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Bharati Mukherjee: An Introduction

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Biography

Bharati Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940 to wealthy parents, Sudhir Lal and Bina Mukherjee in Calcutta, India (Alam 1). She learned how to read and write by the age of three (Vignisson). In 1947, she moved to Britain with her family at the age of eight and lived in Europe for about three and a half years. By the age of ten, Mukherjee knew that she wanted to become a writer, and had written numerous short stories.

After getting her B.A from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and her M.A. in English and Ancient Indian Culture from the University of Baroda in 1961, she came to the United States of America (Alam 4). Having been awarded a scholarship from the University of Iowa, earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 1963 and her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1969 (Alam 5). While studying at the University of Iowa, she met and married a Canadian student from Harvard, Clark Blaise, on September 19, 1963. The two writers met and, after a brief courtship, married within two weeks (Alam 7).; Together, the two writers have produced two books along with their other independent works. Mukherjee's career a professor and her marriage to Blaise Clark has given her opportunities to teach all over the United States and Canada. Currently she is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Major Themes

Mukherjee's works focus on the "phenomenon of migration, the status of new immigrants, and the feeling of alienation often experienced by expatriates" as well as on Indian women and their struggle (Alam 7). Her own struggle with identity first as an exile from India, then an Indian expatriate in Canada, and finally as a immigrant in the United States has lead to her current contentment of being an immigrant in a country of immigrants (Alam 10).

Mukherjee's works correspond with biographer Fakrul Alam's catagorization of Mukherjee's life into three phases. Her earlier works, such as the The Tiger's Daughter and parts of Days and Nights in Calcutta, are her attempts to find her identity in her Indian heritage.

"The Tiger's Daughter" is a story about a young girl named Tara who ventures back to India after many years of being away only to return to poverty and turmoil. This story parallels Mukherjee's own venture back to India with Clark Blaise in 1973 when she was deeply affected by the chaos and poverty of Indian and mistreatment of women in the name of tradition, "What is unforgivable is the lives that have been sacrificed to notions of propriety and obedience" (Days and Nights... 217). Her husband, however, became very intrigued by the magic of the myth and culture that surrounded every part of Bengal.; These differences of opinion, her shock and his awe, are seen in one of their joint publications, Days and Nights in Calcutta.

The second phase of her writing, according to Alam, encompasses works such as Wife, the short stories in Darkness, an essay entitled "An Invisible Woman," and The Sorrow and the Terror, a joint effort with her husband. These works originate in Mukherjee's own experience of racism in Canada, where despite being a tenured professor, she felt humiliated and on the edge of being a "housebound, fearful, affrieved, obcessive, and unforgiving queen of bitterness" (Mukherjee, qtd. in Alam 10).

After moving back to the United States, she wrote about her personal experiences. One of her short stories entitled "Isolated Incidents" explores the biased Canadian view towards immigrants that she encountered, as well as how government agencies handled assults on particular races. Another short story titled "The Tenant" continues to reflect on her focus on immigrant Indian women and their mistreatment. The story is about a divorced Indian woman studying in the States and her experiences with interracial relationships. One quotation from the story hints at Mukherjee's views of Indian men as being too preoccupied to truly care for their wives and children: "'All Indian men are wife beaters,' Maya [the narrator] says. She means it and doesn't mean it."

In Wife, Mukherjee writes about a woman named Dimple who has been surpressed by such men and attempts to be the ideal Bengali wife, but out of fear and personal instability, she murders her husband and eventually commits suicide. The stories in Darkness further endeavor to tell similar stories of immigrants and women.

In her third phase, Mukherjee is described as having accepted being "an immigrant, living in a continent of immigrants" (M. qtd in Alam 9). She describes herself as American and not the the hyphenated Indian-American title:

I maintain that I am an American writer of Indian origin, not because I'm ashamed of my past, not because I'm betraying or distorting my past, but because my whole adult life has been lived here, and I write about the people who are immigrants going through the process of making a home here... I write in the tradition of immigrant experience rather than nostalgia and expatriation. That is very important. I am saying that the luxury of being a U.S. citizen for me is that can define myself in terms of things like my politics, my sexual orientation or my education. My affiliation with readers should be on the basis of what they want to read, not in terms of my ethnicity or my race. (Mukherjee qtd. in Basbanes)

Mukherjee continues writing about the immigrant experience in most of the stories in The Middle Man and Other Stories, a collection of short stories which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Fiction, Jasmine, and essays. These stories explore the meeting of East and West through immigrant experiences in the U.S. and Canada along with further describing the idea of the great melting pot of culture in the United States.

Jasmine develops this idea of the mixing of the East and West with a story telling of a young Hindu woman who leaves India for the U.S. after her husband's murder, only to be raped and eventually returned to the position of a caregiver through a series of jobs (Alam 100). The unity between the First and Third worlds is shown to be in the treatment of women as subordinate in both countries.

Her latest works include The Holder of the World, published in 1993, and Leave It to Me, published in 1997. The Holder of the World is a beautifully written story about Hannah Easton, a woman born in Massachusetts who travels to India. She becomes involved with a few Indian lovers and eventually a king who gives her a diamond know as the Emperor's Tear. (Alam 120). The story is told through the detective searching for the diamond and Hannah's viewpoint. Mukherjee's focus continues to be on immigrant women and their freedom from relationships to become individuals. She also uses the female characters to explore the spatiotemporal (Massachusetts to India) connection between different cultures. In Leave It to Me, Mukherjee tells the story of a young woman sociopath named Debby DiMartino, who seeks revenge on parents who abandoned her. The story reveals her ungrateful interaction with kind adoptive parents and a vengeful search for her real parents (described as a murderer and a flowerchild). The novel also looks at the conflict between Eastern and Western worlds and at mother-daughter relationships through the political and emotional topics by the main characer in her quest for revenge. Candia McWilliam of The London Review of Books describes Mukherjee appropriately as "A writer both tough and voluptuous" in her works.

Works

The Tiger's Daughter, Houghton, 1972.

Wife, Houghton, 1975.

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

(With Blaise) Days and Nights in Calcutta (nonfiction), Doubleday: Garden City, New York, 1977.

An Invisible Woman, McClelland & Stewart, 1981.

Darkness, Penguin, 1985.

(With Blaise) The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, Viking, 1987.

The Middleman and Other Stories, Grove, 1988.

Jasmine, Grove, 1989.

Political Culture and Leadership in India (nonfiction), South Asia, 1991.

Regionalism in Indian Perspective (nonfiction), South Asia, 1992.

The Holder of the World, Knopf: New York City, 1993.

Leave It to Me, A.A. Knopf: New York City, 1997.

Source: http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Mukherjee.html

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