. But when it worked it was luminous and clear-eyed. “I have an old copy of The Middleman with many phrases underlined,” remembers novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, saying Mukherjee “paved the way for many of us.”
She did it with her husband Clark Blaise, with whom she wrote several books, including Days and Nights in Calcutta , a remarkable double memoir told from both their perspectives. And no tribute to her could be complete without remembering her beloved little dog Faustine. Novelist Melanie Abrams, who taught alongside Mukherjee at University of California Berkeley, says “I’ve never been a huge fan of little dogs, but she loved that dog so unabashedly and so charmingly that I would have defended her right to have that dog in her classroom (which she did – every single class!) to anyone who questioned it. Such a kind, talented, generous, charming woman.”
In one of her last books Mukherjee’s heroine Tara turns on the lights in her San Francisco home at dusk because her grandmother in India once told her the spirits come out at that time. I’d asked Mukherjee if she did the same. And she had laughed and said “What is there in science to tell me that spirits don’t exist? I am turning on the lights even more vigorously these days.”
Bharati Mukherjee is gone but she left the light on for many of us.